Proposed Ban on Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s Books in DU Raises Questions about the Future of Critical Thought

Scholars of social sciences write and teach from particular ideological and political frameworks, and to expect them to be “objective” or “non-partisan,” without any sensitivity to questions of power, takes away much needed perspectives of the marginalised sections of society in academia. Any critique of an academic work should stem not from unwillingness to deal with complex or discomfiting ideas, but from close reading and engagement. This article discusses these aspects in light of the recent call to ban Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s books from the University of Delhi’s MA Political Science reading list, as well as other instances of such interference in university curriculum in recent years. 

On 24 October 2018, the Standing Committee on Academic Affairs of the University of Delhi (DU) proposed a ban on three books authored by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd—Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy; God as Political Philosopher: Buddha’s Challenge to Brahmanism; and Post Hindu India—from the MA syllabus of the Department of Political Science. These texts are part of two courses titled “Dalit Bahujan Political Thought” and “Social Exclusion: Theory and Practice” (Roy Chowdhury 2018). The academic council is yet to take a final decision on the issue, but the department has decided to continue teaching the course. The university is currently engaged in revising the syllabi of postgraduate courses to fit the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) format, and certain groups of teachers have used this occasion to get “controversial” books removed from post-graduate reading lists of the history, political science, and sociology departments.

Calls for bans on books that some political or ideological groups find provocative are not new in Indian universities; but over the last few years, the frequency of such incidents has increased at an alarming rate. In August 2018, the Standing Committee on Academic Affairs in DU asked for removal of Nandini Sundar’s Subalterns and Sovereigns: An Anthropological History of Bastar and Archana Prasad’s Against Ecological Romanticism: Verrier Elwin and the Making of an Anti-modern Tribal Identity from a course offered at the Department of History (Iftikhar 2018). This was done after some members alleged that these books “glorified Naxalism” and “legitimised religious conversions.” In 2017, Sundar’s book, Flames in the Forest, was sought to be removed from the MA Sociology reading list after some teachers of the National Democratic Teachers’ Front (NDTF) opposed its contents. In 2016, Dinanath Batra wrote to the Ministry of Human Resources Development asking for the complete removal of historian Bipin Chandra’s book Bharat ka Swantantrata Sangharsh because it used the word “revolutionary terrorists” to refer to Bhagat Singh and other figures in the national movement (Economic Times 2016).

This trend of interference in university curricula and activities has been visible at least for a decade. In 2011, A K Ramanujan’s celebrated essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation was removed from the MA History reading list in DU after Hindutva groups, including teachers and students, objected to it. The ban was initially suggested in 2008, but at that time, the department refused to remove it even after it was attacked by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and the head of the department was forced to take refuge inside his office (Vijetha 2011). In Mumbai University, Rohinton Mistry’s novel, Such a Long Journey, was excised from the BA English reading list in 2010, after Shiv Sena activists (led by Aditya Thackeray, then a third year student of history at the university) opposed it for “using insulting language” against the party and its leader, Bal Thackeray. Aditya Thackeray said that the book was being forced upon students, when, in fact, it was an optional text in the reading list (Burke 2010).

Universities Are Microcosms of the Nation

It is useful to look at some of the patterns that emerge from these incidents. In one sense, they point to the fact that our universities are not ivory towers. They are microcosms of the nation, and hence, reflect the political struggles between rival visions of what kind of a society we ought to be. Any thriving university has a diversity of intellectual approaches and political ideals among its faculty, and this is reflected in its teaching and research. Hence, among students and faculty, we have left liberals, practitioners of various religions, supporters of Hindutva, and so on, who have very clearly defined positions on various issues. However, what is observable now is that these are not so much an interaction of diverse ideas, as demands for outright bans on texts that are uncomfortable for particular reasons: for pointing out the plural nature of  Hindu textual traditions as in Ramanujan’s essay; for being critical of political parties whose popularity rests on identity politics; for being critical of the state’s militaristic approach to the problem of insurgency, as in Nandini Sundar’s work; for being a forceful anti-Brahminical critique of caste as in Kancha Ilaiah’s work; or for using a term like “revolutionary terrorist” that had a very different meaning in a historical context, but is associated by the Hindu right only with a certain community today.

In other words, it appears that there is a growing inability and unwillingness to deal with nuanced and layered thinking. It seems that the decisions to ban these works are being taken on the insistence of people who do not have the willingness to thoughtfully engage with the books in question, and who have no subject expertise. For example, as media reports show, many members of the academic council of DU who opposed Kancha Ilaiah’s book had a problem with the title of the book and the fact that it has no footnotes or citations, but they did not provide a detailed or nuanced argument against it (Mohanty 2018). In the case of Nandini Sundar’s book, The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar, a member of the academic council opposing it, asked the head of the Department of Sociology to “tell us the content of the book” (Chettri 2017). This raises questions about the complicated nature of academic freedom, about who should make decisions about university curriculum, the politically fraught nature of the humanities and social sciences in our time, and the shrinking space for critical thought.

