It’s politics, stupid

The hounding of Sheldon Pollock has little to do with academic or intellectual standards

By: Express News Service | Published:March 4, 2016 11:02 pm
Sheldon Pollock Sheldon Pollock

As the manufactured uproar over seditious anti-nationals on campus threatens to die out for lack of evidence, the baton has been passed to the non-issue of academics who have the temerity to be Indologists despite being born elsewhere. Rohan Murty stands like a rock behind Sheldon Pollock, in the face of an online petition for his removal from the helm of the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI). Signed by 132 Indian teachers and thinkers, it does his reputation no damage. On the contrary, it signals the dangerous willingness of Indian academics to surrender their freedoms to political interests.

Pollock is perhaps the world’s most active publisher of classics from the antiquity of South Asia. He is the thread of continuity with the pioneering Clay Sanskrit Library of the NYU Press, which he had also headed, taking over the reins from the redoubtable Richard Gombrich. Both libraries carry forward the tradition of the original exemplar, Harvard University Press’s Loeb Classical Library, which set the template for high-quality parallel texts of the world’s classics.

Pollock’s intellectual bloodline is extraordinary, but his detractors find him inappropriate for other reasons — a lack of sympathy with Asian values which are irrelevant in our times, and a distressing willingness to stick up for the freedoms of Indian academia, including JNU. The petition moved by Ganesh Ramakrishnan of IIT Bombay insists that the MCLI should be guided by scholars “steeped in the intellectual traditions of India”, and “imbued with a sense of respect and empathy for the greatness of Indian civilisation”. The criticism seems political rather than academic or intellectual, and the petitioners go on to demand that the MCLI should follow the philosophy of Make in India, and work towards autochthonous authenticity and develop a “Swadeshi Indology”.

Such a thing does not exist because Indian academics, like the worthies who have signed the petition, have no stomach for dead languages, preferring more lucrative careers in streams with better funding and prospects, such as engineering and technology. It is presumptuous of them to now try to prescribe methodologies and human resource guidelines for the MCLI, which has ably taken forward the work of making available classical texts that are disappearing from public memory, to be replaced by myths about them. As Murty has pointed out, the timing of the petition gives the game away. Pollock has been at the helm for six years, but his credentials are being questioned only now, after JNU.

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