Indian students at Oxford University to test claim that the volume is not stopped

Indian students at the Oxford University plan to “flood” Oxford University Press (OUP) with orders for The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan, which contains the controversial essay ‘300 Ramayanas' to test its claim it has not stopped printing the volume following pressure from right-wing groups who had protested that it hurt Hindu sentiments.

Nigel Portwood, chief executive of OUP UK, insists that the volume is still available though only in its “short-run print programme because there was not a sufficient number of back orders to justify a normal reprint.”

Students, however, say they have been told by OUP offices in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai that the book is out of print and “not available anywhere.”

“But in view of Mr. Portwood's statement, we plan to flood OUP-India with purchase orders for the book,” said Anup Surendranath, a spokesman for the group leading the campaign.

A petition, signed by students and faculty members of Oxford University, said: “OUP India's branch offices have indicated that the book is unavailable, as confirmed by major bookstores in metropolitan cities in India. We are given to understand that OUP India is awaiting a minimum number of orders before it reprints the book. We insist that OUP India clarify its distribution strategy of this book. In the meantime, we strongly encourage everyone to place their orders for the book on the OUP India website in an effort to upholding academic freedom.”

Mr. Portwood made the claim in his reply to a letter from American Indologist Sheldon Pollock and several other international academics who had expressed their “shock and dismay” over OUP India's reported action describing it as “censorship.” They had also protested at its decision to stop the publication and sale of Paula Richman's Many Ramayanas featuring Ramanujan's essay.

OUP rebuts charges

Rejecting allegations of censorship, Mr. Portwood wrote: “In early September 2011 we put The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan into our short-run print programme because there was not a sufficient number of back orders to justify a normal reprint, and it has been listed as available on the OUP India website ever since — some weeks before the current controversy began.”

Meanwhile, as the controversy continued to rage, Ramachandra Guha, Philippe Roman Professor in History and International Affairs at the London School of Economics and a former OUP author, criticised what he described as the “Thatcherisation of publishing process” at OUP with profit overriding academic considerations.

The OUP, he said, was arguably the most prestigious publisher in the world.

“I stand here as an academic author, someone who has been made by the OUP. I was not a student of a prestigious university like Delhi University or JNU in India...and if it had not been for a brilliant young editor in OUP, I would not have been standing before you here today,” he said but lately standards had “precipitously declined.”

“OUP today is run by people who do not know about books; who had never heard of A.K. Ramanujan,” he said, speaking at a seminar at the Oxford University on “The Politics and Culture of Non-State Censorship in Contemporary India: Contextualising the Ramanujan Ramayana Essay Controversy.”

Call to reject bigotry

The only way forward, Dr. Guha said, was for OUP to immediately reprint the book as an “emphatic affirmation” of Ramanujan's work and rejection of “bigotry.”

“We must ensure that The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan are back because this is what we owe to the scholar, the academic community and to Indian democracy,” he said.