March 23, 2008

Crying Wolf: Ramayana, Ramanujan and the ABVP

Frontline, Mar. 15-28, 2008

Crying wolf

in New Delhi

In India, controversies around history and literature have a way of surfacing from time to time. This time an essay on the Ramayana by the historian, poet and litterateur A.K. Ramanujan has evoked violent reactions among members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and other Sangh Parivar affiliates. The essay is part of a reading list recommended in a concurrent course (Culture in India: Ancient) for B.A. (Honours) students in the University of Delhi. On February 25, ABVP activists, who have been demanding the withdrawal of the essay on the grounds that it hurt Hindu sentiments by portraying Rama and other characters in the Ramayana disrespectfully, vandalised the Department of History, located in the Faculty of Social Sciences building, and assaulted the head of the department, S.Z.H. Jafri.

It appears that the protest was not as much against the characters in the various Ramayanas by the late Padma Shri recipient than against someone who could be an easy target. The protesters insisted, erroneously, that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s daughter, Upinder Singh, Professor of History at the university, was the author of a “compilation” that included Ramanujan’s essay.

However, they were wrong on three counts. First, the reading was not part of a compilation as alleged. Second, it had no single author. And third, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre had honoured Ramanujan and, hence, there was little reason for the ABVP, the party’s student wing, to cry foul.

Interestingly, another “nationalist” outfit, the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, which spearheaded a campaign against the national Adolescence Education Programme and National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) books last year, has lent its support to the ABVP. The campaign had the backing of Murli Manohar Joshi, former Union Minister for Human Resource Development. The Samiti’s website describes itself as a forum of nationalist historians committed to protecting the country against conspiratorial forces represented by the followers of Marx and Wahabism. In 2006, the Samiti demanded that all references to Tipu Sultan be dropped from history textbooks, a demand that was reiterated by the Karnataka Minister for Higher Education D.H. Shankaramurthy.

Ramanujan’s essay titled “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation” illustrates the myriad “tellings” of the story of Rama. The author uses the term “tellings” as opposed to variant or versions, arguing that the latter conveyed the impression that there was an invariant, an original text, usually Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana, which he says is the oldest and the most prestigious of them all. There is no implicit or explicit denigration here of the widely read Valmiki Ramayana.

Interestingly, the concurrent course – for which the reading list has been recommended – was cleared three years ago in 2005 and Ramanujan’s essay became part of classroom teaching in 2006. The concurrent courses were themselves introduced in the university after a felt need that more of inter-disciplinary pedagogy, of a serious nature, was required at the undergraduate level. These courses replaced the earlier light-weight subsidiary subjects that had become more or less meaningless over time with both students and teachers not taking them seriously.

It is not the first time that the history department has been under attack. In 1981, there was a concerted demand by teachers owing allegiance to both the Congress and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) that R.P. Dutt’s India Today and A.R. Desai’s Social Background of Indian Nationalism be dropped from the History syllabus, which was undergoing revision. R.L. Shukla, the then head of the department and who has been following the current controversy, told Frontline that the department had followed the procedure at every level to discuss the matter at the Departmental Council, the Committee of Courses and the Academic Council. Even though the Academic Council could not reach a consensus on the issue, the department was unanimous that the books would be retained. Shukla said the opposition to the inclusion of the two books in the syllabus came from a section of the teaching community feeling that the Department of History was full of “communist” teachers and that it was a “communist syllabus”. The current controversy has its origins with Jafri assuming office in July 2007. A few months after he took over, in December, the department was in the limelight for hosting the prestigious Indian History Congress after an interregnum of 46 years. The furore over the essay gathered momentum soon after.

In mid-January, Jafri received two complaints in the form of memorandums that had been forwarded to him from the Vice-Chancellor’s office. Both letters, one by an organisation called the National Awareness Forum and the other by an outfit called Gyan Parishad, raised objections to the inclusion of the said essay in the course and certain terms used in the essay. A few days later, Jafri called a meeting and, as per convention, discussed threadbare the issues relating to the complaint against the department.

On January 21, the department sent a note to the Dean of College explaining its stand and the rationale behind the course and the essay. It said the course on culture in ancient India was designed to create an awareness and understanding in students of the rich and diverse cultural heritage of ancient India. Apart from Ramanujan’s much celebrated essay, the course included readings on Kalidasa’s poetry, Jataka stories, ancient iconography, ancient Tamil poetry and the modern history of ancient artefacts. The note clarified that the terms that had apparently caused offence to the writers of the letter need not be construed as mischievous or slanderous; that literature and art of all cultures and countries contained material that could offend individual tastes and sensibilities and that there was no question of intending or attempting to denigrate or hurt the sentiments of any religion, tradition or community.

