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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 22

Our Democratic Pretensions

Saturday 19 May 2007, by Suhas Palshikar


The vandalism at MS University and the abject complicity of the university authorities in the episode are a sad sign of the failure to expand democracy to our civil and social lives. But before the MS University controversy arose, a small news item appeared in sections of the media and then died down without much attention from the media and intellectuals alike.

This concerned the infamous controversy over a reference to Shivaji Maharaj in James Lane’s book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India. The Maharashtra Government banned the book. The ban was challenged in the Bombay High Court and only recently the court ruled that the ban was indefensible. The aggrieved parties decided to appeal to the Supreme Court as the Apex Court had almost at the same time upheld a ban on a book in another case originating in Karnataka.

But one research institution decided that books not only need to be banned but that research institutions can serve the academic cause better by demanding a ban on books. So, the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Instute of Pune (BORI) formally passed a resolution and its office bearer, Vijay Bhatkar, publicly stated that the BORI has demanded that the book be banned. Ironically, it is the same book that brought BORI into trouble three years ago when angry protestors stormed into the institute’s library and ransacked it on charges that the institute was complicit in the “insulting” writing in Lane’s book. Following that incident, public sympathy and support flooded the BORI; large amounts of public funds were allocated to it for modernisation and digitisation of its library. Having benefited from the attack, now the BORI finds it convenient to demand a ban on the book.

Let us keep out the details of the controversy. What is painful is that the institute crawled when it may have simply be expected to bend. This episode shows the importance our academic institutions give to the issue of freedom of expression and autonomy of academic establishments.

In the case of the MS University, it is a well-known fact that the university, which once used to be a matter of pride for Gujarat, has recently turned into a playground of narrow-minded politics propped up by self-appointed protectors of Hindutva. So, while it is sad that the Vice- Chancellor and the establishment have thrown academic freedom to the wind; it is something one was not ignorant about. In contrast, the BORI case poses an even more serious challenge.

Both when the controversy emerged and today, the State Government is run by parties that have avowedly come together to counter the communal menace. The Congress-NCP Government did not protect academic freedom; nor did any of the other secular parties in progressive Maharashtra come forward to intervene on behalf of freedom of expression. That was when the Lok Sabha elections were round the corner and at least the NCP tried to derive mileage from the controversy; some sections even tried to revive the old Brahmin-non-Brahmin dispute. The issue of academic freedom was quickly overshadowed by pseudo-progressivism based on one’s caste origin.

Two, when the ban had to be lifted following court orders, the book was publicly burnt in a number of places to create an atmosphere of terror. Again, the government chose to ignore it and the secular parties together constituted Mahatma Gandhi’s three monkeys.

Three, a research institute entrusted with thousands of valuable manuscripts and rare books demanded a ban on the book. Could one trust it for retaining the intellectual heritage with fortitude in the light of this act? Four, ever since the BORI passed this resolution, there is no whimper of protest from the academic community. Is not the BORI a public institution and does it not have to answer to the academic community?

The episode at the MS University Baroda only showcases what may be a more generic ailment with the academic and intellectual community in India. The idea to creative and academic autonomy is not ingrained in Indian academia. It is easy to blame it on parties and governments and protestors. But are we as academics really interested in the idea of academic freedom? Are we too afraid to pay the price of upholding the freedom? Or is it just that we are so callous as an intellectual community, and so removed from the world of ideas and creativity, that we genuinely do not appreciate the value of academic autonomy? Combined with the near unanimous disregard of academic freedom by the entire political establishment across party lines, the abdication of its role by the academic community is indicative of our democratic pretension.

(Courtesy : The Indian Express)

The author teaches Political Science at the University of Pune; he can be contacted at subas@unipune.

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