The rule of unreason

Print edition : November 18, 2011

In New Delhi on October 24, students and teachers of Delhi University staging a protest against the withdrawal of A.K. Ramanujan's essay from the reading list of an undergraduate course in history. - R.V. MOORTHY

Delhi University withdraws A.K. Ramanujan's essay on the different tellings of the Ramayana in deference to the Sangh Parivar.

THE decision of Delhi University's Academic Council to drop eminent literary scholar A.K. Ramanujan's essay Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and three thoughts on translation from the reading list of an undergraduate course in history has drawn severe criticism from the academic community. At the same time, a small section of academics who owe their allegiance to the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, a forum backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), has welcomed it.

The essay, which is included in Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia edited by Paula Richman, documents the various tellings' of the Rama Katha. Through discussions on multiple texts that emerged in different time periods and traditions, it concludes that there is no fixed Ramayana story. In support of this theory, Ramanujan narrates passages from Valmiki's Ramayana, Thai Ramakien, Kamban's Iramavataram or Ramayanam, Jaina Ramayana of Vimalasuri, known as Paumacariya, and the oral Rama Katha of the Santhal tribe and shows how the Rama story and its characters are portrayed variously in them. For example, Ravana is the main focus of the Jain story, where he is shown to have fallen in love with Sita and tries to win her over in vain. It is a story of unconsummated love, and the readers are moved by admiration and sympathy for Ravana. Ramanujan gives examples of other stories about Rama and shows that they are rendered so differently in various cultures that it will be incorrect to call all these as mere retellings of Valmiki's Ramayana, a text which in India has a big religious, and now political, appeal.

Despite this painstaking documentation, Ramanujan's essay was purged from the syllabus in the face of protests by the Sangh Parivar, which seems to think that the essay seeks to de-sanitise a specifically Hindu (or more clearly, a brahmanical) epic such as the Ramayana. Ramanujan does not contest this political thought directly, but his essay argues that the Ramayana has transcended boundaries that are not just geographical but also religious. For the Sangh Parivar, naturally, it is an ideological issue to be contested.

It is because of such an attack that for the first time, a large group of students and academics, which included teachers not just of history but various other subjects also, took out a rally to the office of Vice-Chancellor Dinesh Singh in protest against the decision. The group claimed that the Academic Council had dropped the essay without consulting the history department because of the pressure mounted on the university authorities by the saffron forces, which have time and again interrupted scientific historical research if its findings went against Hindutva politics.

ABVP memo

The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), first raised an objection against the essay in 2008. Its activists vandalised the office of S.Z.H. Jafri, the then head of the history department, when they came to present a memorandum against the blasphemous essay (Crying wolf, Frontline, March 28, 2008). The memorandum stated that Ramanujan's essay was malicious, capricious, fallacious and offensive to the beliefs of millions of Hindus. It also raised objections to a few phrases used by Ramanujan in the process of explaining the differences between various texts and the characters they depicted.

A history professor at the university, who is against the withdrawal of the essay, said that by singling out these phrases, the ABVP had put the essay outside the context in which Ramanujan wrote it, thereby giving an impression that the essay was written with the aim of defaming Hindu traditions. The memorandum objected to Hanuman being called not a celibate but a ladies' man, as he is known in the south-east Asian texts of the Rama story. According to another tradition, Hanuman is described as Rama's trusty henchman. In a few other references, Hanuman is mentioned as a tiny monkey in the nether world.

IN HIS ESSAY, Ramanujan gives examples of many stories of Rama rendered so differently in various cultures. Here, a shadow puppet show on the Ramayana in Kerala, India.-S. MAHINSHA

In the Ramayana of the Tamil poet Kamban, Indra is cursed with a thousand vaginas for seducing Ahalya. A Kannada folksong sung by Dalit poets says that Ravana, as part of a curse that was cast on him by Siva, became pregnant and gave birth to Sita with a sneeze. Interestingly, most of these controversial' references are also part of Valmiki's Ramayana which the Hindutva ideologues consider sacrosanct.

The history department at that point refused to drop the essay as it felt that there was nothing controversial in it and that for students of the course titled Culture of India: Ancient, it would be of much academic value. The Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, represented by Dina Nath Batra and others, moved the Delhi High Court against it, but the court said this was an internal matter of Delhi University and that it lacked the capacity to judge academic matters. However, on a civil suit filed in July last year, the Supreme Court directed Delhi University to constitute an expert committee to look into the matter and submit its report before the Academic Council.

The university set up an expert committee comprising four historians whose names have not been revealed. The committee's report came up before the Academic Council meeting of October 9. Much to the chagrin of the ABVP, three members of the committee did not find anything controversial in the essay. Moreover they acclaimed the scholarship and deep research in it. The recommended readings from the essay is very appropriate as it critically and objectively traces out the developments in historical perspective with great vision and unassailable scholarship. I see nothing objectionable, repeat nothing objectionable, in this scholarly essay on Ramayana by Ramanujan, one of the experts said in his report.

