Sociology text lists dowry 'advantages': How the media fanned a Facebook post-fuelled row
The dowry controversy was an unwarranted but deeply damaging attack on St. Joseph's College, Bengaluru. It also revealed several interesting problems
Editor's note: On Wednesday, 18 October 2017, a Facebook post by one Rithika Ramesh began to do the rounds. It provided screenshots of a textbook listing the 'advantages' of dowry that was allegedly part of the course curriculum at a Bengaluru college — St. Joseph's, Shanti Nagar. In the time since, St. Joseph's College has issued a clarification stating the portions of the textbook shared on Facebook were not, in fact, recommended by the department faculty. The following is a piece by Arul Mani, published in the MediaWatch section on The Open Dosa, reflecting on the row.
The dowry controversy from last week was an unwarranted but deeply damaging attack on the college, and on colleagues whose commitment and backbone are highly valued within the institution. It also reveals several interesting problems.
One problem has been a lack of understanding among the public about paedagogy in the social sciences, and over what method in the social sciences may be about. Most people venting on Facebook seem to imagine that no more than a simple political correctness must be taught in the social sciences. This is unacceptable. Here is why.
When I did my BA at Christ College, sociology was the mystery element in my combination. I had been a Science student and so suffered various difficulties. I was also regularly pulled up in my first year by my professors for making normative assumptions, and couldn’t understand what this was and why it was a problem. My father taught at Maharani’s Arts College in those days, and requested a colleague of his, a senior Sociology professor named Anwar Hussain to have a conversation with me. This conversation elongated into regular meetings over three years at Prof Hussain’s Mosque Road residence in which he patiently took each one of my assumptions apart, and taught me the discipline of always going back to read the primary sources for each paper. We fought thus about Personal Law, about the status of women in India, about marriage, about dowry, about divorce laws, about anomie, about Marx and Pareto and Spengler and Toynbee, about prostitution, about drinking alcohol, and about juvenile delinquency. It was through these conversations, heated on my part while Prof Hussain invariably maintained his calm, that I understood that society is defined by a continuing contest for meaning, and that the most basic discipline the student must aspire to, is the capacity to hold judgement in suspension while travelling into other imaginations.
Perhaps the elements of challenge and of fighting are also important — they are the simple pathways to an informed ethicality. This is the point that becomes abundantly clear in the reactions which several scholars have made.
Professor Anant Kamath of Azim Premji University (also an SJC alumnus) had this to say:
“I myself, every year, in economics class present the 'advantages' of child labour as they were generally perceived during the period of the industrial revolution in Europe (or even the 'benefits' of slavery in the southern United States in the antebellum era), followed by a dense discussion on what was considered 'good economics' at the time. However, I believe at no time did any student feel that we as a class were propagating these as 'good ideas'. They’re part and parcel of understanding the mentality of those on the side that we resolve to attack. This is inevitable in the learning process to further sharpen our ability to critically think and to make the learning process a vibrant experience.”
Professor Janaki Nair, SJC alumnus and senior History faculty at Jawaharlal Nehru University concurs with this reflection, and places the general over-reaction in context:
“We are living through a moment of profound anti-intellectualism; our universities are increasingly being turned into churches of national piety, without any of the empowering or deep intellection that was enabled by Jesuits in higher education institutions. So we have to build extra-university spaces to keep our intellects and knowledge alive and flourishing. I remember when I was a student at SJC, Prof BRA Rao started a conversation on eugenics and the possible arguments in favour of such practices and against. Many of us 18-19 year olds did think it was a good way of building healthy populations, but the discussion helped us to see the ethical flaws of such arguments. As a teacher myself, today I treasure those discussions.”
Professor Cheriyan Alexander, HoD English at SJC, while making a statement in solidarity with colleagues in Sociology offered this critique of Rithika Ramesh’s post.
“She underlines selected sentences which obviously look politically incorrect to any educated Indian because they reiterate the old patriarchal ideology favouring dowry – obnoxious views, no doubt. What she doesn’t underline are the beginning and ending sentences on the same page, the first saying that these are the views of a certain section of society, the second the author’s warning that these arguments should not be left unquestioned. The pages following then list out the objections to the above. The citizen journalist has not bothered to read the authorial disclaimers nor to ask for the book itself in order to examine what appears before or after the page that she is dissecting with such expertise. She has just taken off using that page as her runway.”
The dangers of this selective outrage, as performed by the uninformed, is that it obscures the valuable process at work in the social sciences and the humanities—a steady process of clarification, of thinking as doing.
