As we were growing up, stepping into higher classes, the textbooks taught us stories which we had never heard in our families. The stories of Rama and Krishna, poems from the Puranas, the names of two epics called Ramayana and Mahabharata occurred repeatedly…I distinctly remember how alien all these names appeared to me. Many of these names were not known in my village. The name of Kalidasa was as alien to us as the name of Shakespeare.
∼ Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, Why I am Not a Hindu
Delhi University’s standing committee on academic matters, as it is reported, seems to have recommended removing three books by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd – Why I am Not a Hindu; Buffalo Nationalism and Post-Hindu India – from the MA political science syllabus.
These books, the standing committee feels, are dangerous because they ‘insult’ Hinduism, and thus it would not be appropriate for young students to read them. Even though the final decision has to be taken by the Academic Council, the very idea of the standing committee is obnoxious and frightening. As a student of sociology and cultural politics, I do not agree with everything professor Shepherd writes and talks about. Yet, this sort of interference or censorship, I feel, is dangerous for academic freedom, the dignity of scholars and the free flow of ideas.
Despite my serious reservations against some of his extremely provocative views on Hindu civilisation and its symbolism, I am with him for his right to speak, and the right of a young learner to read his works, and negotiate with him critically and creatively. To evolve as a creative learner (and this is what a university should aim at) is to engage with a rainbow of perspectives, and not to fear, suppress or silence the voices one is otherwise not comfortable with.
‘Right’ book, ‘right’ curriculum
There are two points that I wish to make in order to contextualise the entire debate. First, we see the invasion of a culture of intolerance, and resultant conspiracy against education. If one of the primary objectives of higher education is to create a mind that thinks and imagines, and learns to enter the domain of ambiguities and even conflicting perspectives, the establishment, it seems, is trying to destroy it.
Yes, the market believes in ‘skills’, not critical thinking; it needs a ‘product’, not a reflexive agent; its social engineering abhors philosophic wonder, and cherishes ‘reckless efficiency’. It breeds ‘one-dimensional thought’. This is the dominant techno-managerial discourse on education prevalent in private universities and technical institutions.
- Reading Kancha Ilaiah, the members of the standing committee of DU ought to be told, does not, therefore, necessarily mean that one ends up becoming an ‘anti-Hindu’.
Apart from that, a faulty pedagogic practice perpetuated through the monologue of the ‘all-knowing’ teacher (leading to what Paulo Freire would have regarded as ‘banking’ education without reflexivity and criticality), or normalisation of guidebooks, coaching centres and MCQ pattern of exams (even JNU, it appears, cannot resist this temptation of mediocrity) kills the spirit of thinking, wonder and reflexive quest from the learning experience.
And then in our times as the discourse of religious nationalism enters the sites of education, everything, as we are witnessing, is reduced into binaries: ‘national’ vs ‘anti-national’, ‘pro-Hindu’ vs ‘anti-Hindu’, or ‘indigenous’ vs ‘Western’. This promotes surveillance, undue interference and censorship – this is like dictating what to read, and what not to read (the way the Zealots seek to dictate what to eat, and what not to eat). Creative freedom is replaced by fear, and we experience the terror of surveillance born out of the epistemological insecurity of the authoritarian regime. Education suffers. Hence Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, as it is thought, is ‘anti-Hindu’, and necessarily ‘anti-national’. A scholar is reduced to an ‘enemy’. Truly frightening.
Second, it is sad that we have not yet learned to see students as co-travellers and active participants in the learning process. They are seen to be passive receivers of packaged knowledge. This generates some sort of ‘conspiracy theory’. The dull policymakers think that if you ask them to read Marx, they are bound to join the Communist Party. If you suggest they read Mao’s essay ‘On Contradiction‘, they would become ‘urban Naxals’. Or, if you ask them to read Savarkar and Jinnah, they would invariably propagate the ‘two-nation theory’. No wonder, interfering in the curriculum seems to have become the regular habit of the political establishment, and its hired ‘educationists’.
This is like assuming that students have no agency; they are incapable of filtering, amending and critiquing what they receive. However, any sensible teacher would admit that if there is a conducive environment of learning, students do think, and come forward with new ideas. Reading Kancha Ilaiah, the members of the standing committee of DU ought to be told, does not, therefore, necessarily mean that one ends up becoming an ‘anti-Hindu’. Why this insecurity? It may happen that after reading Ilaiah’s Why I am Not a Hindu, an eager student may feel like reading yet another interesting text: say, S. Radhakrishnan’s The Hindu View of Life. It is like reading Karl Marx as well as Karl Popper with equal intensity.
