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The Battle Over Ramayana in Delhi University History Course

Editorial, The Telegraph

by, 21 September 2008

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The Telegraph, September 21, 2008



The wonder that is India may or may not have many Ramayanas, but it certainly has a magnificent array of idiots of colourfully variegated stupidities. The colour on display in the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s campaign against the inclusion of A.K. Ramanujan’s essay, “Three hundred Ramayanas: five examples and three thoughts on translation”, in Delhi University’s history course is saffron. The Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad have been protesting on campus because, according to them, some references to Hanuman in the essay are offensive. Approached by petitioners, the Delhi High Court turned down pleas to have the essay removed, saying that it was not the legitimate or competent authority to pronounce on the matter. Undeterred, ABVP petitioners went to the Supreme Court, which has said that it is up to the vice-chancellor and the academic council of the university to decide whether or not a text should be included in a syllabus.

The point that the higher judiciary has made may seem obvious, but it is important when its petitioners are arrogantly armed in ignorance. One, it is the responsibility of the university to decide on its syllabi, and that responsibility cannot be evaded. Two, the judiciary would not encroach into specialist areas, just as teachers would not judge and sentence criminals. But more generally, the courts’ responses have another moral — they cannot be made into instruments of partisan politics. This moral is particularly relevant when the petitioners believe that using religion as excuse will cow individuals and institutions alike.

The incident is not just a tussle between opposing ideologies in the academia. The focus of the attack was Upinder Singh, the daughter of the prime minister and a teacher in the history department. She was supposed to have compiled the collection that includes Ramanujan’s essay. That the prime minister’s office issued a statement saying that she had nothing to do with it seems strange under the circumstances, since a teacher is normally defended by her institution, not by her father’s office. But the PMO’s statement brings the political game out into the open, and makes it easy to connect Kandhamal and Karnataka with Delhi University as the time for the Lok Sabha election draws closer. Such a connection would also explain why Mayawati has jumped into the fray on the pretext of a law and order problem in Lucknow, and has said that she is against the essay if it distorts the Ramayana.

The incident may seem absurd, but it is a bad omen. If a scholarly elucidation of the sources and emphases of the various retellings of the Ramayana in different cultures and languages is attacked in the name of religion, only to be used in politics, India would soon have to bid adieu to its scholars, to intellectual freedom and the dedicated pursuit of knowledge.