An act of Academic Compromise

The Delhi University academic council’s decision to drop A.K. Ramanujan’s essay, ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’, from the prescribed readings for BA (honours) history and BA (programme) students, brings back memories of Bombay University’s move to remove Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such a Long Journey from the syllabus. The victimisation of art-historian Shivaji Pannikkar by Baroda’s Maharaja Sayajirao University is another long and painful story. The many, many cases of books and plays being proscribed by various governments form the general climate in which our universities operate.

It is yet another instance of retreat by the intellectual community before the forcesthat do not believe in the fundamental principle behind the idea of a university. ‘Controvert and not conform’ is what universities tell their members. Think of the Nobel-winning discovery of non-replicable quasicrystals by Daniel Shechtman, which challenged established notions about matter. Shechtman was even asked to leave his research group for suggesting the existence of quasicrystals, but persevered, and this award is rightly seen as a celebration of fundamental research. Has not all knowledge progressed only because of this unique human habit, of doubting everything ? Is this not what we, as teachers, do in our classrooms, encourage our students to think and imagine autonomously? We try to instill in them the courage of intellect. And we gain this courage by the strength of independent research.

The withdrawal of the Ramanujan essay is a rejection of the spirit of research. It was his rigorous research that led him to the conclusion that the cultural area where the Ramayanas are endemic has a pool of signifiers, (like a gene-pool) that include “plots, characters ,names, geographies, incidents and relationships.” This essay is, in a way, about the universality of the Ram-Katha. It is also about diversity, as well as continuity. Ramanujan enunciates a principle which helps us understand the working of creative processes. He says that the various texts of Ramayana relate to each other through this common code or common pool. Every author dips into it and brings out a unique crystallisation, a new text with a unique texture and fresh context. He concludes that no text is original, yet no telling is mere retelling — and the story has no closure, although it may be enclosed in a text. Ramanujan does not seek to question the originality of a creation, he merely lights up the web of a universe that is its breeding ground.

It would have been useful if the academic council, composed of scholars from across disciplines, had asked their colleagues from the history department about the logic behind selection of this text by a poet, translator and folklorist. How do the principles of creation, telling and retelling impact historiography? These would have been academic enquiries. Sadly, as we are told, this was not done. A debate that lasted more than two hours did not ask questions about the tools that texts of this kind fashion, which can help interdisciplinary pedagogy . It was also not realised that replacing the Ramanujan essay with two essays by Ram Sharan Sharma and Romila Thapar militates against the interdisciplinary principle that university authorities have been asking the departments to adopt.

Authorities tell us that this reading was part of a study-scheme which expired in 2009, and the question of dropping it was only a technicality performed by the academic council, since the university was to report to the Supreme Court its approach towards this particular text. In 2008, the history department was attacked by some people, who claimed that this essay was sacrilegious. The matter went up to the Supreme Court and it felt that it was for the university to decide what was good for its students. It asked the University of Delhi to seek expert judgment on the suitability of this essay for the undergraduate students of history. The essay was referred to four experts, three of whom said that its academic merit was unexceptionable. One expert differed. What would have been the normal course of action? To go by the opinion of the majority, one would assume. The council, however, thought otherwise.

One shudders to think that there were only nine voices to defend the essay and essay and the decision of the History department to include this essay in their readings. The majority kept mum, claiming that this was a fight between two ideological groups that they did not want to be part of ,and thus silently voted out the essay. It is an ominous sign for the future of academic autonomy in Indian universities. It is also a signal for us teachers , play it safe, because you will not be defended by your own peers.

Our students have been reading and enjoying this essay since 2008, even after the violence around it. That we have not been equal to their intellectual maturity is what saddens me, as well as that we thought it better to buy peace from a bunch of people who have been rebuffed by less autonomous institutions like NCERT (which stood its ground against their threat). I feel diminished as teacher and complicit in this act of academic compromise.

