Another intolerance debate: Why the silencing of scholarship in Udaipur needs to be taken seriously

Another intolerance debate: Why the silencing of scholarship in Udaipur needs to be taken seriously
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There are various reasons why our state universities seem to have no intellectual life. One of them is the rising intolerance against scholarship – in and outside the campus.

The most recent warning bell was heard from Udaipur. The authorities of the Mohanlal Sukhadia University  decreed last  week  that for any lecture to be organised on the campus,  a written script of it will have to be submitted beforehand. Permission will be given only after scrutiny by a committee.

This came in the wake of protests by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh from December 4 to 6 for alleged act of blasphemy against Hindu gods and goddesses in a lecture in Udaipur on December 3 on the need for dialogue on religion.

The lecture was delivered by Professor Ashok Vohra, a well-known scholar, who retired as the head of the Department of Philosophy of Delhi University recently, who was invited by Professor Sudha Chaudhary on behalf of the Department of Philosophy of Mohanlal Sukhadia University under the Indian Council of Philosophical Research extension lecture series.

A first information report was eventually  registered against Professor Vohra by the police after the minister of human resource development of the government of Rajasthan himself called the local authorities and instructed them to initiate action against Professor Vohra but the agitators  wanted Professor Sudha Chaudhary to be named in the FIR as well.

This was not all. Serving Vice Chancellors of two universities asked for criminal proceedings against these professors at a public meeting. One of them, BP Sharma, Vice Chancellor of Pacific University,a private university in Udaipur, went to the extent of exhorting the audience to not rest till the two were punished in an exemplary manner for their unpardonable act of blasphemy. Sharma also happens to be the national vice-president of the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and Prant Pramukh of Chittor Prant (District head of Chittor) of the RSS. The Dean of the Arts College of the MS University Farida Shah herself went to the police station to lodge a complaint against the two teachers for having hurt the sentiments of people.

Professor Sudha Chaudhary is one of the most active academics in Mohanlal Sukhadia University, Udaipur, who keeps inviting scholars from all over India for seminars and lectures to her campus. This is one of the jobs academics are supposed to perform as part of their duty – to expose themselves and their students to scholarship outside their campus. If the department of philosophy at MS University is known outside, it is largely because of her. She is known as a left-leaning person. But her politics did not prevent her from inviting Professor Vohra, who does not share her political views, to give a lecture on the need to have a dialogue on religion. And he went. This is how it should be. Scholars with different outlooks meet each other, exchange views, argue, discuss and debate and refine their views, if persuaded by other participants. This is how scholarship and knowledge grow.

Vohra’s crime

Profesor Vohra’s lecture underlined the need to talk about religions so as to develop an empathetic understanding of religions other than one’s own and not try to look at them through analytical categories constructed in a tradition which which may have nothing in common with the one under discussion.

Vohra pointed out that every religion has its insiders and outsiders. An insider is one who believes in its foundational principles, who follows its rituals and an outsider is a person who does not believe in all this. But an outsider may approach it as a genuinely curious observer, from the point of view of a different religion.

He went on to talk about the way foreigners, especially westerners, have studied Hinduism. He explained, quoting from them extensively to show that they failed to comprehend the significance of the symbolism of various Hindu traditions. He also pointed out problems with using modern systems like psychoanalysis to, for instance, assign sexual motives to the symbols and rituals which are now part of Hinduism.

Hinduism, Vohra pointed out, is an inclusive religion, which encompasses contradictory belief systems. The western eye, he said, is trained in treating everything as discreet entities and is often puzzled by the “confused” Hindu ways of thinking and imagining the world and cosmos. The western scholars, he said, have not taken care to free themselves from their semitic understanding of religion, and that is why we find them amused or horrified when they come across Hindu practices or images of gods and goddesses. “Grotesque”, “horrific” or “funny” are the adjectives they use when describing these traditions, which are very far from their own traditions.

Vohra said that these scholars approach Hindu practices with a bias that these are primordial and unrefined. Theirs is not a truly dispassionate, objective approach. That is why they miss the complex richness of Hindu traditions. Vohra seemed to suggest that their interpretation is often too hastily, and unjust.

To explain his views, Vohra referred to some of the work he was talking about and quoted from it. Now this is standard practice and this is what we do and teach our students to do when discussing the view point of other scholars. This is also, if one may say, the Indian way of dialogue or polemics. First present the purva paksh faithfully and then dispute it or demolish it. This is the methodology ofsarva darshan sangrah.

But just these quotations seem to have became Vohra’s crime. For it is being charged that he very cunningly used the pretext of discussing these scholars to actually mouth obscenities about Hindu gods and goddesses. That he chose to quote them proves that he had an ulterior motive, it is being alleged. His real objective, it is claimed, was to denigrate Hindu religion. His act of referring to various Indologists, it is being projected, was a clever ruse to show “this is what our Hindu religion is”.

Video clips of Vohra reading from these foreign scholars were circulated, editing out his criticism of these scholars. It is clear that the aim was to create hatred against him and the organisers of the talk among the masses. Would a common person, watching these edited portions be wrong to believe that it was Vohra who held these views?

Curtailing thought

It is not difficult to see who is using falsehood and deceit. The real aim is obviously to disable teachers like Sudha Chaudhary who keep intellectual discourse alive in the campus by inviting scholars and intellectuals of different hues. This is obvious from the leaflet issued by the agitators which names Sudha Chaudhary and some of her colleagues, charging them with the crime of providing a platform to “anti-nationals” like Justice Rajinder Sacchar, social scientist Abhay Kumar Dube, and others.The leaflet laments that even after having a nationalist government for the last two years  academics like Sudha Chaudhary are allowed to indulge in such nefarious acts.

What is worrying is that the Dean of the Arts College, instead of protecting the right of her colleague, went on to lodge a police complaint against her. The occasion was then used to issue a blanket order to create a censor-body in the university to keep a check on scholarly and intellectual activity on the campus.

Heart of India

This tendency is not confined to a state university like the MS University of Udaipur. A head of department in Delhi University, which seeks to enter the the list of the top 200 universities of the world, was asked to ensure, on the eve of a public lecture last week by a guest speaker,  that there was no anti-national discussion there. Before that, noted labour historian Dilip Simeon told me that after his lecture in one of the leading women’s college of Delhi University, a fiat was issued that all guest lectures would have to be approved beforehand and an abstract of the same would have to be deposited with the authorities.

What we are observing is a  silent surrender of the academic institutions before “nationalist cultural” sentiments.  It means dumbing down of syllabus, keeping away from “contentious” issues, disallowing discussion on “uncomfortable” subjects.

I am witness to the reluctance of  my colleagues who bear the responsibility of heading their departments when approached with proposal of screening of films like Tamas  or holding a conversation with a Pakistani diplomat.  We do not get space for “out of syllabus” activities. The excuse advanced is safety and security of the campus.

The most important aim of education is to enable people to think courageously.  It is not an exaggeration  to say that universities have gradually withdrawn from this role.

If we still have young minds who dare to think, it is not because of the universities – it is in spite of them.