Prof Cheriyan hits the nail on the head about this:
“Here’s a very likely scenario that can take place tomorrow when someone of her ilk decides to paint the next college black. Let’s say a teacher of political thought and of the various political ideologies circulates readings taken from across the whole spectrum of ideologies that have been articulated on the stage of history up to now. So there are selections from Kautilya, Manu, Cicero, Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, Marx, Lenin, Hitler, Gandhi, Mussolini, Ambedkar, Mao, among others. The purpose of the educator is to expose the students to the entire range so as to enable them to compare, analyse, critique and then distinguish between that which is regressive and that which is progressive among them – in short helping the student to think for himself or herself.
Now, let us say a page from these selections falls into the hands of the overenthusiastic citizen journalist of the kind under discussion. What is to prevent such a one from seizing a page from Hitler and say the college is indoctrinating its students in fascist ideology or a page from Mao and concluding the college is an incubating center for Naxalites. It can happen. So be on the guard against this growing tribe. They are the newest enemies of academic freedom.”
I will now proceed to practise some self-criticism of my own teaching career using the intellectual Maoism that Rithika Ramesh seems to practise.
I have taught Clifford Geertz’s essay on cock-fighting in Bali. I am guilty of justifying cruelty to birds, promoting male bonding, and cock-fighting, whatever that might mean.
I have taught Shakespeare’s sonnets, and Steven Pinker’s essay Is there a Gay Gene After All? I am thus twice guilty of propagating homosexuality and metaphor.
I used excerpts from MS Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts in class; that makes me guilty of encouraging people to wear shorts in public, apart from propagating RSS ideology.
I have used videos of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in class: I have thus propagated Islam and taken my class to Pakistan.
I have taught Macbeth; I am guilty of advocating assassination as a political tool and making fun of the wash-your-hands campaign
I taught Hamlet; that makes me guilty of having taught procrastination, seeing suicide as a good thing, and making talking to oneself for long periods of time a cool thing to do.
God alone knows how many other crimes I have committed.
Recognise the Rithika Rameshes and the people sharing her post blindly for what they are — a self-appointed Gestapo. They do the thought-police in multiple voices, and costumes. If they continue to operate with impunity, free thought and thus the shrinking social sciences and humanities tradition in the country will be the first casualties.
Those who enquired into the matter have found that the teacher in charge handed out a book with instructions about using one section as reference material to two combinations — EPS and IES. In the IES class, the student in charge happened to photocopy the next few pages as well, in which the 'Dowry Menace' bit occurs. So in effect, the department has taken flak for something that is not even part of their syllabus, or the classroom discussion.
What is this book, you ask? It is titled Social Problems, with special reference to India, published by Sapna Book House in 2006. The author, G Subramanya, is a professor in Sociology at a South Bengaluru college, and a prolific ‘text-book’ writer with several volumes for PUC and BA courses to his name. The book announces that ‘it follows Bangalore University syllabus’. Page 159 lists out what it calls the advantages of dowry. It then lists out over three pages specific problems with dowry; 1:3 for pro dowry vs anti-dowry is not a bad ratio, as my STEM reader will probably agree.
The book is poorly written. Why then would somebody advise it? For several reasons.
As my friend and onetime colleague Santosh Raghavan of IIT Madras has pointed out on Facebook, there is a genuine paucity of accessible material for the undergraduate student of the social sciences in India. In the Social Problems paper, for instance, the sourcebook that is usually advised as required reading is a redoubtable double-decker titled Indian Social Problems, by Lucknow University’s Gurmukh Ram Madan, now in its seventh edition. I used this as a student, and found it both readable and interesting, but many of my classmates would complain that it was difficult to follow. It is not written for the average undergraduate student, but in the language of the specialist, or perhaps the informed reader, and requires several careful, close readings.
There is thus a gap. This gap was once met by bazaar notes and MCC Digests. The Sapna Books type of effort is perceived as being a notch above these in that it is written by a known ‘textbook’ writer and professor from within Bangalore University, and offers a simple but authoritative version (in that it follows the university syllabus) of what the student would otherwise have to toil with. Many Bangalore University sociology students are definitely using this sort of aid as we speak.
Who is the undergraduate student in India today? Even in a supposedly elite institution such as SJC, a Social Sciences professor usually deals with a class of 90-100 students of varying abilities and interests. The BA course at SJC routinely draws academically gifted students as well as those who are doing a BA for parking purposes; it also draws upper-middle class students with a sufficient English-medium background as well as first-generation learners of English from Kannada-, Telugu- and other language-medium backgrounds.
The professor will perforce have to make several reading recommendations, not just one or two, keeping the diversity of the class in mind, while also working to supplement the lectures with discussion, with documentary-screenings, with co-curricular activities, and interactions with experts in the field and alumni involved in research and social action. This job requires perhaps a little more work than those who sit on Facebook and share easy rage are familiar with.