As learners, we grow up with this constant search and experimentation, new questions and unresolved paradoxes. To stop this free flow of ideas in the name of ‘right’ book, ‘right’ curriculum and ‘nationalism’ is to destroy education. This is to condition the mind. This is anti-education.
Cultivating the art of epistemological pluralism
However, as teachers and students, we too have to cultivate ourselves every day for accepting the ethos of epistemological pluralism. We know how difficult it is. As a teacher, I have realised that you are often subject to misinterpretation if you adhere to the ethics of the pluralism of ideas. It is always easy to follow a ‘line’, to be ‘certain’ of a fixed position, and to undermine all other perspectives.
Once a Marxist always a Marxist; once an Ambedkarite always an Ambedkarite; or once a modernist always a modernist. The prejudice of this ‘certainty’ is dangerous. I remember an incident from when I was teaching a course on ‘Modern Indian Social Thought’. A ‘leftist’ student asked me: “Sir, when will you give lectures on leftist thinkers? I will then come to the class.” In that course, with absolute sincerity I was introducing the young learners to a wide spectrum of ideas, from Vivekananda’s Practical Vedanta to Sri Aurobindo’s Foundations of Indian Culture, from Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj to Tagore’s essays on nationalism, from Phule’s Gulamgiri to Periyar’s speeches, from Dange to M.N. Roy.
I would often refer to the Upanishads, Allama Iqbal’s poetry and D.P. Chattopadhyaya’s What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy; I would speak of Gandhi as well as Ambedkar. It was not always easy. Ambedkarites did not always feel happy when I referred to Gandhi; nor did the Marxists like the idea of referring to Vivekananda or Aurobindo in the class (in fact, the leftist student I just referred to thought that I was taking a ‘rightist’ turn by including select readings from the collected works of Vivekananda and Aurobindo).
And moreover, in the eyes of the rightists, you are a ‘leftist’ because you have not forgotten the materialism in the Lokayat philosophy and the contributions of the likes of Rajani Palme Dutt. I was condemned by many, yet appreciated by those who love openness. I evolved, and my conviction about the need for epistemological pluralism was sharpened.
I believe that all of us – Marxists, Ambedkarites, feminists, Gandhians – have to learn continually the culture of epistemological pluralism. A university is not a ‘party school’; a university is not a place for propagating ‘leftist’ or ‘rightist’ ideologies. And our task is not to replace one set of ‘truths’ by another. Instead, the challenge is to place young students and learners in the turbulent ocean of multiple ideas. I am not romanticising ‘postmodern’ relativism; nor am I cherishing the ‘death of grand narratives’; the only thing I am proposing is the spirit of pluralism of ideas, and the art of listening even to a view one dislikes.
This is the reason why even when there are moments of disagreement with Periyar, as some of his views appear to be extremely repulsive (say, this remark: “Was Rama real god with great powers? How could he leave his wife, all alone and that too in the forest? As anticipated, things happened. As though Sita had arranged earlier that person Ravana met her. He asked her to accompany him. She quietly went with him. She did not come back. She was four months pregnant when she came back”), I would not allow my discomfort with him to deprive the right of the students to read this text, and evolve their own opinion.
Yes, I do believe that the likes of Periyar or Kancha Ilaiah are not the last word about Hinduism, its oceanic currents and multiple interpretations. Nor are they the best possible foundations for evolving a critical perspective that interrogates Brahminical Hinduism, or for that matter, any other organised religion. But then, why should we as teachers prevent our students from reading their texts? In the process of trying to create a dialogic milieu of learning, we should encourage our students to agree and disagree, debate and reflect, and grow not through censoring, but through an intensely living and critical engagement with all sorts of ideas.
I have, therefore, no hesitation in requesting the esteemed members of the Academic Council of Delhi University to oppose the proposition of the standing committee and allow Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s books to be an integral part of the syllabus of political science.
Yes, dear professor, as a wanderer I continue to disagree with you on many issues. But then, my pedagogic spirit would always inspire me to speak on the right of students to read your engaging books.
Avijit Pathak is a professor of Sociology at JNU.