Delhi University has been caught in a bitter brawl between the academic council (responsible for deciding the syllabus) and its teachers and students over a recent decision of dropping a scholarly essay from its history syllabus.
To give you a short rewind, Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (ABVP), a hardliner Hindu student group had vandalized the history department of the university and manhandled the department head S.Z.H Jaffri in 2008 protesting the inclusion of noted scholar A.K Ramanujan’s essay Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three thoughts on Translation in the under-graduate level. They deemed that the essay contained ‘objectionable’ references to Hindu gods. It was however last month that the decision of academic council to remove the essay from the syllabus infuriated many.
Teachers and students have since then come down heavily on the university’s move which they claim is a direct attack on the intellectual freedom and the freedom of thought. A ban on a scholarly essay which simply states the existence of many versions of Ramayana is indeed a curb on the liberty of students to have a critical perspective. It is the very essence of education to provide students with capability of viewing the world through many eyes and not just have a ‘single way of thinking’. ‘Academic censorship’, as Salman Rushdie coins it will not help students in opinion making which requires them to be exposed to different views. Blasting out against the ABVP’s action, Kannada litterateur UR Ananthamurthy rightly points out, “The modern India of communalism and extreme nationalism seems to find itself unable to deal with plurality and diversity”. The hardliner group’s claim that there is no point in applying logic to religion as religion is a matter of ‘faith’ is simply ridiculous. In an age of rationality, denying students, that too, of under-graduate level to have freedom of thought shows the blind 'faith’ in which the group is running.
Talking about plurality and diversity, Ramanujan is no way wrong in saying that there are multiple interpretations of the Ramayana. It should surprise many to know that there are different versions of the epic text all over the world including Indonesia and Malaysia, both Muslim dominated countries. Several versions of it can be found within India itself. ‘Kambaramayanam’, the Tamil version and the Bengali version by Krittivas in the 14th century are examples. In this case, which interpretation of the text is to be held as the most authentic one certainly is debatable. For people speaking Kannada, the Kannada version of Ramayana might be the genuine one whereas for a Tamil, the Tamil Ramayana might be the credible one. Says noted historian and professor Harbans Mukhia “No one has the right, however, to say that only his/her version of the Ramayana contains the absolute truth and only it should be studied upon.” He further reiterates, “Our Indian culture is rich because of its multiplicity. It should be respected rather than diminished” referring to the ABVP’s claim of scrapping all other interpretations of the epic text.
An incident such as this is not new one to the country though. Last year, Rohinton Mistry’s award winning book Such a Long Journey was removed from the curriculum of the Mumbai University after protests from the Shiv Sena group, another radical Hindu group. In this context, academic curriculum of the whole country comes under a big scanner; Can the curriculum be altered simply because one group doesn’t approve it? Can a group dictate what is to be included in a curriculum and what should not? On the part of the university, bowing down to utter nonsensical pressure was no doubt a cowardly act. The university should have instead challenged the ABVP by retaining the essay. On the other hand, the right wing group has no right to claim itself as the sole representative of ‘Hindu’ values. Dilip Simeon, a socio-political commentator states, “They have no right to call themselves the protectors of the religion. They are instead the destroyers”.
The wise thing for the university to do now would be to roll back its decision and retain the essay. In fact, in the coming years it should look to enrich its curriculum by including diverse views rather than hinder the freedom of thought and expression.
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