The brouhaha over Delhi University’s decision to drop AK Ramanujam’s essay on 300 Ramayanas from the reading list of the history syllabus shows the level to which our collective fear of the unknown and the subversive has sunk.
In the case of the Ramanujam essay, since the objectors were right-wing groups, the left has been happy to treat it as a cause célèbre, when the fact is even “progressives” have done much to obliterate “other views” of history that it considers unpalatable. Histories by right-wing historians, Sir Jadunath Sarkar and RC Majumdar, have been conveniently left out of reading lists for a while now.
Fear of “poisoning young minds” is thus common to both the illiberal right and illiberal left. Both are afraid of what unmonitored readings will do to the young. They assume that students can’t think for themselves.
A left-sponsored petition is now doing the rounds claiming that “to delete it (the essay) from the syllabus is an act that is deeply disturbing, an instance of thought policing. Such a measure will only encourage sectarian groups to try and prevent intellectuals from expressing their ideas freely.”
As columnist Swapan Dasgupta notes, “because some philistines had objected to the (Ramanujam) essay being in the list of prescribed texts, the culture war was transformed into a political war. The ‘progressive’ adherents of ‘scientific history’ felt obliged to celebrate the importance of mythology and the folk tradition — which they otherwise debunk — while the other side despaired of a text that injected potentially ‘blasphemous’ and contrarian ideas in impressionable minds.”
But fear of unholy literature is not confined to right-wingers or left-wingers, or to men or women, or to specific caste-groups or groups. Almost everyone has some queasiness about some literature or the other – whether it is Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, or Taslima Nasrin’s Lajja or BR Ambedkar’s Riddles in Hinduism.
To be truly liberal we all have to read the things we most fear – whether it is an erotic tome (like the Kama Sutra) or an anti-religious polemical work, or something that makes our heroes look less heroic (Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul, on Mahatma Gandhi, or James Laine’s Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India).
Here is Firstpost’s initial list of literature that will offend someone or the other. So we issue it with a warning. Read these books and essays only if you are a true liberal. In fact, genuine lovers of academic freedom will know that all these are important texts, even if one does not agree with what they say.
In the list of books that critique religions or religious groups, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Riddles in Hinduism and Annihilation of Caste are classics. They could offend upper caste groups. Also in this polemical category is Kancha Ilaiah’s Why I am not a Hindu.
But Arun Shourie’s Worshipping False Gods does the opposite – rock the boat of Ambedkarites by critiquing Ambedkar himself. At one stage it provoked Dalits hard enough to attack Shourie.
But what may surprise many people is that Ambedkar also wrote Thoughts on Pakistan, which may offend Muslims for the critical approach it brings to Islam. More devastating is Ibn Warraq’s critique, Why I am not a Muslim. Warraq is the pseudonym of a Pakistani apostate, and is thus guaranteed to offend.
If you want more, Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation will shake up those who profess Christianity. Koenraad Elst’s Psychology of Prophetism: A secular look at the Bible is also a potential cause for heartburn.
But if you are just a true believer in whatever religion, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great are must reads. This is just in case you are willing to see your faith rocked.
The left should read Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, and on Mao, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. They will learn that Stalin and Mao were no less criminals than Hitler.
In the gender wars, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch are in a class of their own. All men should read them. But women should also read The Skeptical Feminist, by Janet Radcliffe Richards. It is a useful antidote in case you don’t feel all that feminist.
This is by no means an exhaustive list for testing the limits to your liberalism. But it’s a place to start.