Should universities avoid teaching controversial texts?

Kannur University has decided to retain lessons on the works of V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar — Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? by Savarkar and A Bunch of Thoughts by Golwalkar — in the post-graduate course, Governance and Politics, after a controversy erupted over the texts in the syllabus. In a conversation moderated by Anuradha Raman, Kuldeep Kumar and Yogendra Yadav discuss the larger implications of regulating academic texts. Edited excerpts:

Would it have been justified if Kannur University dropped the writings of Hindutva ideologues?

Kuldeep Kumar: Ideas should be fought with ideas; ideas cannot be banned. Second, students at the postgraduate level are mature enough to understand and decide which idea to support and which idea to oppose. So, nothing should be excluded from the curriculum. If a curriculum is being structured for school students, who are of an impressionable age, educationists can decide on the manner of presenting the subject to the students. But at the postgraduate level, the original writings of these thinkers must be made available for discussions. We might like them or dislike them, but nobody can deny that these are important thinkers, especially in today’s India where the ideology they espoused is ruling the country — at the Centre and in some States. Students have to understand what this ideology is, what its implications are, and then decide for themselves.


We have witnessed several instances where school and college curricula have succumbed to an ideology. Yogendra, you have faced this when you edited the NCERT textbooks. How important is it to counter ideas with ideas?

Yogendra Yadav: To my mind, what happened there violates three fundamental principles. One, it violates the principle of academic autonomy. It is the university’s business to decide what it wishes to teach, not the business of the government of the day [In this case, there was pressure from political parties to drop these writings]. The second is critical pedagogy — students should be introduced to all kinds of ideas and be invited to critically examine them. I think we take a very poor opinion of students’ minds — and these are postgraduate students. But I would apply the same even to Class 12 students. Lastly, it violates the fundamental democratic principle of freedom of expression.

In today’s context, it is also imprudent, because it gives ammunition to the current regime, which believes in stifling all sorts of ideas of freedom of expression. The regime can have ammunition to do something similar in some other university and say, ‘Look what the LDF did in Kannur’.

You mentioned the earlier episode about the NCERT textbooks. Those were for Classes 9, 10, and 12. Professor Suhas Palshikar and I were the chief editors of those books. A vicious controversy erupted, sparked off by a cartoon that was seen as anti-Ambedkar. It went on to include all other cartoons, which were seen as anti-politician, anti-establishment. The Congress was in power then. Then too, similar principles were violated. There was no respect for the autonomy of NCERT as an institution, for the fact that there were several layers of scrutiny before these textbooks were written. Parliament took a sovereign view of it. The minister decided what he wanted thrown out and got a rather pliable committee to simply enforce his will. In the entire debate, there was little attention to critical pedagogy. Everyone believed that students are empty vessels. Everyone believed that by simply looking at those cartoons, their minds would be vitiated; no one was interested in examining what the textbook actually had to say about Ambedkar’s contribution, and the overall tenor of those books. There was no serious argument on freedom of expression.


Kuldeep, you wrote in an article about the Indian tradition of debate and bemoaned the loss of this tradition.

Kuldeep Kumar: I will just add one or two sentences to what Yogendra just said. This cartoon appeared when both Nehru and Ambedkar were alive. Neither of them had any problems with the cartoon. There is a famous quote of Nehru’s where he tells Shankar, the cartoonist, not to spare him. This is the kind of democratic spirit with which India began its journey as an independent nation. Almost all our political parties have laid the ground for the kind of impunity with which Hindutva stifles dissent. Second, this tradition of intellectual debate, popularly known as Shastrarth, was not confined to the hoary past. Intense debates took place between the proponents and opponents of widow remarriage. Even in the 20th century, when the marriageable age of young girls was raised and debated, there were discussions between the orthodox sections of society and the reformists. In the much-maligned courts of Moguls, regular philosophical discussions took place among scholars of various religions. My point is, why should one shy away from debate? But for the past several decades, we have been witnessing a tradition of complaints being filed on the pretext of religious sentiments. It is regrettable that in independent India, we are facing this kind of a situation which is blatantly anti-democratic in spirit.


Virtually every government in independent India seems to have taken offence to something or the other. Is it time to look at freedom of expression in the Indian context now?

Yogendra Yadav: It’s not just the Left Front regime in Kerala or the BJP at the Centre today. The record of Congress regimes on all these principles has been somewhat mixed. The record of the Left Front governments, especially in West Bengal, has been rather embarrassing. So, when we say today that the BJP is doing this, the party can always turn around and say, ‘well, you started it’.