To the question whether the essay was offensive to the Hindu community, another expert said: Recently I came across a pamphlet describing the objections by people who claim to be the spokesmen of the Hindu communities in India. They are silly and superficial and really expose the ignorance of the authors regarding their own unique heritage.

A lecture demonstration on the Ramayana by a Cambodian artist in Chennai in 2008.-R. SHIVAJI RAO

The third expert echoed this view and said: By all accounts, there is no single version of the Ramayana. Many writers, poets, dramatists and scholars have interpreted the story in different ways. In fact, if the story had been static and did not hold the potential of re-narration, perhaps it would not have survived over 2,000 years.

Only the fourth expert raised some objections to the essay even while declaring it as scholarly and well-researched. He said: Although these [other versions of the Ramayana] are literary pieces, they are bound to affect the sensibilities of impressionable minds. If the teacher explains the background of these versions, the students may be convinced, but I doubt if college teachers are well equipped to handle the situation, which is likely to become more difficult in the case of a non-Hindu teacher.

In what is being termed as an ahistorical view, the fourth expert also said: Epic personalities are divine characters and showing them in a bad light is not easily tolerated. In what could also be read as a communal statement, he raised doubts about non-Hindu teachers' capacity to teach the essay to undergraduate students.

A group from Bali, Indonesia, presenting "Balinese Ramayana" in New Delhi in 2003.-RAJEEV BHATT

This understanding seems to have influenced the Academic Council rather than the opinion of the other three experts. In the October 9 meeting, the council voted in favour of dropping the essay and replaced it with two other essays, one by the renowned historian Romila Thapar and the other by R.S. Singh. It, however, chose to ignore the fact that there were numerous Hindu teachers who teach history of Islam in Delhi University and other universities. It also ignored India's rich syncretism, where individuals have not just learnt from other communities but have also propagated what they learnt. One of the finest examples in this context is the late M.M. Ismail, who was the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court and one of the authorities in Tamil Nadu on Kamban's Ramayanam. Justice Ismail once remarked that every generation had at least one Muslim scholar who was an authority on Kamba Ramayanam. The earliest well-known scholar in this tradition was Umaru Pulavar (1665-1773), who wrote Seera Puranam, a work on the Prophet's life, fashioned after Kamba Ramayanam. Not only did Ismail compare Kamban's Ramayanam to classical Tamil texts such as Kurunthokai, Periya Puranam and Seera Puranam, he gave scholarly attention to minor characters in the Ramayana such as Vaali, Guha, Shatrughna, Tara, Trijata, Surpanakha and Shabari.

Saffron celebration

The BJP and the RSS, however, were in a celebratory mood after Delhi University's surrender. Speaking to the party organ of the RSS, The Organiser, petitioner Dina Nath Batra said: It was a conspiracy hatched on the part of Christian Missionaries and their fellow travellers to demean our gods and goddesses. It has been thrashed. We have decided to honour all those who raised their voice against the insult of our gods and goddesses in the university itself on October 18. All these people will be mobilised so that they could keep a close watch over the university syllabus.

Frontline

It is clear from the statements of Bhagi and Batra targeting left-wing historians that the campaign against Ramanujan's essay was more politically motivated than against the obscenity' in it. It is for this reason that most teachers in Delhi University see it not just as an attack on academic freedom but an attempt to saffronise education. It is outrageous. We don't teach as Hindus or Muslims but as professionals, as pointed out by one of the experts. Humanities and social sciences teachers at the university are already despondent. This is a further blow. You no longer seem to have any control over what you teach. The AC decision is also a sign that the body is now dominated by administrators, said Pankaj Jha, who teaches history at Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi.

He further said: It is important to take note of the fact that the essay was dropped, obviously at the initiative of the Vice-Chancellor, for extra-academic reasons since neither the expert panel nor the department of history supported the demand. The only expert who advocated the removal of Ramanujan's essay has given a rather bizarre reason for doing so. The Academic Council not only overturned the advice of the expert panel and the history teachers of the department but also went on to replace Ramanujan's essay with two other essays. Irrespective of the merit of the recommended essays, it is alarming that the Academic Council took this initiative since it is the prerogative of the Courses Committee to do so and then send its recommendations to the concerned faculty, which then forwards them, after deliberation, to the Academic Council for approval.

The right-wing tactics to mount pressure on universities and governments have been successful in the recent past. Last year, Mumbai University withdrew Rohinton Mistry's novel Such a Long Journey (shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1991) from its curriculum after the Shiv Sena objected to derogatory references in it to its party members. The Gujarat government banned Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph Lelyveld's Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India after objections were raised against its contents which speak about Gandhi's friendship with a German man who may have been homosexual. Similarly, the Maharashtra government banned Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India by James W. Laine as the Shiv Sena felt that it portrayed Shivaji, Maharashtra's legend, in a bad light (Politics of vandalism, Frontline, January 17, 2004).