A close reading of the call for removing Kancha Ilaiah’s books and the proposal to ban the word “Dalit” from academic discourse reveals the kind of debates that are taking place on the ground regarding academic freedom. The opposition to these texts has come from within the teaching community of the university itself. The teachers are deeply divided in terms of their different visions for the university and their different political ideologies. Those proposing the ban seem to be using certain terms and ideas that those who oppose the call for ban would find hard to disagree with. For instance, Geeta Bhatt, a member of the Standing Committee emphasised that universities should foster thinking individuals and that  reading lists and courses should include different perspectives. One could agree with her point that the university should indeed nurture thinking, but her understanding of inclusivity is rather vague. She suggested that there are other works that have titles similar to Ilaiah Shepherd’s book. For instance, in her opinion, Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian and Ibn Warraq’s Why I am not a Muslim are works that need to be included. When it was pointed out that these works would not be relevant in a course on Dalit–Bahujan political thought or social exclusion, she responded that perhaps they could be included in another course that was more relevant. When asked whether the banning of Ilaiah Shepherd’s books did not violate the very principle of inclusivity she was talking about, she questioned the scholarly credentials of Why I am not A Hindu, saying that there were no footnotes or citations, and termed it a “polarising text.”[1] Ilaiah Shepherd, in his press statement, responded to the call for a ban by asking whether Savarkar and Golwalkar’s works, which his opponents wanted to include in the syllabus, had the scholarly credentials they were looking for. He argued that this was a clear attempt to crush diversity of thought in the university, that should be a space where “a hundred ideas clash”(Ilaiah Shepherd 2018).

Knowledge Production, Politics, and the Social Sciences

The demand for the ban brings to the fore the complicated relationship between knowledge production in the social sciences and questions of politics and power. The social sciences and humanities are the most vulnerable to the threat of state power or the power of political groups. While a detailed comparison is not attempted here, it may be mentioned that scientific research too often faces the pressures of business interests or national interests, particularly in areas such as defence, genetic engineering, and pharmaceuticals. Modern social sciences and humanities disciplines like history, political science, economics, sociology and literature closely examine society, political economy, culture, and the historical process that formed them. They may seem disturbing or challenging as they question the existing social structures and hierarchies, also leaving them open to political retribution from the state and various political groups. Several commissions on education in India have stressed on the need to protect the freedom of academics within the university to engage in critical enquiry without fear of interference from the state or politically powerful groups. The Radhakrishnan Commission of 1948 envisioned university autonomy within the framework of the constitutional principle of liberty, particularly against any interference by the state (GoI 1962).[2]

The history of politics on campuses shows that intolerance to dissenting voices has not been the preserve of any one ideological group. The historian Dilip Menon (2017) pointed out that from the 1970s through to the 1990s, left student organisations, in the name of revolutionary progress, particularly in Kerala and West Bengal, violently suppressed any signs of nuance or freedom of expression on campuses, and even teachers were not spared. In the case in question in DU, many of the members of the standing committee who opposed Ilaiah Shepherd’s books are members of the NDTF, known for its right-wing ideological leanings. The NDTF has also taken the lead in opposing the works of Nandini Sundar, Archana Prasad and Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd from being included in the syllabus (Chettri 2017; Iftikhar 2018; Mohanty 2018). Such incidents may not always be related to the central government, but to local political struggles for dominance in campuses. In the controversy over Ramanujan’s essay in the DU history department in 2008, the ABVP was involved in an act of vandalism and made threats of physical violence, even at a time when a different government was in power at the centre.

There are standards of quality in research that are determined by experts in different disciplines. However, scholars also interpret or read their evidence and make judgements from distinct methodological or theoretical perspectives, political convictions, and ethical principles. There is a complex relationship between scholarly work carried out within the disciplinary community according to the prevailing methodological conventions, and scholarly work that is also informed by radical political convictions, that might question these conventions. The latter are often charged with bringing in political bias in contravention of disciplinary standards, and they, in turn, may question those very disciplinary frameworks. But within a university, it is important that both these kinds of works are treated not as given, but are read critically. Problems arise when there is complete disregard for evidence, lack of engagement with scholars working in the same field, refusal of critique, and the expectation that students will accept certain political beliefs as self-evident.   

Those who suggested the ban have opposed Ilaiah Shepherd’s books on the grounds of them being “anti-Hindu” and “polarising,” along with a call to follow a “non-partisan” approach while selecting texts for reading lists. Does being non-partisan mean ignoring important questions of social hierarchy, domination, and exploitation in social science research? Ilaiah Shepherd does write from a particular perspective informed by his close observation of evidence. Anyone who makes an effort to read his work would see that his deep anti-Brahminical and egalitarian convictions go hand in hand with the painstaking scholarly attention he pays to the lifeworld of Dalits and Bahujans. Moreover, he critiques academics and political leaders of every ideological stripe on the issue of caste discrimination (Ilaiah Shepherd 2002). Questions have been raised about his research method due to its unconventional nature. He adopts an experiential, ethnographic framework of analysis, eschewing the conventions of referencing, relying on his own and others’ organic knowledge of Dalit and Bahujan life. His provocative and angry tone has infuriated readers, not only those who disagree with his arguments. Susie Tharu (1996), however, has drawn attention to certain problems and questions. She says that Ilaiah Shepherd’s analysis of the caste struggle as the central social fault line, and the Brahmin–Dalit Bahujan binary as the primary one can run into the same problems as the category of class, and asks whether gender and community can be conflated with issues of caste. Those who read his work need not share his convictions, or agree with everything he writes, but they must also not dismiss his work merely because it is informed by a perspective.  

