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Hey Ramayana!

Delhi University does not trust its students or teachers to think. Nandini Sundar writes.

india Updated: Nov 10, 2011 21:28 IST
Nandini Sundar
Nandini Sundar
Hindustan Times

If Delhi University's academic council is to be believed, Indians who are eligible to drive, to vote and to get married are, however, not adult enough to be exposed to the idea that there are multiple versions of the Ramayana. We are 'reassured' that AK Ramanujan's essay on 300 Ramayanas has not been banned, it has simply been deemed unfit for undergraduate pedagogy. After all, how can teachers, especially women and non-Hindus, who effortlessly teach reproductive biology in high school, talk about sexuality and desire in the epics? How can students distinguish between faith and historiography?

There is a clear political agenda behind the removal of this particular text, which has little to do with allegedly 'hurt community sentiments', starting with the 2008 ABVP attack, the subsequent court case, and the pressure on Oxford University Press to cease publishing the book, to which the latter so cowardly caved in. What causes greater concern is that the academic council of a leading university enabled this particular agenda. It shows a lack of reflection on the university's role as a public institution and indicates serious problems with university procedures.

In a poor country like India, university teachers, especially after the sixth pay commission, must justify their burden on the public exchequer and find a way of engaging with the wider public while maintaining one's autonomy. When scholars from the North-east point to an absence of their voice in standard histories of nationalism, we should welcome this correction in perspective. If a dalit community were to object to the teaching of allegedly casteist texts, we would be obliged to investigate this complaint, even if the grievance was later found misplaced. In fact, this is what the experts appointed to look into the Ramayana reading were meant to do, before the academic council decided to substitute its own expertise for theirs.

What the public pays a university for is not specific bits of research or teaching, but to enable young people to think and go beyond their narrow experiences. Research in mathematics, philosophy or literature is as essential to a university as market-led courses in commerce or management. If there is one message that the academic council decision sends out, it is that the university does not trust its students or teachers to think.

The controversy over the Ramanujan text highlights two problems in Indian universities — distrust and discipline. For many in authority, the real value of the semester system lies in the regulatory power of frequent exams. As one college principal noted, this ensures that 'all teachers and students attend from the first day of college'.

As for distrust, the ministry of human resource development and the University Grants Commission (UGC) exercise over-riding control. For instance, the UGC decides on selection criteria for recruitments because it cannot trust academics not to exercise favouritism in drawing up shortlists. All that the department does — and it requires a panel of four Professors to carry out what is essentially clerical work — is slot people into grades, depending on their marks and degrees.

This control translates into the university bureaucracy. Small things which should be handled at the department level, go up to the vice-chancellor. Department heads spend considerable time signing bus passes and library cards, presumably because the clerical staff cannot be relied on. PhD thesis titles have to be approved at the start of the PhD and require an elaborate procedure should the hapless student want to change.

Thus, the academic council decides what should be taught, rather than leaving it to the department or faculty concerned. Syllabi formation often borders on the absurd. Courses stay unrevised for decades because of the painful procedures. It took me three years to get a new MA course on the sociology of law passed. Everyone claims to be an expert on the social sciences, even if they have no idea of the craft that goes into the simplest looking text. If teaching about the Ramayana might have consequences for people's faith, learning chemistry might enable people to make bombs.

True, teachers often betray their profession, a fact which their unions must address. Absenteeism and nepotism are major problems. Quotas are required because left to themselves, few people actively implement affirmative action. Yet, the solution is not more discipline, but more autonomy. If your employer does not pay you to think, why do that extra work of thinking? And once you stop thinking, why bother to have a university at all?

Nandini Sundar is dean of social sciences, Delhi University. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Nov 10, 2011 21:22 IST