Comment

There has to be space for Bharati, and Bama too

The decision of the authorities of the University of Delhi to remove the texts by Dalit writers Bama Faustina Soosairaj, Sukirtharani and Mahasweta Devi from the undergraduate courses of English literature should worry the academic community for the reasons given and the manner in which it was done.

Consultative syllabus drafting

These writings were part of different papers of the undergraduate programme. The syllabus was drafted through a long process of consultation with the teachers of the undergraduate programme and approved unanimously. There was no dissent note even from any of the faculty members. The established norm requires the courses to be endorsed by the academic council, which comprises teachers from all disciplines and is the apex body of the university for academic matters. Usually, the council respects the academic decision of the department concerned. But the University of Delhi has created another layer of an oversight committee to look at the syllabus cleared by the department before putting it up for discussion by the academic council. It consists of nominees of the authorities. One need not say that this is an unnecessary arrangement as there is another standing committee of the academic council to look at any objections to the courses.

 

It is this committee which ignored and overruled the collective academic wisdom of the department of English and arbitrarily removed these texts. And the members of the academic council, ignoring the protests from their colleagues from the English department, seconded the decision of the oversight committee. They know well that these writings must have been chosen after a long debate and discussion among the faculty members teaching these courses. There are certain departments which take this task seriously and there are some which do not bother about the rigour of the process. The department of English cannot be faulted for a lack of rigour at least.

This insensitivity of the academic council towards the intellectual labour put in by their colleagues of the English department is a sign of lack of collegiality in the apex body. It is disturbing that a majority of the members of this body, most of them nominees of the Vice-Chancellor and ex-officio members, choose to follow the wishes of the authority. This is not their role. They abdicate their responsibility by not engaging with academic arguments and simply toeing the line of the authorities.

The FYUP rollback case

One must also note that this very academic council also took a momentous decision of introducing the four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP) without any discussion. The casual approach of the academic council in a matter such as this explains why it did not care about this ‘small’ issue of three texts. We had witnessed the same pusillanimity when the academic council had approved the FYUP in 2012 and then withdrew it in 2014 at the instance of the Government. The academic council showed no embarrassment in rolling back what it had termed as a historic and revolutionary step only two years earlier! I remember asking the then head of my department the reason why he had voted for FYUP and he nonchalantly told me that it was for the ‘people above’ to think and not his concern.

 

We, as teachers, do need to introspect about this internal, moral weakness for which only we are responsible. We make those bodies, be it departmental committees or faculty bodies or the academic council. It is we who fail the students and the university by not performing our role as members of these crucial committees. We forego our freedom of thought for the comfort of being on the ‘right’ side.

Patronising approach

Dismissing the criticism of the censoring of the syllabus the University said, “The university subscribes to the idea that the literary content forming part of the text in a language course of study should contain materials which do not hurt the sentiments of any individual and is inclusive in nature to portray a true picture of our society, both past and present. Such an inclusive approach is important for the young minds who imbibe the teaching-learning emanating from the syllabus in letter and spirit. Therefore, the content of the syllabus depicts the idea of inclusiveness, diversity and harmony.”

 

The patronising approach towards young minds aside, need one repeat that the role of the department of literatures is precisely this: to understand how emotions and sentiments are formed, to examine the claim of a sentiment to be universal, the question of whether the ‘subalterns can speak’, not only for themselves but for others too, and why the question of representation and voice is important? It is not enough to have space for the empathic and nationalist voice of Subramania Bharati. It is equally important to have the space for the assertive voices of Bama and Sukirtharani. The chairman of the committee is free not to look at things in terms of caste but he is not at liberty to erase the reality of castes. The removal of Draupadi and the refusal to have any text by Mahasweta Devi reveals the political bias of the committee. The story depicts the resistance of an Adivasi woman despite her being ravaged by the security forces, who confronts the ‘nation’ with the nudity of body. Obviously, it leaves the claim of the nation shamefaced.

It is dismaying

The department of English of Delhi University was one of the first to diversify and Indianise its syllabus by opening up to the writings from languages. In this process, it discovered many Indias, the silenced ones, those who are laying claim over this India, and exposed its students to them. It is sad that the process is now being reversed and that too by those who have no academic authority to do so. Even more dismaying is the fact that the larger academic community of the university watches this silently while this butchering takes place.

Apoorvanand is a teacher and writer


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Printable version | Oct 27, 2021 11:42:09 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/there-has-to-be-space-for-bharati-and-bama-too/article36261199.ece

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