Jafri and his colleague B.P. Sahu said the framing of the concurrent course was put through the same procedure as all the other courses; the readings had not been compiled by any individual academician or scholar as alleged by the protesters. The process itself was transparent, having evolved and been vetted at every stage beginning from the department to statutory bodies such as the Committee of Courses, the Academic Council and the Executive Council. The note said: “In conclusion, this course has gone through all the due administrative procedures and the readings have been all approved by the relevant bodies. We see no reason to drop it from our reading list.”

The university authorities seemed satisfied by this explanation. But on January 29, the ABVP staged a rally and submitted a memorandum to the Vice-Chancellor demanding the withdrawal of the essay. This time, its members alleged that Upinder Singh had compiled the text in which the reading was present. It transpired that a spiral-bound collection of photocopies of individual articles and excerpts relating to the course with a covering page containing Upinder Singh’s name was mysteriously being circulated. Sections of the media also carried erroneous reports regarding the authorship of the said compilation without verifying the facts with the Department of History.

The essay was taken from a volume Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia (New Delhi, 1992) edited by Paula Richman. In fact, the syllabus for the course had two other readings by Ramanujan: The Interior Landscape: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology (Bloomington and London, 1975) and the introduction of Folk Tales from India: A Selection of Oral Tales from Twenty-Two Languages (New York, 1991).

Faced with a piquant situation, the department met again on February 4 and prepared a second note, which reiterated its earlier position. This time it clarified that there was no “compiler” of any textbook; in fact, there was no book at all. This note was sent to the Vice-Chancellor. On February 25, accompanied by a host of mediapersons, mainly from the electronic media, a group of ABVP activists descended on the history department. “Initially they were peaceful. They said they wanted to submit a memorandum. And then they insisted that whatever they had to say would be in front of the media,” said Jafri.

Moments after the television cameras started rolling, the activists began throwing furniture around and roughing up Jafri. They asked for Upinder Singh and Sahu, quite oblivious of the fact that both of them were present in the building; Sahu was with Jafri at the time of the assault and Upinder Singh, who was later escorted out by her security, was taking class in one of the adjoining rooms. It was clear that the activists were not students of the history department; they could hardly identify the teachers present in the department, except Jafri, lending credence to the theory that there were outsiders present during the incident.

The police arrested three ABVP activists. Ironically, the footage of the incident helped them identify those who indulged in rioting and assault.

The Students Federation of India, other student fronts and teacher organisations held demonstrations the next day demanding the arrest of those guilty of attacking the teachers in the history department. On February 28, students and teachers cutting across disciplines submitted a memorandum to the University Academic Council, which was in session, demanding that Ramanujan’s essay should not be withdrawn under any circumstance.

The essay has a very interesting beginning: “How many Ramayanas? Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas, a question is sometimes asked. How many Ramayanas have been there? And there are stories that answer the question. Here is one.” The first story sets the pace for the rest of the essay, which is about the various versions of the Ramayana in South and South-East Asia. Ramanujan writes that “just the list of languages where the Rama story is found makes one gasp”.

He lists 22 languages from South and South-East Asia itself. Through his essay, Ramanujan strives to sort out, as he says, how the hundreds of tellings of a story found in different cultures, languages and religious traditions related to each other, got translated, transplanted and transposed. So, there are two versions of the Ahalya story, one by Kamban’s Iramavataram (The Incarnation of Rama) and the other by Valmiki.

There is a Santhal version of the Rama story, a Jain version where Rama does not kill Ravana, and a Thai telling, all different from one another. There is also a telling in Kannada, an oral tradition, where the narrator is an untouchable bard. In this version, Ravana is Ravula and Sita is born out of him. Ramanujan says that the motif of Sita as Ravana’s daughter appears elsewhere in one tradition of Jain stories, in the folk traditions in Kannada and Telugu, as well as in several South-East Asian Ramayanas.

Ramanujan’s essay should stay. If anything, it is an example of the cultural diversity and homogeneity of cultural expression that exists today, a phenomenon which is under attack by those who purport to be the custodians of Indian culture and tradition. •