Fisrt published in The Indian Express, 13 October,2011

22 thoughts on “An act of Academic Compromise”

  1. Agree completely. Disgusting move, and that too regarding such a beautifully written essay!

  2. It is a shame that Hindu fundamentalists want to give importance just to the 50000 verse Ramayana written by Valmiki as if it is the only version. I was searching dor ‘buddhist’ Ramayana and finally after lot of struggle could lay my hands on this wonderful epic. The original is all of 4 pages of paperback and a wonderful epic by iteself. It is intresting that the trio of rama, sita and laxmana are siblings and after the 12 year tribulation rama marries sita, a case of incest.

    1. Paramananda, you should search for GADBAD Ramayanas too. You will be dismayed that not only Hindu fundamentalists but even you, a secular Buddhist I believe, and AK Ramanujan included, have ignored their vesion of Ramayana, thus tried deny academic freedom to yourself and to other These are wonderful epics, specially for intellectuals like you.. I hope you will not allow Valmiki to get away with the credit of creating the first Ramayana. Let Hindu fundametalists do that.

  3. sigh. leaves you so angry and frustrated. The most galling moment is the “non-voting” – the claim that abstaining from “involvement” is not a deliberate, political action.

  4. A.K.Ramanujan was a respected scholar, someone who had a wonderful understanding of different cultures and by translations he tried to introduce literature from one culture to the other cultures. He is not the only one to write so about Ramayana as Paula Richman and others have analyzed the texts and traditions (yes traditions) of Ramayana.Kamban’s epic Kamba Ramayana differed from Valmiki’s Ramayana but none had complained that it was less authentic or Kamban messed up the story by not strictly telling the same tale told by Valmiki, In fact scholars enjoy comparing and contrasting both texts. Vaishnavities in Tamil rever Kamban. The two great epics- Ramayana and Mahabharata have inspired so many poets, novelists and short story writers to tell different stories. It is unfortunate that the powers that be in DU have not understood all this or perhaps took that decision with ‘full understanding’. Will Delhi University ban any academic work that is made controversial.

    1. While agreeing with you and Mr Apoorvanand Jha, a Hindi scholar who writes in English, comments on a topic of relevance to history and cultire, likes to visit USA and seems to sympathize with Maoists, I do not see any reasons for this fuss. AK Ramanujan forgets about Tulsi Ramayana, barely mentions it here and there, although it is the most read and assimilated book of literature by common people/ villagers of north India. Should we force the DU students to remain ignorant about this masterpiece just because of Mr Ramanujan ignores it? I hope I am not misunderstood. I am just trying to day that an unnecessary fuss is being created by Mr Jha, apparently because of his political leanings.

  5. those who till a few decades or centuries ago were denied access to the sanskrit classics and had to make do with the folk and vernacular versions are now taking revenge. hahaha

  6. Act of academic compromise? I was not a DU history student in 2008, never heard of AK Ramanujan, but has read 1950 RAMKATHA by Father Cammile Bulcke, written in Hindi. I do not see what is new in Ramanujan’s writings on this topic, except that he cites most from Kamb Ramayana and writes in English. Does DU stop any one from reading any scholar’s work? I do not find anything in Ramanjuan’s work offensive, and do find Romilla Thapar ‘s some writings distasteful as they are guided by her communist leanings. So deletion of Ramanujan’s work from the recommended reading, and substituting Thapar’s work for it, seems like moving from less to more communistic leanings. The readers need not be guided by Mr Apoorvanand’s opinion which is a single person’s opinion against the judgement of host of people, actively or silently. I wish I knew Mr Apoorvanand’s political leanings and reasons for this article.

