These are lonely times for scholarship in India. Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti ( SBAS) has claimed yet another scalp in the form of the withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History by its publishers Penguin, India. The author, while ‘angry and disappointed’ by this decision has said that she can understand the plight of her publishers who were fighting a criminal case and not a civil suit. It had serious implications for their physical safety. Fellow scholars and academics are upset and angry that the publishers have caved in.
The question we need to ask ourselves, however, is about our own role in this whole affair. There were not too many voices of protest when the same Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti forced the Calicut University to remove a poem by an unknown poet from an English language textbook alleging that the poet was a ‘terrorist’. Its editors felt compelled to apologize as they were threatened with a probe into their possible involvement in a conspiracy network to jeopardise national security.
Or, why did not we move the Supreme Court against the removal of the legendary essay Three Hundred Ramayanas by the University of Delhi in an act of abject surrender before the same Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti? Did we even know that the same organisation succeeded in getting 75 paragraphs removed or changed from textbooks of different levels published by the NCERT?
My senior colleague Krishna Kumar recalls that as the director of the NCERT, he had to fight no less than 10 cases lodged by SBAS in different courts against the textbooks authored by scholars like Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra, Satish Chandra and others. The SBAS had objected to the depiction of certain religious figures and events. There was anger that Meera was depicted as a ‘wandering’ figure. Is not wandering a pejorative term? In the files of the NCERT, you’ll find scores of representations from this body demanding amendment and deletion of portions it finds objectionable from the Hindu or ‘national’ point of view.
The SBAS keeps combing books to look for ‘pollutants’, which a careless eye might miss. Five years back they wrote to the NCERT drawing its attention to an exercise in a lesson on an Indian artist. The students were asked to visit their nearest art gallery or go to the Internet to see art works by artists like SH Raza or MF Husain to appreciate the lesson in a better way. The SBAS found it unacceptable as the students, through the Internet might reach the ‘blasphemous’ painting of Hindu Gods and Goddesses by Husain which would damage their ‘soft adolescent’ minds. The NCERT refused to entertain the organisation’s request.
Aggrieved, they filed an FIR against the director and other officials of the NCERT. They also moved the CBSE with a similar plea. The CBSE got scared and prepared an advisory asking its schools to ignore this specific exercise. A long and tortuous argument took place in the committee on the far-reaching implication of this seemingly innocuous move. That the CBSE could finally be persuaded not to go ahead with this move should console us, as a year later, the NCERT officials themselves dropped this exercise silently to avoid further irritation and law suits.
The SBAS had also moved the courts demanding the scrapping of the National Curriculum Framework, 2005 as they claimed that Prof Yash Pal, the eminent scientist, who had steered the process was unfit for the task as he had nothing to do with school education.
The same SBAS petitioned the NCERT to remove several lessons from its Hindi textbooks as they were allegedly offensive to religious and nationalist feelings. It actually resulted in replacement of the questioned texts by ‘safe’ ones.
We have not forgotten the compromise the Oxford University Press had reached with the SBAS promising it not to publish the ‘controversial’ book by AK Ramanujan and also the earlier withdrawal of the book on Shivaji by James Laine.
One has to realise the damage such acts do to the intellectual fabric of our society. You have to sit in a meeting of a textbook committee to fathom the depth to which we have fallen. The kind of self-censorship these committees exercise is unimaginable. For example, a Sanskrit textbook committee feels that students should not be told that Pandita Ramabai had converted to Christianity or that hers was a court-marriage and these facts are removed from a lesson on her.
Pankaj Mishra , while reviewing Wendy Doniger’s book in 2009 had warned that its publication was bound to unleash a Hindu fury. Even before the publication of this book, she had faced attacks from Hindus during a talk at a university in London. Ashok Malik, writing in 2010 had said that the book was being subjected to a systematic attack, not only from the SBAS but other oversensitive Hindus. The compromise into which Penguin has been forced is not sudden and should not shock us. It is only a culmination of a long-drawn, relentless assault on scholarship by the SBAS and its affiliates.
We should know that the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti is not a loony, isolated body, but is part of the larger Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, that its chief Dinanath Batra is an important functionary of Vidya Bharti, again one of the many branches of the RSS. In short, what it is doing is part of a larger political agenda and it will not relent until we surrender all our intellectual faculties before it. What we are faced with is the real danger of an Ice Age for scholarship in India.
The author teaches Hindi at the University of Delhi and writes literary criticism