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Updated: January 19, 2012 11:31 IST

In defence of the right to know

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K.N. PANIKKAR: ‘One of the consequences of the spread of communalism, particularly through the visual media is that students come to the classrooms with preconceived notions.’ Photo: K. Gopinathan
The Hindu K.N. PANIKKAR: ‘One of the consequences of the spread of communalism, particularly through the visual media is that students come to the classrooms with preconceived notions.’ Photo: K. Gopinathan

A student's right to read Ramanujan's essay on the Ramayana should be inviolable, says historian K.N. Panikkar. Educational institutions are being besieged by bigots bent on imposing their views on the curriculum.

K.N. Panikkar, renowned historian, observes that the recent controversial decision by the Academic Council of the Delhi University to drop A.K. Ramanujan's celebrated essay on the Ramayana from the B.A. History (Honours) course was a political decision. He feels that the authorities were eager to avoid confrontation and ended up as silent supporters of a group that invokes history to foreground a monolithic view of Hinduism and who are ready to impose their views through communal propaganda, ideological persuasion and physical threat.

In an interview to G. Krishnakumar, Dr. Panikkar, a former Professor of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, shares his thoughts on various aspects related to the issue ranging from the growing politics of intolerance to the renewed efforts by right-wing groups to stifle dissent and debate in the country.

The decision of the Academic Council of Delhi University to remove A.K. Ramanujan's essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translations' from the prescribed reading of the undergraduate History syllabus has led to a nationwide debate. Many scholars have viewed it as yet another example of increasing incidence of anti-intellectual and anti-liberal tendencies in the academic field. Do you think that this can be dismissed as an isolated instance, an aberration, or does it have serious implications?

Yes, indeed. Such incidents pose a great threat to academic freedom. The academic space has become very vulnerable today. The educational institutions are being besieged by outside forces, both political and social, to shape the academic programmes in accordance with their world view. Even highly specialised fields of knowledge are not exempt from this. In the process generally accepted norms of academic debate and discussion are set aside, and either the exercise of motivated majority or physical coercion, influence the decision making. The authorities, eager to avoid confrontation, provide silent support. Surprisingly the media give such intruders a ‘level playing field' in the guise of impartiality and fairness and thus force the academic community the unenviable task of defending their decisions, even if the logic of their defence is totally alien to their critics. The discipline of history is particularly a victim of this tendency since the emergence of communal forces to prominence. They invoke history to foreground a monolithic view of Hinduism and any interpretation different from it is resisted, often violently. Earlier there was strong disapproval of such intrusions from the academia, but lately many have given it up as a hopeless task and consequently, several institutions have either succumbed to the pressure tactics and even violence of external interests. The Delhi University incident is the latest example of this tendency; several other institutions have had a similar experience. During the tragic period of Murli Manohar Joshi's stewardship of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, universities were ‘persuaded' to impart saffron colour to the syllabi. The motivation evidently was not academic, but political. His quixotic ideas, although spelt doom, particularly for the discipline of history, did prop up the Hindu political agenda.

Are you suggesting that Ramanujan's essay was excluded for political reasons?

Undoubtedly so. We should recall that the opposition to the essay had initially come from a small group of activists of a Hindu fundamentalist organisation, who vandalised the History department and even assaulted a member of the faculty when the essay was included in the course. The exclusion of the essay was the culmination of their campaign thereafter, which was a combination of communal propaganda, ideological persuasion and physical threat. The decision of the majority of eminent members of the academic council to support a patently unacademic demand about an essay which most of them reportedly had not read and an expert committee appointed by the Council had near unanimously approved, can only be due to the atmosphere of political intimidation.

What Ramanujan has done is to bring out ‘the diversity of a narrative tradition in South Asia.' Why should that offend the Hindu fundamentalists?

