Which version of ‘Ramayana’ would Ram read?
The ban on Ramanujan’s essay touches a sensitive issue: whether religion should have the upper hand when it comes to freedom of thought
Arpit Parashar and Vishwajoy Mukherjee
The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has proved the Churchillean saying “History is written by the victors” to be true by successfully forcing a change in the way history is taught at the Delhi University (DU).
Two weeks back, the Academic Council of DU decided to drop noted academic AK Ramanujan’s supposedly controversial essay “Three Hundred Ramayana’s: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translations” from the Bachelor’s of Arts (BA) course. The essay was introduced in 2006 and was heavily opposed by the ABVP from the very beginning. In 2008, several ABVP workers vandalised the History Department building with heated exchanges with professors and students being reported.
BJP leaders like Vijay Kumar Malhotra as well as ABVP members have since justified their actions. Malhotra has gone on to say that Ramanujan has done a great disservice to the nation.
The Hindutva brigade terms Ramanujan’s essay controversial and blasphemous for two reasons. One, because it details the several “tellings” of the Ramayana across and beyond the Indian subcontinent and questions the assumption that Valmiki’s Ramayana is the original or authentic one. Two, the essay also speaks of versions of the Ramayana in which Ram and Sita are siblings and in certain others where Sita was Ravana’s daughter. This did not go down well with the generation brought up on Valmiki’s Ramayana. As a young ABVP member pointed out, “I grew up watching the Ramayana as shown on the TV (produced and directed by Ramanand Sagar). There can be no other version of it.”
With their religious sensibilities challenged, the ABVP filed a writ petition in 2008 in the Delhi High Court asking for the essay to be scrapped from the course. The matter later reached the Supreme Court, which asked for the formation of a committee to look into the matter. Subsequently, a four-ember panel was formed. In their recommendations to the Academic Council, three panel members said that the essay should be part of the course with the fourth one opposing it on grounds of it being too “complex” for under-graduate level.
The Council, however, ignored the recommendations putting the matter up for voting. Shockingly, only 9 out of the 120-member Council dissented against the majority decision to scrap the essay.
Those who voted against the dropping of the essay are now shocked. The scrapping of an essay by an eminent historian on Ramayana at the behest of a political party is beyond their comprehension. Professor Sanjay Verma, who voted against the scrapping of the essay, says the academia should not succumb to the diktats of political groups. “This kind of politics is killing academia. These are academic issues of great importance. How can the council succumb to pressures of a few people?” he asks. “They [The Academic Council] are letting certain politically motivated groups dictate their agenda: this is Hinduism, and I decide it (the syllabus),” he adds.
The dissenting professors believe that there is still a chance to continue with the essay in the curriculum. The DU Executive Council is yet to approve the Academic Council’s decision. Around 400 students and teachers marched through the streets of DU, North Campus, on Monday protesting against the decision. Armed with a petition asking for Ramanujan’s essay to be part of the curriculum, the demonstrators went to the DU Proctor’s office and to colleges like Hindu, Ramjas and KMC addressing the students and educating them about censorship of education.
But right-wingers like Janata Party President Subramaniam Swamy along with the BJP have already started backing the decision to scrap the essay. Swamy termed the protest against dropping the essay as “ridiculous” terming the protesters “Left-wing activists” and “not genuine scholars and students”.
This is not the first time that a student body has succeeded in changing the curriculum in a university. The student wing of the Shiv Sena last year forced the Mumbai University to drop Rohinton Mistry’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted book Such a Long Journey from the English Literature course. The Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena said that certain passages in Mistry’s book showed Chharapati Shivaji Maharaj in a negative light and could not be tolerated. The threat of violence on the campus and in colleges across the city forced university to drop the book from the syllabus
For the BJP and their ABVP disciples the importance of Lord Rama and Ramayana is a matter of its very ideological existence. “Our party and its ideology over the past 25 years have been built on the values imbibed in the original (Valmiki) Ramayana, which has the most number of followers than of any other version. It is hurtful to devout Hindus if the story is said in any other way,” a senior BJP leader told TEHELKA requesting not to be named. “No matter what the essay says, it is wrong to question the authenticity of Valmiki’s Ramayana. We should focus our history (learnings) on the deep values imbibed in it,” he added.
Interestingly, Sheo Dutt, Associate Professor at Shaheed Bhagat Sing College, who has been teaching history to undergraduates for more than two decades, disagrees. “These right-wing organisations usually follow Ramcharitmanas version because it portrays Ram as a God and not human,” says Dutt, who was one of the dissenting professors. Valmiki’s Ramayana forms the basis of the larger-than-life narrative in Tulsidas’s version and so is considered the authentic and ‘original’ version by the right-wingers.
Asserting that the BJP-style politics of religion is constantly eroding the education system, he said, “Being religious is one thing, but these self- appointed protectors and defenders of religion are defeating the very purpose of education.”
Dutt personally disagrees with Ramanujan’s argument that there is no original or authentic Ramayana, but believes that the essay is of great academic value and significance. “In my research I have found enough evidence to believe that Valmiki’s is the authentic Ramayana, but the different narratives of the Ramayana in Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia etc. give an insight into the cultural background and history of the people,” he says. “This essay is about freedom of thought, and they are trying to end the debate,” he points out.
It is not only the various versions of the Ramayana outside India that the ABVP is against; they are also against all the versions of the Ramayana in other languages and cultures in India. Ramanujan’s essay also details the Tamil and Telugu retellings of the Ramayana through the oral tradition. He points out that the Bhakti tradition in Tamil cultures led to significant changes in the way the story of Rama, Sita and Ravana was told. The essay also details the Jain and Buddhist narratives of the Ramayana and how they are different from Valmiki’s Ramayana.
But the Hindutva brigade finds this blasphemous and justifies the vandalism in 2008 comparing it with the freedom struggle. “We had to protest against the blasphemous content of the essay, and as for our method of protest, even the great Bhagat Singh once said, ‘You need an explosion to make the deaf listen to you’,” says Abhineet Gaurav, ex- ABVP member who was part of the mob that vandalised the History Department in 2008. Gaurav now has several cases pending in court following his arrest, but he says he was “defending Sita’s honour” and that he would go to any length to fight for his principles. “I am prepared to kill or be killed,” he says.
The ABVP is now in celebratory mood and sees the Academic council’s decision as a moral victory. “We are planning to put up posters and banners across North Campus to give our thanks to the Council’s decision and also highlight the role that the ABVP played in bringing about this change,” says Vikas Chaudhary, ABVP member, and Delhi University Students Union Vice-President.
The student wing of the Congress, National Students Union of India (NSUI), is reluctant to get into the controversy. “In this country, there won’t be hospitals or schools built in Ram’s name... there will be political rallies and agendas set around it, but never schools or hospitals,” says one of the NSUI workers defending their silence on the matter.
Those protesting the decision like Dutt have little to say except calling on the Hindutva brigade to indulge in the very thing it is bent on stifling--debate. “They are most welcome to engage in a historical debate,” he says.
Arpit Parashar is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.com.
Vishwajoy Mukherjee is a Trainee Correspondent with Tehelka.