It is common wisdom that a university is not a place young people go to inoculate themselves against thought. But Delhi University’s recent deliberations reflect a desire to sanitise its students of all intellectualism. Its standing committee on academic affairs has just suggested that three books by academic Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd — God As Political Philosopher, Why I Am Not a Hindu and Post-Hindu India — be offloaded of the syllabus of post-graduate political science students. It has alleged that the works by one of India’s most respected Bahujan scholars are “insulting to Hinduism”. It has also come up with the gratuitous advice that the word Dalit be replaced by Scheduled Caste in academic discourse. A few months ago, a committee had suggested that academic Nandini Sundar’s acclaimed work on the Maoist insurgency in central India be struck off the reading list.
This is alarming, and reveals the university as a shrinking shell of ideas rather than a safe space for intellectual pursuit. It is, as if, under a new regime, all engagement with thought is now the responsibility of pygmy committees who only know how to hand out reductive labels (“anti-Hindu” or “urban Naxal”) to towering traditions of knowledge and analysis. Those academics who take offence to Sundar and Shepherd’s work have the freedom to dispute them — as the two scholars have the freedom of expression to argue their case.
But the committee’s strictures are not just objectionable on grounds of free speech. It begs the question: Who does the university think it is defending by casting intellectuals as opponents of society, community and religion? The recommendations, ham-handed as they are, peddle the dangerous myth that there is only one narrative — of nation, Hinduism, caste — that can exist and that is worth defending. Most importantly, they strike at the self-affirmation of India’s most underprivileged. The political project of equality in a stratified society like India depends not just on government policy and welfare but also on the contestations in the realm of ideas, whether it is Shepherd’s critique of what he sees as the DNA of exclusion in Hinduism or the history of anti-caste resistance contained in the word Dalit. A university becomes an ally in this project by allowing the free play of dissent and difference. Delhi University still has the chance to become such a space: Its academic council must reconsider its recommendations on Shepherd’s works.