The political agenda of Hindu fundamentalists is to redefine the nation as Hindu and the ideological foundation of this re-articulation is monolithic Hinduism. Therefore, any attempt to invoke the various versions of the epic militates against this ideological project and political interest. The importance of Ramanujan's essay, however, is not that it highlights the existence of multiple texts in which Rama Katha varies ‘according to historical period, regional literary tradition, religious affiliation, genre, intended audience, social location, gender and political context,' which is well known, but his analysis of the radical nature of these differences. These different tellings are not limited to major popular texts like that of Valmiki and Kamban, but there are innumerable others in regional languages and folk traditions. In all of them Rama Katha is differently narrated, with differences in the beginning and ending of the story and the nature of relationship between different characters. In Buddhist literature Rama and Sita are brother and sister; in Jaina tradition Sita is the daughter of Ravana and there are further differences in tribal versions. Recently a researcher in Kerala, Aziz Taruvana, has recorded the Rama Katha as still sung in the tribal area of Wayanad, where different localities are identified with the place names in Rama Katha. In North Malabar, a Mappila Ramayana in which the characters assume local identity used to be recited in public meetings in the 20th century. All these versions come in the way of projecting the monolithic character of Hinduism and therefore the anxiety to suppress them. The intolerance of communal forces of plural cultural tradition has been expressed very many times in the past. When SAHMAT organised the exhibition Ham Sab Ayodhya in 1993, one panel depicted different versions of Rama Katha. This exhibition was disfigured and those involved in its organisation were assaulted by the members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Several such instances have occurred after that, including the prevention of the display of M.F. Husain's paintings of Hindu goddesses.

The expert who voted against the essay argued that the Indian psyche is incapable of handling different versions of the Ramayana. He also noted that ‘epic personalities were divine characters and showing them in a bad light was not easily tolerated.' Do you think that the politics of intolerance is colouring the academic practice in India?

I do not know who the expert is. Who ever it is, he has misread the intent of the essay. In fact, his argument is sufficient reason why this essay should be taught to the undergraduate students. Not only history students, but all students should read it as a part of liberal education. The very purpose of prescribing such an essay is to equip students methodologically, and not to make them aware of the different versions of the Rama Katha, which they can gain even otherwise. It is important to understand that the essay does not in any way denigrate divine characters. It only tries to highlight important versions as they exist and practised in different cultural settings. To anybody trying to deal with historical texts it is a remarkably insightful example. One of the consequences of the spread of communalism, particularly through the visual media is that students come to the classrooms with preconceived notions. They approach the Ramayana or the Mahabharata or any other epic not as a religious and social text, but as a part of their own belief and faith. Moreover, they are contrasted with the texts of other religions, not with a view of assimilation but to underline differences. The intolerance begins there. Unfortunately education does not help to overcome this as liberalism has gone out of the system.

A few months ago there was a controversy in Kerala about a Social Science textbook for Class X. Are the issues involved in it similar to the Delhi University case?

In a way, yes. In both cases academic considerations seem to have given way to expediency. While Delhi University succumbed to political pressure exerted by the Hindu fundamentalists, in Kerala it was the turn of the Catholic Church to influence the type of history taught in the classrooms. It is common knowledge that Renaissance and Reformation in Europe cannot be made intelligible without explaining the practices of the medieval Church. The Catholic leadership in the State demanded summary removal of all references to medieval religious practices like the issue of indulgences from the textbooks on the ground that they are deliberate attempts to denigrate the community. The committee set up by the government to go into this matter did not find any factual error, yet recommended revision on the ground of Marxist methodological bias. Acting on the recommendation of this committee chaired by a retired bureaucrat, the government initially withheld the textbook and later changed its content, according to the wishes expressed by the leaders of the Catholic Church. The Kerala incident has not attracted national attention, but it equally represents an unacademic and unhealthy trend as the Delhi example. Such incidents are happening all over the country. Recall the withdrawal of Rohinton Mistry's highly acclaimed book Such a Long Journey by Bombay University, as a result of the agitation by the grandson of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray on the plea that it injured the Maratha sentiments. It is quite difficult to gauge what constitutes regional and religious sentiments, as they have become very easily injury prone. At any rate their emotional content is often invoked for pressing political agenda. It so happens that even those who participate in agitations to protest against injury to their religious sentiments are not too sure about the nature of the injury.

It is often argued that these are matters related to the freedom of expression, which in a democracy should remain unbridled. On the contrary, it is pointed out there are certain limits to the freedom of expression and they should be respected. What is your take on it?

I do not think that the incidents in Delhi and Kerala are matters related to freedom of expression. Indeed Ramanujan's right to write the essay on Ramayana should be inviolable. He should be free to give whatever interpretation he wants to impart to it.

