Most academicians at Delhi University are feeling betrayed by their own fraternity, the reason — the Academic Council's recent decision to drop from the history syllabus a celebrated essay by the late scholar and linguist A. K. Ramanujan on the Ramayana, despite intense opposition from the history department.
The essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and three thoughts on translations,” which forms part of the B.A. History (Honours) course, had attracted the ire of Hindutva activists because it talks about 300 different versions of the Ramayana that abound in our country and beyond. And when the decision to scrap the course was put to vote at the Academic Council meeting this past Sunday, only nine of the 120 members present dissented.
“This is definitely not an academic decision but a glaring example of an academic institution succumbing to pressure from the Right wing. The council has severely compromised on its standards and has conveyed to our students the message that only the ideology that is supported by the majority will be accepted,” said AC member Rakesh Kumar, who was one among the nine to express a dissenting opinion against scrapping of the essay.
His opinion is echoed by the present department head, Prof. R.C. Thakran. “This essay is rich in academic content and there have been two resolutions in the past in which the history department unanimously agreed that as far as history as a subject is concerned, this piece is important for our students. But the resolution of the AC is binding and we cannot really do anything further about this.”
A writ petition had been filed in the High Court on the grounds that the essay hurt religious sentiments. The matter was then taken up by the Supreme Court, which directed the university to seek the opinion of experts and place it before the Academic Council. “The names of the expert team were kept confidential, three of the four members were happy with the essay but the fourth member expressed an opinion that second year students may find it difficult. Nothing religiously offensive was found by these experts,” said Prof. Renu Bala, another dissenting AC member. “There was no need to even ask for a vote. The essay should have been kept on its academic merit. Our culture is diverse and so are our legends. We give these students the right to vote when they turn 18, so why not the right to think,” she asked.
In 2008, activists from the BJP-backed Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad barged into the history department to protest the teaching of the Ramanujan text and vandalised the place, forcing the then department head, Prof. S.Z.H. Jafri, to hide in his own office. “What is the value of my opinion? When the Academic Council has passed this resolution, the history department has no choice,” he rued.
Meanwhile, academics are incensed with the manner in which the essay was scrapped. “They had no regard for the report of the expert committee, the history department's views or the arguments put forth by the dissenting members. The Vice-Chancellor just told the AC that the essay should be deleted in the interests of the university and they voted in his favour. This decision conveys to our students that there is no space for dissenting voices,” said Executive Council member, Abha Dev Habib, who had, as an Academic Council member in 2008, been among those who had supported the continuation of the essay despite the controversy surrounding it.
“We are disappointed with the Vice-Chancellor, who despite being an academic has indulged in such a regressive act. By removing such texts, a sort of fascism is being encouraged, no educationist will be happy with such a decision.”
University officials, however, state that the entire matter is a non-issue and that the whole matter was taken up for hearing by the AC only because they had to provide an answer to the Supreme Court. “The essay says things like Ravana was Sita's father and that Rama and Sita were siblings, so obviously we don't want to teach such things to our students,” said a university official not wishing to be named.
Historians and writers ridicule this argument. “It is a matter of deep shame for all of us that A.K. Ramanujan's great essay on the Ramayana is banned by the Central University of Delhi,” Kannada writer U.R. Ananthamurthy told The Hindu. “Even the most orthodox of our scholars who admire Valmiki's Ramayana are still aware of many versions of the Ramayana that exist along with it. Even Valmiki's Ramayana has different readings in the country.”
Kannada writer Chandrashekhar Kambar, the winner of this year's Jnanpith award, said: “The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are texts which have been re-created many times over by several cultures in India and outside. Intolerance shown towards a scholarly study of these versions should be condemned by the entire academic fraternity.” Prof. Ananthamurthy added: “India has always made a distinction between Shruti, Smriti and Purana. There are different Shrutis for different believers, which remain mostly unchanged like the Vedas, the Koran and other scriptures. On the other hand, Smritis and Puranas are dynamic and change with time and culture. And great poets like Bhasa took the liberty of resolving the entire problem of Mahabharata without a war. It is strange that religious beliefs and practices are being commercialised and vulgarised in the modern world. We have given up the celebration of diversities of beliefs that our ancestors practiced. The banning of Ramanujan's essay on the Ramayana is an insult to the imagination of the Jains, Buddhists and several folk practices.”
(With inputs from our Bangalore bureau)