Many academics and activists have also been targeted by cultural nationalists for their remarks on various matters. The attack on human rights lawyer Prashant Bhusan and writer Arundhati Roy are recent examples. In all these instances, the authorities, under the pretext of protecting religious sentiments, were giving in to pressure.

Mukul Manglik, who teaches history at Ramjas College in Delhi, told Frontline: We need to confront the politics of the claim of religious sentiment being hurt'. In every small thing, the fascists feel that their religious sentiments are being hurt. In the recent history, we have lost a minefield of historical documentation in South Asia just because it will hurt some religious sentiment. Why has religion become an untouchable in historical research? It is through critiquing and examining material processes, of which religion is a part, that we have evolved into a modern democratic society. The right-wing forces are trying to subvert all the progressive notions. Can we and the university authorities be guided by such unreason? Why a subject as academic as Ramanujan's essay should be put to vote in the AC, which should only deal with administrative matters and not specialised academic matters? This weakens the already weakened democratic institutions like a university space.

A.K. RAMANUJAN. Most academics are of the opinion that he was in love with the Ramayana and that is why he probed the story like no one ever did.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Mukul Kesavan, a historian at Jamia Millia Islamia, writes: The reason Hindutva militants attacked this essay is not difficult to understand. Hindutva seeks to remake the diversity of Hindu narratives and practices into a uniform faith based on standardised texts. When Ramanujan tells, in scrupulous translation, Valmiki's version of Ahalya's unfaithfulness, where Indra is emasculated by the sage Gautama for cuckolding him, the Hindutva right is embarrassed and appalled because it likes its epics sanitised.

Tribute to many texts

Incidentally, most academics feel that Ramanujan was in love with the Ramayana and that is why he probed the story like no one ever did. His love for the Ramayana shows in the way he interprets the Rama Katha in epic proportions, where Rama and other gods are not bound by only one reference point, that is Valmiki's Ramayana. It is anything but pornographic as the RSS says. There are no bodily references meant to evoke sexual sensibilities in the essay, said Aryama, a political science teacher and mythology expert in Delhi University.

M.M. ISMAIL, former Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, on the occasion of the annual Kamban festival and the unveiling of the portrait of Tamil savant Sri Kripananda Wariar, in Puducherry in 1994. The late judge was one of the greatest authorities on Kamban's Ramayanam.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

In a written statement sent to Frontline, he said: A.K. Ramanujan's five examples and three thoughts about many Ramayanas trace the intricacies and complexities of sustenance, survival and enrichment of one tale through its transportations across different languages, periods, regions and culture into epic proportions. The trajectory is as much a tribute to many texts as it is to their tellings', which cannot be grasped by putting a framework of versions. Versions act/work as if there is one true, original text and others are merely copies, adaptations, modifications and updates from the original. Their worth is determined by their alleged distance and difference from the' Ramayana. Ramanujan's essay, by receiving many tellings from oral to textual, characterise an openness to contexts in order to engage and transform and, unlike other texts, does not signal a closure of possibility. It's the difference stark and radical ones between the texts, their renderings and tellings that recovers, elaborates, strengthens and sustains one tale into an epic.

The many Ramayanas among which Ramanujan navigates seamlessly contain differences about even beginnings and openings while focussing on characters through intense shifts. Ramanujan takes us into the world of tellings of Ramayana, where the vague contours of eternal essences interact with the concrete, contradictory, transitory and ephemeral. Openness to various tellings sustains and fosters many Ramayanas without privileging any, transforms yet binds one context, community, religion and language to another. Many' Ramayanas signal strength, depth and complexity, not its opposite. His elaboration that multiple tellings recover and simultaneously illuminate the always, already' presence of the Ramayana extends the tale forward, backward and across. Ramanujan's scholarly articulation lies precisely in his rendering of the tellings of Ramayana as an exemplar that a set of texts that relate with each other problematise their own relationship and resemblances with each other, around an axis that brought them together in the first place.

Showing the distinct differences between the Rama texts, Ramanujan himself writes in the essay: We read the scholarly modern English translation largely to gain a sense of the original Valmiki, and we consider it successful to the extent that it resembles the original. We read Kamban and we judge him by his own terms, not by his resemblance to Valmiki but, if anything, by the extent that he differs from Valmiki. In one sense, we rejoice in the similarity; in the other, we cherish and savour the differences.

When progressive historians ask how such a reading is derogatory and can hurt religious sentiment, the Vice-Chancellor may not have an answer. But the Delhi University's censorship of the essay only evokes one question: How will it be able to censor the always-already presence of the many readings of the Rama Katha in our traditions, which Ramanujan has only documented?

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