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An unnecessary Mahabharata over the Ramayana

October 25, 2011 13:54 IST

'Let us rescue history from the leftist high priests of history. In the process, let us also rescue history from the narrow mindset of the political right that has reduced reconstruction of history to an exercise in political victimhood.'

Shashi Shekhar on the furore over the removal of an essay on the Ramayana from the syllabus of Delhi University.

Salman Rushdie called it a ban. Nilanjana Roy called it 'Institutional Censorship'. The Indian Express in an editorial called it 'Surrender to the Enemies of Thought'. An unnamed faculty member is quoted in the same editorial describing the 'original' in question here as helping an 'inter-disciplinary approach to historiography'.

It would seem from all of the outrage above a monumental act of thought policing has occurred causing perhaps an uninformed reader to ask if a book had been banned or if a movie had been censored under threat of violence. A more intellectually oriented reader may perhaps ask if a scholar was gagged or far worse expelled.

The reality, however, is that none of the above has actually happened. No book was banned, no movie was censored, nobody threatened any violence (at least not for past three years), and no scholar was gagged or expelled. All that has happened is a curriculum revision took place within a non-descript undergraduate program in one of India's many universities.

So why exactly has a controversy erupted over a curriculum revision within the undergraduate syllabus of the Delhi University?

If one were to go by all the outrage that has been expressed in the media and continues to be expressed, the essay by A K Ramanujan on the many versions and traditions of the Ramayana was seminal, critical and without which undergraduate arts education within the Delhi University system would be incomplete.

The more specific reason for the outrage arises from some on-campus violence back in 2008. It is a different matter that the curriculum revision comes after three long years of relatively incident free inclusion of the essay within the syllabus.

Whether an essay should or should not be part of a curriculum is a matter well within the university's discretion. To the extent that the university's processes and practices allow for dissent and feedback on curriculum from both faculty and non-faculty stakeholders is a matter of the university's discretion as well.

But it is bizarre that such a minor matter of a curriculum revision has received so many inches of column space within the national media and so many opinions from individuals as remotely associated with the Delhi University as Salman Rushdie.

Surely any undergraduate arts student within the DU system if he or she is so desirous or curious can easily find A K Ramanujan's essay on the Internet.

Surely any faculty member within the DU systems who feels so strongly compelled that their university prescribed lesson plan would be inadequate without Ramanujan's essay could easily include it within an extra-curricular discussion in a manner appropriate and convenient.

Surely extra-curricular discussion or debate inside or outside the classroom on Ramanujan's essay is not a thought crime by Delhi University.

Yet the outrage expressed by otherwise sensible intellectuals would suggest an unpardonable crime has been committed.

What does it say of the academic culture of a university like the DU that faculty and students within its system are so hardwired to a prescribed curriculum that the mere presence or absence of one essay shakes the very edifice of their academic reality?

The outrage has a deeper reason that needs to be analysed and exposed. At the heart of this outrage is the Left liberal intellectual project to label ancient Indian thought within a politically correct frame of reference. Ramanujan was no historian and his essay is barely an exercise in history.

To better understand the context of the essay one has to read the introduction to the Many Ramayanas by Paula Richman where Ramanujan's essay appears. In that introduction Paula Richman quotes Romila Thapar as saying that Ramanand Sagar's television serial on the Ramayana 'possessed a dangerous and unprecedented authority.'

Nevertheless it is a curious debate that is occurring within Delhi University and the larger fraternity of Left liberal intellectuals for not too long ago we were treated to the spectacle in the Supreme Court of a mythical Rama. Now we have history faculty members viewing an analysis of the Ramayana as being critical to historiography.

So why stop with a politically correct analysis of the Ramayana that is merely convenient to the Left liberals? Why not extend this debate to the broader question of why historians of the Left liberal persuasion have stopped shy of examining the Puranas and the epics to reconstruct Indian history pre-Buddha?

After all a verse by verse reading of both Vyasa's Mahabharata and Valmiki's Ramayana reveals aspects of Indian history that the Left liberals have either glossed over or completely denied.

As an example how many know of Narada's conversation with Yudhishtra on the importance of foreign trade and low taxation or for that matter Markandeya's clarification to Yudhishtra on why Rama preferred to build a bridge instead of using boats to reach Lanka so trade was not affected. Then you have Vashishtha's sermon to Rama on the perils of anarchy and its impact on the economy.

To borrow a phrase from the Left, a 'neo-liberal reading of Valmiki's Ramayana and Vyasa's Mahabharata would indeed possess 'dangerous and unprecedented authority' as it would jeopardise the Left's socio-political agenda. The emphasis on 'Dharma + Artha' or the 'enlightened pursuit of self-interests' within the ancient Indian school of thinking is the anti-thesis of all that the Leftist intellectual establishment stands for.

Little wonder that this curriculum revision in Delhi University has the Leftist intellectual establishment in knots. The despicable behaviour by some goons three years back who indulged in violence provides a convenient excuse to manufacture outrage beguiling writers with no stakes in this political debate like Rushdie on the one hand and agenda driven newspaper editorial desks on the other hand who look for new ways to manufacture saffron controversies.

Nevertheless a discussion on the Ramayana within the history curriculum is welcome. Let us go further to seize the narrative from the Left to expand the focus of the debate to include all of the Puranas and epics so a long overdue factual and politically unbiased reconstruction of Indian history is finally undertaken.

Let us rescue history from the leftist high priests of history in the process. Let us also rescue history from the narrow mindset of the political right that has reduced such a reconstruction of history to an exercise in political victimhood.

Such a reconstruction would indeed be in the 'Dharma + Artha', enlightened self interest of our ancient civilisation.

Shashi Shekhar is a social media commentator on Indian politics and public policy. His blog can be found at http://blog.offstumped.in

Shashi Shekhar