‘Will they bash up universities in Jakarta and other places for teaching different versions of the Ramayana?’ – An interview with noted historian Romila Thapar.
The controversial decision earlier this month by the Academic Council of Delhi University to drop A.K. Ramanujan’s celebrated essay on the Ramayana, Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translations from the B.A. History (Honours) course has evoked sharp protests from several historians and other scholars.
Coming three years after the Hindutva student body, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), vandalised DU’s History department to protest against the teaching of this essay, the decision has been criticised as a surrender of academic freedom in the face of political pressure.
Romila Thapar, the foremost authority on early Indian history, spoke to Priscilla Jebaraj about the decision, its adverse consequences for scholarship and knowledge, and the efforts by vested interests to project one version of Hindu cultural heritage and religious tradition over all others.
You have said that this issue is not purely about history and academia simply because it involves the Delhi University’s History Department and Academic Council, but that there’s a political background to it.
I think there’s a political background to it because the initial attack against this essay [in 2008] was led by the ABVP which made sure that TV cameras had begun to roll when they carried out the attack, so that it would be properly recorded.
Their demand was that this hurt the sentiments of the Hindu community and therefore it should be withdrawn. This is hardly an academic demand. And quite clearly, the way in which the activity was organised, it was an act of political opposition to the History department and to this particular essay.
The University initially took an academic position and appointed a committee of four historians to assess whether this essay should be withdrawn. Three experts categorically said that under no circumstances should it be withdrawn. One of them, interestingly, did not say that it hurt the sentiments of the Hindu community, but said that it was inappropriate for undergraduate teaching, that undergraduates would not follow the whole question of variants and nuances and so on. So the expert opinion again did not think it was necessary to withdraw the essay.
In spite of this expert opinion, and perhaps because the matter came up in court, it was taken to the Academic Council. And from what I can gather, there was no indication given that this issue would be discussed, and therefore people went there unprepared and suddenly had to decide on this one way or the other. And what this initial action and the reaction of the University raise are the question whether courses and syllabi can be changed by groups beating up faculty and vandalising departments. And I think this is a very fundamental question which academia has to face and answer and take a position on.
Ramanujan discusses several versions, including the Valmiki Ramayana and the Kamba Ramayana, both of which seem to have problematic elements for Hindu fanatics. Which version are they supporting?
Well, I think that probably none of them has even read the whole of the Valmiki Ramayana … Half of them haven’t even heard of the Kamba Ramayana.
What are they supporting? Their notion from hearsay of what the Valmiki Ramayana perhaps expresses. And you know, one is angered by the fact that there are people who don’t take the trouble to read and to study and to understand what the issue is before they just stand up and start shouting and screaming and wanting the dismissal of it.
What people don’t recognise is that the story of Ram, what we call the Ram Katha, extends over a huge historical period. There’s a distance of almost a thousand years between the first composition of the Valmiki Ramayana and Kamban’s. There are also gradually regional studies… So, inevitably there will be variants. The moment somebody sets out to write a new version of the story, however dependent that person is may be on a particular version, there will be additions as indeed there were even to the original Ramayana. And this is the inevitable structure of an epic.