Those who do not agree with his interpretation are free to enter into a dialogue and put forward their interpretation. The right of the citizen to express his opinion cannot be curbed in a democracy. It is particularly important because what is considered blasphemous today may turn out to be the popularly accepted idea tomorrow. In fact, when Ramanujan's essay was first published in 1991 in a Paula Richman edited book entitledMany Ramayanasthere was no hue and cry. Except the serious academic fraternity, nobody even noticed it. Two developments since then have made it contentious. First, the emergence of Hindutva as a political force, which seeks to appropriate the Hindu past as the ideological justification for its bid for political power and second, the inclusion of the essay in the reading list of the history course. The combination of these two factors provided the context for the agitation and the consequent decision of the Delhi University. What is really involved in it is a cardinal principle of education — the right to know, even if the university syllabi are carefully filtered by the academic establishment. The decisions of the University of Delhi and the Government of Kerala militate against this principle and hence should be opposed and resisted.

Good interview. History is a supposed to be sifted material from
literary material available on different characters. Vedas also do not
have any origin and vedas also do not accept any thing as Super God.
But Ishwariyam - inconceivable but life is conceived as inhalation and
exhalation is the vibrating principle. Once sounds are embedded in
ether and when discovered like in all sciences, then you get to know a
part understanding. So part understanding cannot be questioned, if you
do you will end up with no understanding at all. Life has to be
beautifully crafted and moved and for that we need to know how the
past helped us learn about us. Brihadarinya Upanishad 2.4.10 talks
about.....

from:  dr. g. balakrishnan
Posted on: Jan 18, 2012 at 23:57 IST

Its high time that we dump away these histories filled with controversies and brutal treatments of fanatic kings and impart more scientific education to our younger generations so that India progresses in the direction of R&D. Before looking at history books one must understand our weakness in the field of production {and advancements} of indigenous equipments required for defense,oil and gas sector, power sector e.t.c and so on. For me the controversies over this ramayana or babri masjid or inclusion of catholic religious contents in kerala board's social science text books seems a chaff as these mishaps are taking place in a time when millions of Indians are dying for food....But my last point is that no god will show any kind of mercy to a person unless one feeds the poor or does charity in any means to poor.

from:  T K R Padmanabhan
Posted on: Dec 15, 2011 at 11:00 IST

Every text has an origin. So the Ramayana must have an origin. Whether Valmiki's Ramayana is the original one or not is upto the historians to debate and decide. However one thing is clear. The earliest version must be held as the truest version though no version can be absolutely true as the author's personal opinion always colours things a bit. The earliest version must be considered as the authoritative one. As time passes additions and deletions are made to an epic and it gets distorted. Such distortions reflect the changes in the society of that period. However it also interferes with the message which the original author intended to give to the masses.

from:  avishek deb
Posted on: Dec 14, 2011 at 13:34 IST

this is nothing but the double stand of dr. paniker and other left intellectuals
freedom of expression and right to know is different. here the case is can a university impose some thing which majority of the students dislike?

from:  a. vinod
Posted on: Dec 11, 2011 at 23:29 IST

There seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding as well as misrepresentation. Whom you call "Hindu Fundamentalists", are not opposed to either Valmiki Ramayan, Kambar Ramayanam, Tulsidas Ram Charit Manas, etc. Litigation is about compulsory prescribed reading of the said essay, which the Academic Council felt best not to push it down the throats of students. This is all there is to it. And the Academic Council informed the court about it. Curiously, I never heard of any "liberal" ever talking about the "Satanic Verses" or the Danish Cartoons!! They seem to be firm believers in Semetic blasphemy laws :-)

from:  Satyanarayana Rao T
Posted on: Nov 29, 2011 at 14:18 IST

I was privileged to have professors and lecturers who showed us what lay beyond words. It is not enough to simply prescribe texts...we need teachers who can help us stretch our thinking. A good text in the hands of a misinformed person is no good.
It is often via the Arts program in India that most students actually 'read'. From what I've understood 'reading' must not be limited to a list of titles... advertisements, films,blogs and what not, are worthy of being 'read'. Then why only the Arts? What about the students and faculty in other branches?

from:  EV
Posted on: Nov 28, 2011 at 16:15 IST

Please carry out a simultaneous campaign for the publication/distribution of 'Satanic Verses' in India so that the "defence of the right to know" will be strengthened.

from:  kvjayan
Posted on: Nov 28, 2011 at 12:14 IST

Hinduism is a way of life and not founded by any one. A true Hindu should not be bothered on what some say about their Gods or about their texts. Atheist Charvaka was revered and regarded as a Muni by Hindus. Ravana is a devotee of Lord Siva and there are several temples built for Ravana to worship him. Rama is criticized for dishonest acts like killing Bali and banishing Sita. Hindus should not worry with thousand versions of Ramayana. Ramayana is not an intellectual right property of valmiki or Kamber. Hindus should not bother if some one garlands Rama with sandals. Hinduism is not going to crumble with those acts.

