Furore over Ramanujan essay points to India's cultural divide

NEW DELHI Tue Nov 1, 2011 7:16pm IST

Artists dressed as Hindu Gods Rama and Laxman take part in the Dussehra festival celebrations in Chandigarh September 28, 2009. REUTERS/Ajay Verma/Files

Artists dressed as Hindu Gods Rama and Laxman take part in the Dussehra festival celebrations in Chandigarh September 28, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Ajay Verma/Files

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Under pressure from Hindu hardliners, Delhi University has dropped a scholarly text on the Ramayana epic from its history syllabus, in the latest sign of conservatives' deep influence over a globalising India's cultural battles.

In October, Delhi University removed the essay by eminent academic A.K. Ramanujan from the reading list after Hindu nationalist students vandalized the history department and lodged a complaint that the text's bawdy references offended beliefs about the life of hero-god Rama.

Liberal thinkers are furious at what they see as another capitulation by a secular institution to pressure from hardliners -- in a tweet last week author Salman Rushdie called it "academic censorship."

The furore bears some resemblance to U.S. tussles over the teaching of evolutionary theory and highlights the resurgence of India's religious right at a time when voters are turning away from a centre-left Congress government weakened by corruption scandals.

This was not the first case of radical Hindu pressure over India's culture. It has ranged from state governments banning books seen as offensive to raids on bars by Hindu groups in the IT hub of Bangalore to protest Western culture corrupting Indian values.

Last year, Mumbai University removed Rohinton Mistry's Booker Prize shortlisted novel “Such A Long Journey” from its literature syllabus after threats and book burnings by radical Hindu political party Shiv Sena.

India's best-known artist, painter Maqbool Fida Husain, fled the country in 2006 and died in exile in London this year after his depictions of naked Hindu goddesses enraged zealots who attacked his house and vandalised shows.

MULTIPLE INTERPRETATIONS

Ramanujan's "Three Hundred Ramayanas," is considered by Indologists to be a classic study of Hindu diversity and a discussion of the hundreds of different tellings of the epic story of Rama and Sita.

"It's not a religious essay at all, it's not about which version are you supposed to read," said Delhi University professor Bharati Jagannathan, who said she used the text to teach students that history has many interpretations.

Revered in academic circles as a critic, poet and playwright, the author was a MacArthur Fellow and taught at Chicago University for decades. He died in 1993.

But India's Hindu nationalist movement seeks a more doctrinal approach to the religion's foundational texts. Student activists called Ramanujan's study a perversion of tradition, especially the inclusion of early versions of the tale with numerous sexual references.

"There's no need to distort our Hindu texts, which we hold in great reverence, to this degree. Why? If this is the case, then why not do multiple interpretations of Islamic and Christian texts?" said student leader Rohit Chahal.

Beleaguered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's coalition led by the Congress party has not spoken on the issue, giving the impression it fears offending hardline Hindu voters by standing up for its secular ideals.

"None of the so-called secular Congress leaders have spoken a word, not the prime minister, nor the home minister nor the education minister, they have maintained a deafening silence," said political analyst Amulya Ganguli.

In the past, Congress politicians have also bowed to pressure from Muslim groups in freedom of speech cases. In 1988, India banned imports of Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses, which had offended many Muslims and led to a Iranian fatwa ordering the author's death.

The angry protests by Hindu groups highlight a pervasive current of conservative Indians who are still an important political voice, despite the rapid modernisation of Asia's third largest economy.

Opinion polls show growing support for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that represents the moderate face of a movement seeking to define India as a Hindu nation.

When it governed from 1998 to 2004 the BJP focussed on good economic management rather than religious supremacy, but agitation by extremist members of the Hindu nationalist or Hindutva movement that backs the party has not gone away.

The country's most popular opposition politician, Narendra Modi, is a BJP governor respected for presiding over a long economic boom in Gujarat state but is also associated with religious riots that killed hundreds of Muslims.

(Additional reporting by Annie Banerji; Editing by Alistair Scrutton)

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