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Ramanujan Essay: Do universities give a damn about critical thinking?

AK Ramanjun's text 300 Ramayanas, which was recently dropped by the Delhi University's Academic Council from the BA honours History syllabus, is now the centre of a left versus right controversy in the University campus, with progressive students and teachers arguing that the text should not have been dropped just because of right wing pressure. The context to this controversy lies in the fact that back in 2008, Akhil Bhatriya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP) students had protested against the essay which they saw as blasphemous.

The current protest against the Academic Council decision is being held at the Vivekananda Statue by student & teacher organisations who plan to march to the Vice Chancellor's office by 12 pm. The Protestors include All India Democratic Students Organisation (AIDSO), All India Students Federation (AISF). An Online signature campaign has also started and nearly 1160 names have lent their support to the cause. Prominent support for the protests comes in the form of author Kiran Desai, MP Shashi Tharoor, historians Mahmood Farooqui, Prof Bipin Chandra, Prof Romila Thapar, and Prof Mridula Mukherjee. Clearly the protestors have enough support from well-known historians, and the student body as well.

This is not the first instance in India where a right wing student organisation has demanded that texts that they deem as blasphemous or insulting to Indian culture be dropped. The other such incident that stands out is when Mumbai University decided to take off Rohinton Mistry's Such a long journey from the English honours syllabus after Shiv Sena students including Bal Thackeray's grandson Aditya Thackeray burnt copies of the book saying that it was derogatory towards Shiv Sena and that if it was not removed, then there were would be serious violence in the campus.

 Ramanujan Essay: Do universities give a damn about critical thinking?

This is not the first instance in India where a right wing student organisation has demanded that texts that they deem as blasphemous or insulting to Indian culture be dropped. AFP

While in the case of Mumbai University it was the mere threat of violence that led to the quick and sudden removal of the book without any discussions or debate, with Delhi University  the case was not so simple. The essay was dropped after discussions and debates and despite protests from members of the Academic Council who view the step as a "victory for the right wing."

The essay in question talks of the Ramayana as being an interpolative text, which basically means this:  There is no, one authoritative Ramayana; that there are several versions of the Ramayana. Because the ancient Indian texts were largely oral in tradition, it is not unexpected that several interpretations would end up getting added to what was the so-called 'original text'.

Wherein lies the cause of the entire controversy. Ramanujan's essay is seen as offensive because it questions the central idea of an original text and goes on to argue that there was never one Ramayana, something that can't go down well with Hindu right-wingers for whom there can only be one Ramayana, one Geeta and one Mahabharat.

One can see that the ideas suggested by the essay are so blasphemous for the right wing that they did not hesitate to indulge in violent protests in Delhi University in 2008 when they ransacked the entire Arts Faculty in the North Campus University. Boards were put up all over the University by ABVP students, who tried to 'enlighten' many history students on why the essay was wrong and Lord Rama was being blasphemed by it. Back then, the ABVP protests were not taken so seriously by too many students and the violence was overlooked. But in the present scenario it would be seem that right wing politics has prevailed at the cost of history.

Meawhile students and professors from the left wing, and other progressive backgrounds who are unhappy with the decision to drop the essay, are now determined not to ignore this incident and plan to protest the University's decision. While this threatens to turn into another right wing versus left wing conflict, what is so perplexing is the University's stance on the issue.

In fact the question is not even restricted to just Delhi University but to all Universities in India which succumb to right wing demagogy and violence with such ease, even at the cost of academic credibility. And we wonder why none of the Indian Universities are in the top 50 universities of the world?

The ease with which academic rigour is compromised for religious sentiment is fascinating. What is even more fascinating is that the same Delhi University did nothing to provide accommodation for thousands of its students who were asked to vacate hostel rooms for the Commonwealth games back in 2010. The protests which caught the media attention of the entire nation failed to rouse empathy from the the University which simply claimed that their hands were tied and the decision had been taken by the government and not them.

Clearly there are double standards when it comes to accepting student demands by the University. While it's easy to drub it as a left versus right debate, or secular versus communal, the larger question of creating critical-thinking students is lost forever. When an essay or a book is dropped, the right to choose, to question, to think is also dropped.

Watch video of the protests

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Updated Date: Jan 05, 2012 15:17:12 IST