from:  Pillai
Posted on: Nov 27, 2011 at 11:38 IST

Ramanujan's scholarly essay reveals the plural tellings of The Ramayana to explain the difference between realty and fiction. By comparing various forms of narration, he has tried to show the evolution of the story in different cultures. People have right to look at a work historically or as a mythology as they deem it fit. Those who see it as giver of code of conduct feel offended at different narrations for portraying characters differently and question others' credentials for interpretation. The problem with traditionalists is that if you call it history, they say it is mythology. If you call it mere mythology, they want you to believe it as an indisputable history. It seems the resurgence of crusading temperament is making it difficult for anyone to express his ideas freely.

from:  J.Ravindranath
Posted on: Nov 27, 2011 at 08:32 IST

The radicalism in Panicker is in wide display who slams the intolerance against the lateral thinking/alternate thinking. Religeous frenzy has taken toll of rationalism and reasoning.It is a pernicious trend that mythology, is made to believe and operate within a cacoon to suit its end. No comments or views are tolerated when they run contrary to the established characterisation of Rama, who is believed have been lived in Thredhayug, i.e.some laksh of years hence. How strange are we to turn superhuman to judge the veracity of a story that happened eons hence?.Any alternative picturisation is being fretted and fumed for known reasons.The wonder word "Belief" has cast a magical spell not only on the contentious "Three Ramayana" but also sadly has found a mention in Ayodhya's verdict pronounced in the Supreme Court. Let us live to believe the truth.

from:  C.Chandrasekaran
Posted on: Nov 24, 2011 at 21:49 IST

I fall in line with prof. Panikkar. India, a country with a lots of diversity should start reading the subaltern versions of its history as well as literature. When we start to know the other's view with openness and critique we arrive somewhere closer to "Truth". This approach alone can keep India united as one nation. For which Education is a powerful medium. we can be 'blind' in belief (if we wish), but we should be 'broad' in learning! Education as an institution, I wish should muster energy from 'God of Truth' to avail to the students the opportunity of knowing the truth that can aid us to respect the dignity and uniqueness of the other.

from:  Gregory
Posted on: Nov 24, 2011 at 01:53 IST

There is no one who first wrote Ramayana. Ramayana the tale was in existence before any one wrote it down. Valmiki wrote one of the tellings - a telling Valmiki was aware of. In some other part, totally different telling existed - Kamban wrote down the telling which he was aware of. Ramanujan quotes the story of Ahalya, how it is dealt with in Valmiki Ramayana as well as Kamba Ramayana. No body can claim Valmiki Ramayana is authentic - for it is just one of the tellings. Story of Mahabali is a classic example. In Kerala Mahabali is a revered King, where as elsewhere he is just another asura. Those are two tellings. Who is the ABVP/RSS to tell what is authentic and what is not? Rama is not even a God according to Vedas and Upanishads - read Satyarthprakash written by Arya Samaj founder. Sangh Parivar is actually afraid of hinduism.

from:  Roopesh
Posted on: Nov 23, 2011 at 22:10 IST

I sort of feel very sad about how academic thoughts overthrow the true purpose of such an epic. I believe the person who first wrote Ramayana had the true intention of delivering the message of a true human and highlight the concept of "Ramarajya" so the future can learn and benefit. We on the other hand go debating in length who are the parents of Rama, and what did Hanuman carry, like running a quiz program. Tweaking and tweaking and tweaking just for fame and for PhD is really unfortunate and pathetic

from:  Deepak
Posted on: Nov 23, 2011 at 21:18 IST

I agree fully with the views expressed by Prof Panikkar. This business of "hurting the sentiments" of a community is a particularly narrow and communal way of thinking, when it is brandished as a basis to ban or erase texts in schools and universities. One cannot ban the statement of facts, such as that the granting of improper indulgences by the Church was a source of corruption in the Catholic Church, one of the reasons that gave rise to the Protestant Reformation, in point of fact. You can read about this in books of church history with an Imprimatur. So what's the point here?

One cannot ban a literary textual critique of even the sacred texts of a religion on the basis of "hurting sentiments." People in the hierarchy should avoid thought policing.

