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.