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Can students tolerate,can teachers cope: Expert on Ramanujan essay

Expert was the only one in the committee to have favoured the removal of the text.

Written by Nandini Thilak | New Delhi |
October 17, 2011 2:50:28 am

Delhi University professors,especially “non-Hindus”,may not be capable of explaining the context of A K Ramanujan’s essay on different tellings of the epic Ramayana to their students,one of the experts deputed by the university to assess the text had argued,in a report submitted to the Delhi University Academic Council,before it voted to drop the essay from the BA (Honours) syllabus last week.

The expert was the only one in the four-member committee to have favoured the removal of the text. The other three argued that it should continue in the syllabus of the course ‘Culture in India: A Historical Perspective’ for BA (Honours) students.

In the committee report accessed by The Indian Express,the expert who sought removal of the essay first expressed his doubt about whether undergraduate students would “tolerate” the portrayal of divine characters in the different tellings of Ramayana as mentioned in Ramanujan’s text ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation’.

He then went on to say: “If the teacher explains the background of these versions,the students may be convinced. But I doubt if college teachers are well-equipped to handle the situation which,I forebear,is likely to become more difficult in the case of a non-Hindu teacher.”

While the essay was included in the course in 2006,the controversy first erupted in 2008,leading to the setting up of the committee. Delhi University’s department of history has consistently argued that the essay be retained,and will hold a meeting tomorrow to take a stand on the issue.

Angry teachers at Delhi University say the argument that teachers may not be “well-equipped”,to seek dropping of the essay from the course,is baseless. “It is outrageous,” said Dr Pankaj Jha,head of history department at Lady Shri Ram College. “We don’t teach as Hindus or Muslims but as professionals. Humanities and social sciences teachers at the university are already despondent. This is a further blow. You no longer seem to have any control over what you teach. The AC (Academic Council) decision is also sign that the body is now dominated by administrators,” he said.

“It is absolutely surprising and says volumes about the expert. He has interpreted the text to suit 21st-century political contigencies,” said a senior history professor at St Stephens College.

While seeking removal of the text from the syllabus,the expert had conceded that Ramanujan’s essay was “an excellent piece of research”. However,he added,that though it was a literary piece,it was “a little objectionable” in places and “bound to affect the sensibilities of impressionable minds”.

Those who objected to the essay being part of the syllabus had first approached the Delhi High Court in 2008,and when turned down by it,gone to the Supreme Court. Taking note of the university’s decision to constitute a committee on the matter,the Supreme Court had directed the vice-chancellor to submit the experts’ opinion to the Academic Council or any other authority competent to take a decision.

Accordingly,on October 9,the matter was tabled before the Academic Council. Incidentally,after considering the expert committee’s report,only nine of the more than 120 members who form the council objected to the essay’s removal.

At the meeting,some members — incidentally none of them teachers of history — also raised objections to the essay saying that portions of it,with references to sexual organs,would make a woman faculty member teaching the text uncomfortable in class.

Responding to this,Shobhana Warrier,of the department of history at Gargi college,said: “I don’t think gender makes any difference,but ideology does. Women’s freedom in this country has come a long way… On one hand you say you want to become a modern university,on the other,you give in so easily.”

The essay discusses the different tellings of Ramayana,from Valmiki’s and Kampan’s to the South Indian folk Ramayanas as well as versions that exist in different parts of Asia. It first began to be taught as part of a concurrent course for BA (Honours) students of subjects other than history in 2006.

In 2008,right-wing organisations alleged that some of the tellings mentioned in the essay (for example a South Indian folk telling where Sita is Ravana’s daughter) are offensive to Hindus. In February of that year,ABVP members attacked the then head of department of history at Delhi University,Dr S Z H Jafri,in his office over the issue.

It was in view of the protests that Delhi University constituted a committee to consider the matter. Following outcry over removal of the essay,Vice-Chancellor Dinesh Singh claimed that the essay was no longer taught at the university,and that the earlier syllabus had been replaced with a new version in 2009.

However,Pankaj Jha denies this. “The first version of the syllabus containing the essay was not meant to be dropped in 2009,but the two versions were to be taught in rotation every three years,” he says.

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