I think the real problem is that in our public culture, we don’t have any space for any of the three principles I stated. I suspect no one believes in the principle of academic autonomy. We don’t have procedural ethics at all; we believe in substantive ethics: this needed to be done, it has been done, forget the procedure. Curriculum has always been seen as a political battleground. The idea is to stuff children’s heads with material that can be partisan in the foolish belief that once you paste something onto a textbook, it automatically enters the minds, hearts and souls of the students. And on the freedom of expression, I really suspect that we as a country don’t value it. Political liberalism does not exist.


So, when you speak about freedom of expression and say, ‘well I dislike this film, but there is no reason for it to be banned or censored’, you appear to be generous to a fault and needing some correction. Sadly, unlike in western democracies, I think we are weaker and poorer. We have been unable to develop this fundamental tenet of democracy. The tradition of Shastrarth was made famous by Amartya Sen in his The Argumentative Indian. However, in the last more than 100 years, we have been unable to cultivate this as a value. Our Constitution mentions it. But it does not enjoy great popular support. And this is only one more instance of a deeper rupture that we see between constitutional values on the one hand and popular values on the other. We’re looking at something that goes beyond regimes, beyond one university, beyond one vice chancellor, and beyond one episode.

Are we looking at a structural malaise now?

Kuldeep Kumar: Yes. On the issue of the Ambedkar cartoon, almost all the political parties ganged up in Parliament. We as a society tend to idolise people. We put them on such a high pedestal that they become demigods. Nobody these days can freely criticise Ambedkar for fear of being dubbed anti-Dalit. Ambedkarites do not tolerate any criticism of Ambedkar. This is bhakti. Ambedkar himself wrote that bhakti is okay in religion, but in politics it leads to dictatorship. This tendency militates against democracy. When you do not counter ideas with ideas and you effectively ban writings, whose loss is it? In many ways, it also helps those whose ideologies you need to engage with to make sense of the present. If you withhold discussions on such contentious issues, the consequences are far-reaching.


Yogendra Yadav: Clearly, it is society’s loss. And this goes back to the classic argument for freedom of expression given by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. His argument was that bad arguments should be allowed to flourish; false things should be allowed to be said. Because it’s only by countering falsehood that you establish the truth. By pushing falsehood under the carpet, you only encourage the suspicion that the falsehood was something valuable which has suddenly been taken away. And I suspect that this actually happened during the dominance of secular academia in our country. Although this is not germane to the debate today, I do think that in our anxiety and over-enthusiasm, we played with certain aspects of our history in the belief that if our students get to know it, they might become communal. This tendency to brush under the carpet aspects of our history which were unpleasant actually helped the BJP in the long run. Because it could always say, ‘see, you were never told about it’. The BJP will blow it up as if this was the only thing in history. So, in the long run, society, democracy and good ideas suffer because bad ideas are not being allowed to be stated.

To what extent do you think bans help those with contentious ideologies to hold on to them when those ideologies are not introduced in public spheres?

Kuldeep Kumar: Whether it is a university curriculum or the free market where books can be bought, I don’t think banning any book is going to help anybody. Look at the whole debate on the National Register of Citizens. Or the new public distribution rules being changed by the Uttar Pradesh government. If you do not read Golwalkar’s book or Balraj Madhok’s book on so-called Indianisation, you will not understand that these decisions directly flow from the writings and ideas of these thinkers.


Yogendra Yadav: To my mind, the story is not just saffronisation. I think what the BJP has done and what Kannur University has done should not make us forget the larger context. Because what is happening today is that in universities, colleges and schools, the tinkering with syllabi curricula is not only partisan. One, there is absolute degradation of academic exercise. You have people who have no business to sit in committees sitting in them. Two, what is being dished out in many of these textbooks now is just factually wrong. This is a fanciful history. And three, this is against constitutional values. Now, that’s more serious than the partisan games that parties play when they are in power. No regime should be allowed to do things which go against constitutional values, and this is what is being perpetuated right now. And sadly, this episode of Kannur University will only go on to provide ammunition to the BJP and to those who are acting on behalf of the party in the educational sector to perpetuate crimes which are much worse than what has been done by Kannur University.

Yogendra Yadav is a member and former president of Swaraj India; Kuldeep Kumar is a bilingual journalist and a Hindi poet who writes on politics and culture

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 7:27:52 AM |

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