Arundhati Roy’s 'Walking with the Comrades' withdrawn from the syllabus of an elective English course in Manonmaniam Sundaranar University because of pressure from ABVP

Published : November 12, 2020 18:53 IST

K. Pitchumani, Vice Chancellor of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli. Photo: A. SHAIKMOHIDEEN

Bucking under pressure from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Manonmaniam Sundaranar University (MSU) in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, has withdrawn Arundhati Roy’s book Walking with the Comrades from the syllabus of the English postgraduate course. It has been replaced by M. Krishnan’s My Native Land: Essays on Nature.

Walking with the Comrades talks about the Maoist insurgence in CentraI India where tribal people are waging an armed revolt against the state and landlords. The writer visited their hideouts to understand the issues of discontent and it is a well-documented book. It received rave reviews when it was published. The Economic and Political Weekly said it “exposes some rather damning connections between the interests of large corporations, the Indian government and police brutality.” The Washington Post called it a “fruitfully sceptical and contrarian and a necessary book by one of India s most distinctive voices.”

Last week, Vice Chancellor K. Pitchumani received a letter from the ABVP demanding withdrawal of Roy’s book. It said the book, which was published in 2011 and made an elective subject for non-fiction for the postgraduate English literature and language course of the University in 2016-17, contained “objectionable materials” and glorified Maoists, who, the letter said, were a threat to country.

Simultaneously, a report on the issue appeared in the Organiser, a newspaper affliated to the RSS, on November 10. The report said: “Arundhati Roy is known for her extreme leftwing political views and anti-Hindu narratives. She claimed to have spent several days with the red terrorists in their strongholds. Her book has been included in MSU‘s Post Graduation (MA English), non-fiction category. Despite protests from various corners, the book was included in the syllabus three years ago.”

It further claimed that C. Vignesh, ABVP’s Dakshin Tamil Nadu joint secretary, had met the Vice Chancellor and “requested him to withdraw the book”. The report also quoted Sri Ram, a university senate member, as saying: “Teachers should realise that portraying Maoist cadres as heroes would create a wrong impression among the youngsters.”

It may be recalled that a special lecture by the Islamic scholar Amina Wadud was cancelled in Madras University in 2013 in similar circumstances (see https://frontline.thehindu.com/social-issues/general-issues/wonder-how-india-will-move-forward/article4995117.ece).

The Vice Chancellor of Manonmaniam University, talking to Frontline over phone, said that the issue was brought to his notice not only by the ABVP but also by “many others” only recently. He said that though the book had been in the syllabus since 2016-17, no one had raised the issue since it was an elective subject. But many academicians felt that it should not have been prescribed at all for the course considering its ‘controversial content’ “.

The Vice Chancellor claimed that he did not face any pressure or threat from anyone or any outfit and that he had not been “forced to remove it”. He said: “The issue was brought to my notice. I formed a high-level committee comprising of Deans, Director of Board of Studies, Chairman of Academic Council besides three members of various governing councils of the university. They discussed it and, based on their recommendation, Ms. Roy’s work has been removed.” A standing committee will further evaluate the issue shortly, he said.When asked why some other non-fiction work of Ms. Roy was not considered for replacement, he said that he would consider that option in future. “Students will be naive. They are our children. We should not misguide them through such kind of controversial and objectionable works. Out duty is to safeguard them,” he said.

The issue drew widespread criticism. Various political parties, including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, and cultural organisations such as the Tamil Nadu Murpokku Ezhuthalaga Kalaignarkal Sangam and Kalai Ilakkiya Peru Mandram condemned the University for withdrawing the book. M. Kanimozhi, DMK MP, said that interfering with what students should study as part of their academic pursuits would endanger secularism.

Arundhati Roy, meanwhile, said in a statement: “When I heard of the Manomaniam Sundaranar University's decision to remove my book Walking With the Comrades from its curriculum following threats and pressure from the ABVP—oddly enough I was more happy than sad because I had no idea that it was in the curriculum in the first place. I am glad it has been taught for several years. I am not in the least bit shocked or surprised that it has been removed from the syllabus now. It was my duty as a writer to write it. It is not my duty to fight for its place on a university curriculum. That is for others to do or not do. Either way it has been widely read and as we know bans and purges do not prevent writers from being read. This narrow, shallow, insecure attitude towards literature displayed by our current regime is not just detrimental to its critics. It is detrimental to millions of its own supporters. It will limit and stunt our collective intellectual capacity as a society and a country that is striving for a place of respect and dignity in the world.”

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