December 11, 2015

Gagging the argumentative Indian (Apoorvanand)

The Tribune, Dec 11 2015

Gagging the argumentative Indian

by Apoorvanand

Effigies of professors of philosophy were burnt in Rajasthan, ironically, for delivering a lecture in defence of Hinduism. If scholars of repute have to seek the Prime Minister’s protection, scholarship will not survive.

Protesters burn effigies of Aamir Khan. The lunatic fringe threatens to become the core. PTI
THE enterprise of intellection is in peril in India. Lest it be read as an alarmist, rhetorical rant from a confirmed anti-RSS pseudo secular, it would be useful to know what is happening in places away from the eyes of the metro media. The most recent incident is being reported from Mohanlal Sukhadia University of Udaipur. Effigies of professors of philosophy were burnt there. The Minister who looks after education in Rajasthan has issued orders to lodge an FIR against the professors. What has enraged the defenders of Hindutva is ironically a lecture in defence of Hinduism by Professsor Ashok Vora, a well-known scholar of philosophy, who has recently retired from Delhi University after having taught for more than four decades.

What was poor Professor Vora trying to do? He explains, in a letter to the Prime Minister after he learnt of the real threat of a criminal case filed against him: “I had, quoting influential scholars like Wendy Doniger, Paul Courtright et al, shown how these scholars are misinterpreting and making false, maligning, derogatory and misleading propaganda in the name of scientific and objective study of Hindu gods and goddesses. I had argued in my lecture that these scholars without understanding the context — culture, values and form of life, misunderstood completely the narratives in the Hindu texts. I had shown that the all-inclusive character of Hinduism and its total neglect of the zeal for conversion is an enigma for the Westerners. They have to be educated about this distinctive characteristic. Not challenging these scholars is like being a pigeon who closes his eyes and thinks that the cat has disappeared and the danger is over. To evaluate the theories supported by these scholars one has to use their vocabulary, their descriptions and their interpretations. I had just done that and established my thesis that the claim of these scholars to being objective, psychoanalytic and scientific is a pseudo claim. Their claim is the outcome of their prejudices and misunderstanding.”

Now, this is something many of us may find problematic. But our reservation is not relevant here. Professor Vora was delivering a lecture on the need and possibility of dialogue on religion. He was speaking in the specific context of Hinduism. He was trying to understand why some scholars or observers from other traditions fail to initiate such a dialogue which he says is imminently necessary. According to him, such scholars, and he names some of them, instead of impassively observing and analysing rituals and protocols attached with what is known as Hinduism use the lenses of their own traditions. It prevents them from comprehending the significance of the symbolism of Hindu traditions.

Professor Vora uses the categories of "Antarik"(Insider) and "Bahya"(Outsider) for two different kinds of observers or scholars. He says that Hinduism is unique precisely because it does not treat anybody as "Bahya". It is all-inclusive. Even the Charvakas and Meemansaks are not non-Hindu. And yet, there is an outside of or to Hinduism. For example, it cannot claim Islamic or Christian

traditions as its own.
It is a different matter, as Vora argues in his lecture, that Hinduism is not interested in drawing people from other traditions to its fold or is indifferent to them. But for scholarship to start you do need to have an other or outsider. Who this “other” would be? Is this other denied the right to discuss something he or she does not belong to? There are “others” and there are “others”. Who are those who help us further our understanding of our own traditions, including religious ones?

To build his argument, Vora quotes Tevenie, a French traveller Bapiste Tavenrnier, who visited India in the 17th century. He records his observation of the rituals attached with the puja being offered at the Bindu Madhav temple of Varanasi. It is a dispassionate description, without any adjective attached to the rituals or idols of gods and goddesses. Vora calls it an academically valid observation by an outsider. He is observing and recording his experience dispassionately, without imposing on it his own understanding of what is truly religious or spiritual. What is most important is that he is non-judgmental.

Vora contrasts it with other “outsiders”. They also observe and record the Hindu religious protocol and rituals but seldom do it without using adjectives like “demonic”, “grotesque” or a milder qualifier “funny”. Vora says graver than this is the problem which arises when they use analytical categories derived from their own traditions. To strengthen his contention, he uses quotes from these scholars. It is obvious even to a person of modest intelligence that Vora is presenting their views only to demolish them. However, this is what went against him and his host Sudha Chaudhary. It is being alleged that Vora used references which are derogatory to Hindu gods and goddesses and Chaudhary committed the crime of giving a platform to him for his blasphemous act. The defenders of Hinduism expressed their outrage by burning the effigies of Vora and Chaudhary, a privilege mostly politicians enjoy. Academics would surely not like to join this club. Local newspapers chose to play along with the vandalisers. The Minister of Human Resource Development, Rajasthan, promptly asked the police to file an FIR against the “offender” professors. One of the deans of the university said that such lectures could not be allowed on the campus. The university succumbed and ordered an inquiry into the whole affair. It is said that the committee formed for this purpose comprises teachers like him and one should not expect much from it.

Professor Vora is protesting. He says that what he did in his lecture was the truly Indian way of polemics. In this method, you have to faithfully present the viewpoint of the Poorva paksh. Only after that are you allowed to dispute or refute it. This is the minimum one expects from academics.

The defenders of Hindutva would have none of it. They want to blunt our hearing. One must say that they have succeeded in their mission to a dangerous extent. Otherwise, how is it that a sharp ear like Karan Thapar fails to appreciate the rhetorical device used by Aamir Khan to drive home the insecurity that is gradually engulfing not only the Muslim and Christian minorities but also other liberal and independent- minded people? Thapar went on to sagaciously advise Khan to stay on and fight the irrational forces. Was the fear of Kiran Rao, Aamir Khan's partner, misplaced? Should we ignore her as it only concerns Muslims? As we can see from the attack on Sudha Chaudhary and Ashok Vora in Udaipur, the innocent act of scholarship is now under threat. If scholars like Vora are forced to seek protection from the high office of the Prime Minister, are we to understand that scholarship is no longer a “normal” business in India? Would scholars be unpatriotic if they choose foreign universities for their pursuit of knowledge? For the land of knowledge is where scholars live. Would they be advised by our ministers that they should face criminal charges bravely staying in India or would they be declared anti-nationals? Should all researchers and teachers secure anticipatory bail before publishing their work or attending seminars or even before entering classrooms?

The writer is a Professor in the Department of Hindi, Delhi University