    1. शर्मा जी, आप जरा अपने ’राजनीतिक रुझान’ का भी खुलासा किजिए! और ’कम्युनिस्टों’ के साथ छुआछूत मानने के रहस्य का भी उद्‍घाटन कीजिए. अब जब कि तथाकथित निचली जातियों के ख़िलाफ़ छुआछूत पर भी सवाल उठाया जा रहा है, तो आप इस छुआछूत को और भी आगे बढ़ा रहे हैं. वैसे आपकी सूचना के लिए बता दूं कि रामानुजन को किसी भी नज़रिये से कम्युनिस्ट नहीं कहा जा सकता. ये भी ध्यान रहे कि जो सैकड़ों रामायण उपलब्ध हैं वे सब (रामानंद सागर के धारावाहिक और रेडियो सिटी के रघुचरितमानस को छोड़ कर), मार्क्स महोदय के जन्म से पहले लिखे गए थे. हां, चाहें तो दूरदर्शन और रेडियो संस्करण के लिए आप कम्युनिस्टों पर धावा बोल दें.

      1. Ananya, I read a few poems of AK Ramanujan from Internet. They are good. Thanks. It is for you to evaluate if he was a good historian too. I am sorry that I did not know about him. Sage Valmiki was a great poet to me, but not a historian. Ramayana was a prophecy. It is not a book of religion, but our culture and heritage. The impact of this masterpiece was so powerful that the story was borrowed by almost every section of the society, and almost every part of civilized world, which modified it to conform to their needs and beliefs. We are told that Buddha was Ram in his previous life, Mahaveer was also Ram. Ram was an Indonesian and ancestor of a Muslim King there. The Buddhist Kings of Thailand were Ram. Valmiki is also credited with writing ‘YogaVashistha’ where Ram is depicted differently, as this is a book on Hindu philosophy. Is this all history? Is AK Ramanujan’s essay a must for history students simply because Indian Communists want so? Should we teach Koran and Satanic Verses as two versions of the same revelation? In my opinion, NO, and I am sure here Indian Communists will agree with me. Cancerous cells destroy the very body that nourishes them. They grow as a small mole, and rapidly spread over the entire body. Pankaj (Jha?), logarithms were not invented by Newton, he was one of the two greatest Physicists of all times, still a dishonest person, trying to take credit for other’s work. My political ideology? Please read Nirala, and his poem,’ Vanbela’. AK Ramanujan’s poetry has some similarity to Nirala’s. My disliking for Communists? Because they follow Marxism as a religion, lacking objectivity. I am amazed that they have started Jihad against DU, on the pretext of AK Ramnujan’s essay.