Banning is a sign of a medieval intolerance, refusing to let the light of reason shine on one's beliefs.
Joseph Cleetus

from:  Joseph Cleetus
Posted on: Nov 23, 2011 at 18:26 IST

Politics intruding into academics has been there and it is a bane on a society like ours. We curtail the growth and imagination of our children by thrusting upon them what is politically motivated. Many school children don't get to enjoy an education which is fundamental, rich in value and helps them expand their horizon. They end up learning less with little value.

from:  K.S. Susindar
Posted on: Nov 23, 2011 at 16:56 IST

I feel those who are criticise the essay have to read it before they do. Most media reports have exaggerated the sacrilegious nature of the essay. If one takes the time to read the essay with a honest and open mind, one will find that it is a spectacular piece of academic writing and is no way offensive to anyone. The Right wing hopes that by closing their eyes, the truth will go away.

from:  H. Murali Krishnan
Posted on: Nov 23, 2011 at 13:12 IST

India and communal activism had started with the sense of the partition of India. The founder of Pakistan, who gave an idea of two nations theory was not unknown to the emotions that for what the people come to support in a huge amount and what he got, is an good example. Issue of A.K. Ramanujan's essays has been raised by so called communal and fundamental Ideology holding groups because they are not unknown to the emotions that for what the people come to support in a huge amount. Its an Political propaganda where always academia has been insulted. Its a big question that those people are well in focus as the criticizers of the essays, have ever read the essays. this is not a matter, either they have read or not, here the thing which matters is, the people of academia are also coming in forefront to describe this all as against the communal feelings.Prof.K.N. Panikkar has given a very clear cut idea in a open criticism for the critics of those essays.

from:  Rishi Gupta
Posted on: Nov 23, 2011 at 12:27 IST

Ramanuja’s Ramayana tells about the various versions and it only reflects period perspectives and not on affront to religious icons. The noted historian Romila Thapar has explained the diverse facets though which historians viewed the Ramayana. She said many additions were made to Valmiki's version in a span of 800 years from 400 BC to 400 AD. For example, Hanuman handing over Rama's ring to Sita was held by historians as an episode added to the tale at a later time. She also pointed out that the story also differed in each of the versions. “ In the Buddhist variant, Dasaratha was the king of Benaras and not Ayodhya. Rama, Lakshmana and Sita were siblings born to the first wife of Dasaratha. To protect his children from his second wife, the king sent the three in exile to the Himalayas. Twelve years later, the trio came back. As Panikkar has pointed out people who do not agree with these views are free to enter into a dialogue instead of crushing academic freedom.

from:  A.Yeshuratnam
Posted on: Nov 23, 2011 at 11:44 IST

Truth may bite & hurt but will not harm. Truth alone has the ability to deliver an individual or a society into total freedom & liberation. Belief (faith) is a "trap" for the weak seeking security in a wrong mental location - with inability to confront truth. They will be condemned by God for perpetuity. Religion & politics have progressively and operationally fused into one entity - resulting in jointly victimizing spirituality. This is the absolute proof of degradation & degeneration of human society.

from:  MSR Ayyangar
Posted on: Nov 23, 2011 at 09:56 IST

This interview is spot on and has come a day not too late. As a liberal thinker, I agree with the views expressed herein. My take on why such incidents are allowed to occur is that that the so called intelligensia are seen to be biased in their choice of targets. Be that as it may, we need to enlighten the masses on the need to intelligently analyze every topic and come to a personal conclusion without being labeled as this or that. For this to happen, we need the help of the electronic media to organize healthy one hour debates by non involved people so that we hear everything that needs to be understood on the subject and form our own opinion. This of course is a gradual process and it is better than throwing up our hands in despair

from:  Leela Krishnaswamy
Posted on: Nov 23, 2011 at 06:56 IST

From time immemorial Ramayana had been the true tale(Ihihasa)'meaning happened like this' for all the people who believed in our Sanathana Dharma.Valmiki who wrote it lived in the days when Sri Rama ruled and his version is the true one.He depicted Rama mostly as a human being of all the virutes embodied in him though certain acts look flawed and the reporting of these acts of Rama show that nothing was hidden to the poeple who heard it(no books were written in those days).The Mahabaratha which was written by Sage vyasa and which was also an ithihasa explained who Rama was and made him an Avatar of Lord Vishnu. The later versions Of ramayana In 2 important languages of tamil by Kamban and hindi by Tulasidas took clue from vyasa and depicted Rama as God incarnation in their versions.But the jains who wanted denigration of this epic so that their religions can be glorified wrote in their Jataka tales a different version of this and that is the beginning of all untrue indulgernces.

from:  Raman Chakravarthy
Posted on: Nov 23, 2011 at 06:11 IST
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