The same is also true in the case of disciplines that explore issues of race, gender, or disability, where scholarship rests on different perspectives and often has political ramifications. This is important because, in this whole controversy, scholars have been trading charges of being politically biased and ideologically skewed, whereas the issue really is whether one is willing to read and understand any writing with the critical attention that it merits. The historian Joan Scott, in an essay on academic freedom, writes, “a woman historian is not just a historian with female genitals, but one who might bring different perspectives to her work” (Scott 2009). She points out that often, when scholars bring their particular perspectives to bear on their disciplines, they end up interrogating the organising principles and the presuppositions undergirding their disciplines. When feminist historians questioned what counts as history, and when they treated histories of gender as not just another topic, but something that questioned the way history writing was carried out, they often were accused of ideological bias (Scott 2009).

This kind of disciplinary politics is also seen in the context of the current book ban. N Sukumar revealed in a statement that he was the first Dalit faculty member to be appointed under the reservation policy in the department. When he joined in 2001, only thinkers like Manu, Kautilya, Gandhi and Tagore were taught in a course on Indian political thought. It was after years of acrimonious debates that they introduced Jinnah, Iqbal, and Ambedkar. Sukumar felt that a separate course was needed to engage with Dalit and Bahujan political thought and that is how this course was introduced along with one on social exclusion. Dalit scholars like him have had to question what counts as Indian political thought and what counts as legitimate knowledge (Roy Chowdhury 2018).

Decision Making Bodies and Recalcitrant Departments

Many of my fellow students, in their response to this suggested ban, were deeply concerned that those who had no expertise in the subject, and those clearly driven by a political agenda were making decisions about what we should read. There is very little transparency on how the Standing Committee on Academic Affairs is constituted and hardly any answers on why those who have no subject expertise, are given the power to force departments to remove certain texts from the syllabus. How is it that the groups like the ABVP and the NDTF have managed to exert this kind of influence with decision-making bodies, even when there are dissenting voices within these bodies that have called for preserving a culture of debate and critical enquiry?  Many of those who opposed the  books written by Ilaiah Shepherd, Nandini Sundar and Archana Prasad, stated that these textbooks are “not fit for students” or “not suitable for students” (Iftikhar 2018).

In fact, it is when students, at least in this university, reach the MA level, that some of them begin to learn to think critically or read serious texts in their discipline. A teacher in one of the colleges of the university, on the condition of anonymity, pointed out that for most of her students, social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook are the chief sources of information. Many of these students struggle financially and come from schools where they receive little training in critical thinking. Further, this teacher pointed out that almost none of her colleagues encourage critical thinking among these students, and are themselves ardent supporters of the current political dispensation.

In a context like this, the MA courses in the university, which are much more intensive, and call for a closer engagement with professors, with important texts and ideas, can be an important avenue for students to learn to think critically instead of making judgments without engaging with a text. At this level, students are expected to not just be familiar with the arguments of certain authors, but to reflect on the methods employed in the production of that knowledge and the assumptions underlying it. The students themselves come with a lot of questions from their own social backgrounds, and their reading can help them in thinking about these questions.

In Conclusion

While the political science department has, for the time being, decided to go ahead with teaching these texts, we do not know whether the Academic Council will take this suggestion on board. In 2008, the history department resisted in the face of vandalism by the ABVP, but eventually the Academic Council voted against the Ramanujan essay, even though the majority of the members of a court-ordered expert committee (whose membership was kept confidential) found no issues with the text. The department was left with no choice but to give in. Over time when departments are faced with these relentless assaults, many members begin to have misgivings about resistance, for fear of the consequences involved. This has been seen in the circumspect way in which the history department has responded to objections to Nandini Sundar’s and Archana Prasad’s books, and how the sociology department too took over a year to finally consider including Flames in the Forest in the syllabus.

I have been a student of history at DU for almost a decade now. Over the course of my studies, I have been exposed to many new texts and ideas, several of which led me to critically interrogate my own social and religious background. At several points, I have felt discomfort, but at no point have I ceased to listen, read, and think both from a posture of humility, and also of curiosity about how other scholars with very different intellectual, cultural and social backgrounds make sense of the world. This process has only helped me to become a more reflexive person and student. I write this article in the hope that spaces to engage with ideas, with other minds radically different from their own, will be protected for future students of our universities.

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