      2. शर्मा जी,
        दिल्ली विश्‍वविद्यालय के एक कॉलेज़ में इतिहास का शिक्षक होने के नाते मैं आपको कुछ बातों के प्रति आश्‍वस्त करना चाहता हूं:
        १. हिंदुस्तान के कम्युनिस्ट इतिहासकार धर्म और काफ़ी हद तक संस्कृति का इतिहास लिखने से भी कतराते रहे हैं. उनका जोर मूलत: आर्थिक इतिहास पर रहा है. अब तो डी.यू. और जे.एन.यू. में भी गिने चुने इतिहासकार ही रह गए हैं जो अपने आपको मार्क्सवादी कहेंगे या जिनके शोध-कार्य में मार्क्सवाद का सीधा प्रभाव दीखता हो. यहां ये भी प्रासंगिक है कि अब ज्यादातर जो किताबें हम पढ़ते पढ़ाते हैं उनमें भी कुछ ही किताबें हैं जिन्हें मार्क्सवादी विचारधारा का माना जा सकता है. शिक्षकों का प्रयास सभी किताबों को लेकर (चाहे वो किसी भी विचारधारा का हो) यही होता है कि छात्रों में आलोचनात्मक नज़रिया पैदा करने की कोशिश की जाए और नए सवाल उठाने का संस्कार पैदा किया जाए.
        २. आज से बीस साल पहले डी.यू. और जे.एन.यू. में मार्क्सवादी इतिहास शिक्षकों की संख्या ज्यादा थी, मसलन तब जब मैं ८० और ९० के शुरुआती वर्षों में इतिहास का छात्र था. लेकिन उन इतिहास के शिक्षकों में बिरले ही ऐसे थे जो मार्क्सवाद को अंधभक्ति के साथ अपनाते हों या छात्रों को ऐसा करने के लिए प्रेरित करते हों. खुद मेरे एक दढ़ियल, झोलाछाप मार्क्सवादी शिक्षक मार्क्सवाद के अंदर कट्टर प्रवृतियों के इतने घोर आलोचक थे कि हिंदूवादी गैर-इतिहास छात्र उनकी कक्षा में आ बैठते थे ताकि वो मार्क्सवाद के आलोचना का सामान इकट्ठा कर सकें. और यही वजह है कि मार्क्सवादी किताबें पढ़ कर और मार्क्सवादियों के सोहबत में रहकर मेरे जैसे गैर-मार्क्सवादी इतिहासकार पनप सके.
        ३. जब इतिहास में अलग अलग विचारधाराओं की बात होती है तो ऐसा नहीं है कि हर विचारधारा का बराबर बराबर बंदरबांट होता है और फिर किसी खास विचारधारा के खिलाफ़ बेईमानी कर ली जाती है! पाठ्‍यक्रम निर्धारण में सबसे महत्वपूर्ण होता है ये कि कौन सी किताबें भरपूर सबूतों और बारीकियों से भरे शोध के आधार पर दलील देते हैं और मेरे ख्याल में ऐसा ही होना भी चाहिए.
        सभी जानते हैं कि लोगरिथ्म का खोज जॉन नेपियर ने किया था. लेकिन जब मैंने न्यूटन के दिए हुए लोगरिथ्म की बात की तो मैं उसके द्वारा प्रतिपादित एक खास तरीके की बात कर रहा था जिसका इस्तेमाल “हाई प्रेसिज़न लोगरिथ्म जेनरेशन” के लिए किया जाता है. और आपने सही फ़रमाया, न्यूटन भी बड़ा बेईमान था….साथ में मै दिल्ली विश्‍वविद्यालय के कॉलेजों में कार्यरत कम से कम दो ऐसे फ़िज़िक्स शिक्षकों का नाम पता भी बता सकता हूं जो मार्क्सवादी हैं और न्यूटन को पढ़ना-पढ़ाना जरूरी समझते हैं. मेरे ख्याल से इतनी सूचना काफ़ी होनी चाहिए न्यूटन को सिलेबस से बाहर निकालने के लिए….आप के पास सुनहरा मौका है एक और मार्क्सवादी साजिश का पर्दा फ़ाश करने के लिए! मेरी शुभकामनाएं आपके साथ हैं!

