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The Controversy over the Essay by A.K. Ramanujan

Romila Thapar

A recent controversy over an essay by A.K. Ramanujan touches on the essential functions of a number of institutions of a democratic society: a university, a publishing house, a court of law and a political party. They were all involved in the controversy and the actions of the first were distinctly contrary to the values that the institution is meant to inculcate. In 2008, a gang of students and others, affiliated with the ABVP, vandalized the History Department of the Delhi University and physically assaulted the Head of the Department, Professor Jaffri. This was their method of demanding the withdrawal of the essay by Ramanujan, 'Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation', from the syllabus of the BA Hons. in History. It was claimed that it hurt the sentiments of the Hindus because it described the many versions of the story of Rama. To speak of many Ramayanas was to belittle the text of Valmiki which Hindus regard as sacred. An apparently prearranged TV camera crew captured the action and gave it the required publicity. This was more than three years ago. The University authorities took no action against the students involved in this vandalism and physical assault, despite the strong protest of students and teachers of the History Department, as also what might have been expected of a self-respecting institution. Did the Vice-Chancellor, then and now, think that this was an appropriate way of demanding a change in the syllabus, and was willing to let it become a precedent? The Court having been petitioned to have the essay removed asked the university to give a decision. An expert committee of four historians was appointed to give a verdict on whether the ABVP demand was justified. Three gave the essay an unconditional clearance. The fourth hesitated, arguing that it embodies the idea of variants and teachers may find it difficult to explain this to under-graduate students knowing only a single version of the story. The argument, if taken seriously, raises the question of the quality of education and of the teachers that the university appoints. Most college teachers in Delhi University are competent to teach the course, and for those that are not the responsibility of poor choice in appointments lies with the University. An additionally fatuous reason given was that a non-Hindu teacher may have problems in teaching the essay. Are we now down to allotting ...

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