Professor G Subramanya’s book has some failings. The most obvious one is that he manages to write badly. If you read the book carefully, one thing becomes clear — that G Subramanya’s use of English is a translated form, that of someone more comfortable with Kannada than English, of somebody who is processing English in a somewhat unwieldy manner. This is not something you should dismiss. Prof Subramanya’s English is not very different from the language of aspiration available to many students who study the social sciences. Translating concepts into this English is the last mile problem in the delivery of the social sciences.
There are more serious flaws in the book: Proper references are not given, and in his desire to keep things accessible, he oversimplifies too much, disappears boundaries between different opinions, and wanders regularly into crudity. And yet, a teacher with some basic skill and commitment can turn even such a poor book into a good starting-point, especially for a student handicapped by language. I know that my colleagues in Sociology attempt to find this locus regularly.
The person attacking the department, Rithika Ramesh, has acted in extreme haste. She hasn’t bothered to look at this context, to enquire into the treatment given to this material, or indeed into what sort of discussions arose in the classroom. For some time she was rather gung-ho about her post, and had started sharing links on her wall like they were trophies of war, but has now fallen unaccountably silent.
The feminism she practises is of the garden variety. One uninformed by how practices like dowry are embedded within material reality, within the economic lives of specific castes and communities. You might pass legislation against dowry, but genuine social change comes through appeals to ethicality, and through changes in the material conditions that people may occupy. Every student, not just those who study social sciences, must understand how and why dowry practices are conflated with group identity, and how one may begin changing this.
What she has done amounts to defamation, and the institution would be well within its rights to take her to court. For the simple reason that it will deter the next person who wants to make a malicious attack on any institution, or at least prompt them to look for good evidence before they speak.
My personal opinion is that a 135-year-old college is not going to gain anything out of dragging some clueless teenager to court. Anybody can make a mistake. She should perhaps reflect on the criticism her post has attracted, and consider making an apology. I doubt if 9000-odd people will share it, but it’s a beginning.
Let us now turn to the ladies and gentlemen of the media, who should have known better, but chose instead to cover themselves in glory in practising instant journalism.
Many of them get the name of the college wrong, and suggest that the volume is a textbook brought out by the college. Their reporting skills are so good that they have nothing more to offer than limp editorialising and a regurgitation of the outrage on the Facebook post. Some even steal from the comments and pass them off as their own ideas.
No basic questions are asked. Who wrote the book? Where did Rithika get it from? Is Rithika a good source? Is she the only source they need to talk to? Did the teachers actually give this section out? If teachers did, did the students talk to them about it? Is there a possible argument that can be made for the ideas in the page? Many are in such a tearing hurry to have breaking news that they end up pretending that they uncovered this all by themselves courtesy agitated students, thus using Rithika’s material, but without acknowledging her as their only source.
Rule # 1 in journalism is usually that you don’t have a story if you have only one source, but that apparently does not matter anymore.
We will now focus our attention on calling out a select few because, verily, they are ornaments to their profession.
Republic TV had this to say.
“After learning of the same, when asked, the authorities exclusively told Republic TV that they will issue a statement clarifying this matter. However, the question here is why was the chapter there in the first place as this practice is illegal? And why were the authorities silent earlier? Why was it acceptable for the professor to endorse this practice?”
The authorities told everybody who asked that they would hold an internal enquiry before making a response. To say that anybody “exclusively told Republic TV’ this is exceedingly cute, but is a lie. Sitting in their offices, and without having spoken to a single student, they have magically arrived at the conclusion that our professors endorse dowry. And that the college kept quiet about it. Their first question only confirms my belief that many journalists in India have not really studied anything in their university days. Interestingly, Republic seem to have been the only people with the Googling skills to arrive at the name of the author, but haven’t chosen to find out who he is or what he might have to say.
Theja Ram, writing for The News Minute, says, “On Wednesday night, a Facebook post put up by a young woman said that students of Bachelor of Arts in St Joseph’s College of Arts and Commerce in Bengaluru were given study material which endorses the system of dowry”.
The small banana-skin is that there is no such college. There is a separate St. Joseph’s College of Commerce, and there’s a St. Joseph’s College – referred to Arts and Science by those who go to the Commerce College, and as Day College by those who go to the Evening College. There’s also the great mystery she makes out of Rithika Ramesh’s name. Perhaps it is great care to protect her identity after her post has been shared several thousand times. Considering that this story is her Facebook post, shouldn’t she at least acknowledge Ramesh properly?
A few sentences later she tosses us this gem. “It goes on this vein, and while these are listed as advantages ‘according to supporters of dowry’, the text still comes across as valourising the system.” The word she uses is slightly off. Valorise has nothing to do with bravery. It comes from the language of business for valuing something in an artificial way. The News Minute clearly has no editors who know the language. The OED lists the word’s new meaning as ‘to give or ascribe value or validity to’.