  7. Because Ramanujan’s essay is on Ramayana, it allowed a general amnesia of it’s true conceptual contribution- a path-breaking way of understanding texts, canons and how narratives circulate between the world of orality and of writing. If he had made the same point using a different body of texts, nobody would have challenged the inclusion of the text in the syllabus- indeed, he could have made the same argument about quite a few other types of texts in India. (In my case, for example, I use this essay to think about a completely different corpus, from another religious tradition, in western Indian languages.) Mr. Sharma, you dismiss Ramanujan because he didn’t talk about certain versions of the Ramayana– this is precisely what Ramanujan is talking about. His starting point is that we cannot exhaust or close a “text” like the Ramayana, especially because it lives in both the world of writing and orality, and we must think of “reading” it instead in the way he proposes- non-canonically, without reifying the divide between the spoken and written word, without searching for “definitive” or worse, “authoritative” versions. The sheer lunacy of thinking that an essay by Thapar, who comes from a completely different methodological tradition, is somehow a substitute for this gem by Ramanujan shows the extent to which the debates surrounding this had nothing to do with academic inquiry. This was purely about the red flag/herring of Ramayana. This is the real tragedy of this situation- that academics are held hostage to such an extent by politics in India that we cannot even make the very simple point that this essay’s real contribution in an Indian classroom should be a conceptual and methodological one and that it is fundamentally NOT about the Ramayana, let alone Ram. Academics should have been fighting the very idea that the Hindu right purposely turned the essay into a story about Ram, not capitulating shamefully to their misappropriation.
    One last point: your suspicion of the author of this article on the grounds that Mr. Jha is a scholar of Hindi who also writes in English points to a fundamental problem that will not serve the Indian academy (particularly, its humanistic and social scientific branches) well. This is to do with linguistic education in India in general at the higher academic level. We are not studying and researching our own languages, let alone foreign ones at anything resembling an acceptable rate. The numbers of scholars I have met in the top universities in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata who spoke about the prevalence of students considering it normal and acceptable to do historical or area studies work without acquiring the linguistic and technical skills (philological, paleographical etc.) required to do it was shocking. Foreign scholarship on India is written in a slew of other languages, not just English- in Italian, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Persian and now increasingly Chinese. Yet, many Indian academics do not feel it incumbent upon them to learn any of these languages or read scholarship in it. By the same token, increasingly, foreign academics, especially in the US, are extremely unlikely NOT to read secondary scholarship from India. Certainly, this is true for Indian scholarship in English but even scholarship in Indian languages has a foreign readership. Indian academia is widely considered abroad one of the most exciting and influential in the global South and has a long tradition of an almost unique respectability in the West. (Ramanujan, described as a folklorist here, is a considered still at the University of Chicago one of the finest philosophers and textual scholars that institution has hosted.) Yet, complacence and parochialism will destroy the very foundations of this tradition. DU’s utter failure to defend some notion of academic integrity is not merely a national political issue; it has repercussions in the global academy. And we as Indians should be saddened by it..

    1. This long counter-comment seems like pontification, in flowery words, with less to do with the real issue. I have no doubt, Miss Chakravarti, that Mr Ramanujan could be a great philosopher and scholar, but here are my concerns: (1) How come he simply duplicates or borrows from what Father Camille Bulcke, a Christian missionary, had already researched in his RAMKATHA: ITS ORIGIN AND EVOLUTION (Hindi). Even if Ramanujan wrote in English, to impress upon his colleagues in West as you find it necessary, or perhaps to advance his career, just duplicating someone else research in a different language is not scholarship, but blatant plagiarism. (2) Father Bulcke makes a distinction between the origin and the evolution, in the title of his thesis itself, but Ramanujan blurs that distinction to give a false impression as if there are 300 or more parallel versions. Unfortunately, you yourself do not see this distinction. This is another academic dishonesty. (3) Father Bulcke, a European, was inspired by Tusli Ramayan, studied Sanskrit in India and wrote his PhD thesis in Hindi. Would you call him parochial? (4) Thaper’s name (of well known political affiliation) was mentioned just to point out that the DU academic council decision could not be influenced by a minority right wing Hindus, Brahmins or Hindu fundamentalists, derogatory words from the leftist arsenal. It was a majority decision, opposed only by a handful of leftists. (5) A true seeker of Truth does not see it from a leftist or rightist perspective. In search of Truth, judgmental mistakes can be made, but true seeker makes a correction when mistake is realized. Would you, Miss Chakravarti, point out just one fact in Ramanujan’s assay that is not contained in Father Bulcke’s thesis? If you do, I, and many others who think like me, will be convinced that this Ramanujan has done a great service to academia, brought pride to India while being in Chicago and displayed superb scholarship, as one other Ramanujan, a mathematician in Cambridge, or Chandrasekhar, a physicist at Chicago have done. Some Indians have advanced their career in Social Sciences in West by taking an anti-India perspective on our history, culture and literature. It is not possible in Physical Sciences. I hope this Ramanujan was an exception, and so are you

