By Swapan Dasgupta
There is nothing like a good culture war to excite the intellectual imagination. The decade of the 1990s was dominated by the slugfest over the shrine in Ayodhya. It became obligatory for anyone with any pretension of being a ‘public intellectual’ to take sides on this controversy. Neutrality or, worse still, supreme indifference was automatically construed by the dominant intellectual group as tantamount to an endorsement of ‘fascism’.
Then came the kerfuffle over M.F. Hussain’s contentious depiction of Ram and Sita that had the defenders of the faith screaming ‘blasphemy’ and reaching for their trishuls. Here too, India’s cultural community were encouraged to link arms against the vandals.
Now comes a wonderfully contrived dispute over a Delhi University decision to omit an essay on the Ramayana from the prescribed readings for its undergraduate History course. The decision has particularly agitated those with a penchant for progressive pamphleteering: it has been denounced as “academic fascism”—a conceptually intriguing proposition.
The essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas” by Indologist A.K. Ramanujan was never intended as an iconoclastic exercise. It spelt out the interesting variations in the Ramayana story in India and South-east Asia with a great measure of quiet reverence. In fact, Ramanujan concluded his essay with a tale of the mental and social elevation of a village dolt after he actually listened to a recitation of the Ramayana.
Yet, because some philistines had objected to the essay being in the list of prescribed texts, the culture war was transformed into a political war. The ‘progressive’ adherents of ‘scientific history’ felt obliged to celebrate the importance of mythology and the folk tradition—which they otherwise debunk—while the other side despaired of a text that injected potentially “blasphemous” and contrarian ideas in impressionable minds.
That such a puerile debate has come to dominate a discussion over the curriculum in a university may seem odd but not surprising. Over the years, the history wars have become a feature of the larger battle over national identity. A feature of this clash has been the tendency of the opposing sides to repose faith in something called the ‘correct’ view of India’s past. With their dominance in the history faculties, the ‘progressives’ have tried to fashion the curriculum in a particular way, using prescribed texts as the instrument of their ideological hegemony. Instead of being an open-ended inquiry into the past, the practice of history in India has been reduced to regurgitating a set of certitudes.
A Delhi University history graduate who won a scholarship to Oxford recently recounted the absurdities of the process. The medieval history readings, he told me, were replete with denunciations of the so-called ‘revivalist’ historians of an earlier era. What struck him as surprising was that none of these apparently flawed histories featured in the prescribed reading lists—not Sir Jadunath Sarkar, not R.C. Majumdar, and not A.L. Shrivastava. In other words, rather than encouraging students to savour divergent ways of looking at the past, history became a set of acceptable truths and unacceptable untruths—hardly an approach befitting an open and argumentative society.
The problem, it would seem, arises from the dubious practice of listing prescribed texts. In the past, a history curriculum would identify broad themes for study, leaving teachers the independence to recommend readings for further study. A student would be tested in the examination for his ability to construct lucid arguments that would reveal their understanding of the subject. With ‘prescribed’ texts becoming the norm, the student’s scope for demonstrating independence of mind and even originality of thought are naturally at a discount. They are expected to imbibe and parrot prevailing orthodoxies—a process that can hardly be said to be conducive for the training of the mind.
Sunday Times of India, October 23, 2011