As Delhi University's pusillanimous
decision to scrap A.K. Ramanujan's essay on 300 versions of the
epic Ramayana shows, vice chancellors and professors easily choose
the discretion of trashing a book or a work of art over the valour
of upholding the principle of intellectual freedom in a democratic
As was demonstrated by Bombay University's similarly gutless
capitulation to the Shiv Sena last year on Rohinton Mistry's
novel, "Such A Long Journey", in the syllabus, the academic
community is mortally scared of defying Hindu right-wing
militants. It is, however, worthwhile noting that the saffron
crowd has succeeded in making its writ prevail in Delhi and
Mumbai, where the Congress and other secular parties - which claim
to have a more open mind on the question of art and letters - are
in power. It would have been understandable if the deletion of
Ramanujan's essay and Mistry's novel had taken place in Narendra
Modi's Gujarat, but that is not the case.
If the secular stalwarts in the government at the centre have
maintained a deafening silence, the reason is a cowardly
reluctance to offer a head-on challenge to the Hindu nationalist
brigade lest it cost them the Hindu vote. But that is not the only
reason. Such faintheartedness has been in evidence in the
corridors of power ever since Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic
Verses" was banned by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1988 to
placate Muslim fundamentalists. So it isn't the Hindu extremists
alone who are favoured.
Even the Communists haven't been noticeably brave in this respect
considering that the Buddhadev Bhattacharjee government hurriedly
bundled out Taslima Nasreen from Kolkata in 2007 following
demonstrations by a little-known Muslim outfit. Interestingly,
Taslima first went to Rajasthan, which was under the Bharatiya
Janata Party's (BJP) rule at the time.
It has to be remembered, however, that the BJP is all for artistic
freedom as long as it is the Muslims who claim to be offended.
Hence its support for Rushdie and Taslima. The party is up in arms
only when it believes that the sensitivity of the Hindus is
Curiously, however, it is the BJP's Atal Bihari Vajpayee who
voiced the correct sentiments when the Bhandarkar Oriental
Research Institute in Pune was ransacked by a group of Marathi
chauvinists in 2003 because the author of a controversial
biography of Shivaji, James W. Laine, had worked there. Vajpayee's
view was that anyone objecting to Laine's book could write a
rebuttal of his own instead of indulging in vandalism.
If only the leaders of secular parties had been as forthright
about the importance of a scholarly debate, M.F. Husain would not
have had to die in exile. There is little doubt that it is their
gutless conduct which has encouraged the saffron goons to lay down
the terms which the artists must follow.
For the Sangh Parivar and the BJP, it must be a matter of
satisfaction that their agenda in the "cultural" field has not
suffered any setback as a result of their loss of power at the
centre. True the two United Progressive Alliance governments have
rectified some of the distortions in history books which the
Vajpayee government had introduced. But there has been little or
no resistance to the threat of violence which the saffron outfits
make against books, paintings or exhibitions which present a
picture different from their own.
They are particularly aggressive about the Ramayana since their
politics revolves around the proposed Ram temple in Ayodhya, which
they project as a symbol of Hindu assertiveness vis-à-vis the
Muslim "invaders". It also propagates their concept of
establishing a Hindu 'rashtra' (state) in India, which is the
Parivar's ultimate objective.
Not surprisingly, therefore, they are unable to accept any
interpretation of the epic, as the one by Ramanujan, which differs
from their version in which the emphasis is on Ram as a warrior.
This selective depiction is intended to provoke the Hindus to rise
against their enemies who, in accordance with the Parivar's
subtext, comprise the minorities. It is easy to see how this
rendering is different from Mahatma Gandhi's focus on Ram Rajya,
the ideal state where Ram is a benevolent ruler for all.
The Ramanujan version was reflected in an exhibition organised by
Sahmat in 1995 which looked at diverse origins of the Ramayana.
Like the essay, it had earned the ire of the saffronites who lost
no time in attacking it.
Unless the secular politicians and intelligentsia show great
courage and personal integrity in their commitment to an ideal
which they profess to cherish, both pluralism and artistic freedom
in India will be under constant threat from the pseudo-religious
is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)