When you say that the text valorises dowry, you have to give evidence to support what you are saying. If the text is ventriloquising or imitating the voices of those who support dowry, only someone unused to reading will conclude that it is valorising anything. She should have perhaps found the book and read it before deciding.
Theja Ram is equally unable to distinguish between the author’s crude choice of words and his intent. She should read more often. It’s an invaluable thing for a journalist in a country where most people are wonky users of the language.
We are told this, later in the article: “We don’t know which book it is taken from. Lecturers usually photocopy pages from different books and distribute it to the students,” a student, who received a copy of the material told TNM. When we’ve finished boohooing with this hapless victim, we can point out that the natural question to ask at this point is, to wit, did you ask where it was from? Most teachers will happily tell you where any excerpt is from, if you ask.
Towards the end of the article we meet this gem: “They have given us a list of reference books but teachers always give us notes and handouts as study material. What will we gain from lying? We were also shocked that our college was giving us handouts with such information in it,” a student said. Here is a simple question that could have been asked: Did you check with the teacher about why you were given this material? If the photocopying was an error, it might have been sorted out there. Also, just enquire if that student attended the classes where the issue of dowry was discussed. If the teacher was pro-dowry, surely this student might have noticed much before finding evidence later in printed material?
To my suspicious ear, the students they have produced sound like people who didn’t attend the classes where the dowry question was discussed. Any reporter worth her salt would have at least checked on this intuition.
Mirror TV says that this page is part of the syllabus, without having actually checked, and its reporter MS Sreeja, also informs us gravely that a student of the college was so upset that she put it up on Facebook. If you look at Rithika Ramesh’s Facebook profile, it’s fairly clear she’s not one of our students.
The anchor on India Today’s TV channel keeps calling the page ‘a paper’ but eventually finds the wits to ask who drafted its contents. Her reporter, Rohini Swamy, then declares that a teacher from our Sociology Department compiled it (nobody did — see above), that it was given out just before the Diwali holidays (the book was given out in July) and that several students were so upset that they circulated it.
‘The contents of the notes,' she says ‘are not in tandem with what is happening in society’. Has she taken a five-minute walk down the street where she lives and sniffed the air? Has she met her friends and neighbours yet?
The sorry episode turned into high comedy in the able hands of NewsX. The anchor is unable to decide on whether we are a school or a college, and then his news editor, one Ritangshu Bhattacharya comes on screen, and claims that he has a printout of the college textbook, like he went digging and found it by dint of investigative prowess. When the camera zooms in, it is fairly clear that what he is holding is a B & W printout of the jpeg from Rithika’s wall — they’ve embedded it into a word document and you can see all the underlining she did. He hyperventilates about how 7-8 advantages are listed out for dowry without bothering to give the rest of the contents even a cursory glance– and says something about Dowry and the Constitution. Then, he reads out all of these advantages, sputtering and harrumphing like a volcano about to blow. His journalistic skills don’t seem to extend beyond this, mercifully.
I’m not going to pay attention to Scoopwhoop, Buzzfeed, Storypick and Nosepick for we know them to be clickbait vultures. Nice to see that TV channels and everybody else have willingly diminished into a sad afterlife of competition with such websites.
The only attempts at balanced coverage seemed to come from The Hindu, in the follow-up by Tanu Kulkarni, and from Scroll. There’s no need to compliment anybody for simply doing their job, but that is now such a rare sight that one is actually tempted to applaud.
What this pushes to the forefront is the greater need for news ombudsmanship. I know for a fact that The Hindu and Scroll take this issue seriously. The Hindu has a Readers’ Editor who regularly addresses questions of practice, and Scroll too seems to have some basic process in place. The message that doesn’t seem to be getting through to the others is this: self-regulate, or wake up one day and find that the Emergency has come home to roost. The day is not far when some ruling party will have an office inside your offices to scrutinise your output, and it will all be your fault.
Since these journalists seem unable to recognise actual stories worth investigating, let us now toss them some quick ideas. These will unfortunately involve hard work. Several weeks of legwork and, baap re baap, learning to speak Kannada. Why does the government mandate a student teacher ration of 100:1 in Karnataka unless it means to kill the Social Sciences and the Humanities?
Since the new VC, Prof Japhet Shantappa, has expressed an interest in the Rithika Ramesh incident, ask him what he intends doing about this problematic teacher-student ratio. Since he is himself a Social Sciences man, will he campaign with the two government departments involved to correct this? Also remember to ask him why the University’s Prasaranga does not publish adequate support material in the social sciences at subsidised prices for university students any more. They would do everybody a great service if they put such readings together and updated them from time to time. Why has that space been left open for private operators to flourish in?
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