      1. Ramanujan explicitly refers to Bulcke in the introduction of his essay- in fact, he acknowledges that he got the idea of thinking about texts and canons in this way due to Bulcke’s research revealing the sheer number and diversity of texts that can be called Ramayanas. This is academic honesty. But again I reiterate- the point of Ramanujan’s essay is conceptual and methodological. He could have made it about a completely different set of texts. He did not duplicate Bulcke’s work, he utilized it as his starting point in developing his theory of reading texts– academics use the work of other academics in advancing research all the time. My point regarding the failing of the Indian academy in not defending Ramanujan’s path-breaking methodological intervention thus still holds.
        As regards calling Father Bulcke parochial, I don’t think anything in my comment could have been construed to support that interpretation. In fact, my own research is partly on European missionaries writing puranas in Indian languages in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so I would be the last to dismiss the contribution of missionaries. I do object in principle to notions of judging scholarship on the grounds of their pro- or anti-Indianness. As far as I am concerned, Ramanujan was instrumental in advancing the serious, non-Orientalist study of Hinduism and of Hindu textual and philosophical traditions. Whether that was pro- or anti-Indian is up to you to judge. I do strongly recommend that you read “this Ramanujan,” both his scholarship and his deeply moving poetry before judging him on preconceived ideas of what a “good” Indian should be.

        1. Miss Chakravarti, I was just commenting on one particular assay of AK Ramanujan. I am not familiar with his other works, and sure would like to read his ‘fine poetry’. Please guide me. I would not generalize my appreciation for Dr Bulcke to all Christian missionaries, particularly their criminal acts in post-Columbus Latin America. Bulcke, and also Thapar, were my shields to guard against Communist attack of being called a right-wing Hindu, Brahmin, parochial (admiring Tulsidas), stifling academic freedom, etc.etc. Communists and democracy? Communists and freedom of speech? It is a joke. In West they have advantage of being confused with liberals which they certainly are not, and thus advance their academic career by identity theft. I hope you are a seeker of Truth when researching history. Nothing should be looked by jaundiced eyes. Truth is not pro or anti-India. But Half-Truth is more dangerous than total lie which is deliberately perpetuated by Communist pseudo-intellectuals. You may not believe, but I admire your writings.

  8. Hey, to say that Ramanujan plagiarised from Bulcke, is absolutely ridiculous. Bulcke’s work is of a completely different nature. Ramanujan’s work builds upon that. If anyone works out the solution to one of the many unsolved equations of Mathematics using principles of logarithm given by Newton, does that mean he or she plagiarised from Newton?! And what is this obsession with writing in English to impress westerners! Sharmaji, you can only impress Indians with English (is that why you have chosen to respond in English, I guess not!). In U.S. or U.K. that is no big deal, everyone speaks that language there!

  9. Dear Mr. Sharma,
    If I have encouraged you to read Ramanujan through these posts, then I am pleased- he was an extremely important thinker who deserves wide readership. I appreciate very much your compliment regarding my writing but this to me is far more the kind of reaction I was hoping to get by posting in this forum.

    1. Ananya, I will read Ramanujan’s literary work, as much as possible. And yes, you did encourage me. I assume you are a student of history. I will look for your future history writings, hoping that they will be about Truth, not half-Truth which is worst than lie. You seem very talented. My Diwali good wishes to you. If I were to decide what to teach to DU students, or to any undergraduate in India, I would recommend Valmiki’s Ramayana. But I will not protest if 111 of 120 members of academic council decide not to do that. In my commencement, I was advised, ‘swadhyayat maa pramada’. A small minority should not be allowed to impose its will on majority, whether this minority is Communists, Religious fanatics, or Casteists. In brief, I will read AK Ramanujan, not because of DU Academic Council’s decision or Communist propaganda. I do not find any Hindu fanatic stifling my academic freedom. I is my choice simply because I admired your Ramanujan’s defence.

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