Reading the texts in the centre of the curriculum storm

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on August 09, 2019 Published on August 09, 2019

Class cancelled: Students from Delhi University protest the changes proposed to the curriculum   -  Special Arrangement

What is it that the Undergraduate Curriculum Revision Committee of Delhi University not want its students to read

Nobody knows, nobody can ever know, not even in memory, because there are moments in time that are not knowable — Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines


If you have, of late, found yourself wondering if you are living in one of Amitav Ghosh’s “unknowable moments in time”, you’re not alone. Article 370 has just been scrapped. Several problematic Bills have been rushed through Parliament. The Supreme Court has ordered the eviction of over a million forest-dwelling Adivasi families. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019, meanwhile, requires transgender people to get themselves certified as such by a district magistrate — a revised version of this certificate may only be issued if the person undergoes gender reassignment surgery.

In the past, such developments would have typically been followed by a series of protests at venues such as Delhi University (DU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). But these institutions are now mostly protest-free zones, thanks to a sequence of events that began in February 2016, when student leader Kanhaiya Kumar first raised his slogan for azaadi and was arrested on charges of sedition. The best way to muzzle dissent, however, as DU’s Undergraduate Curriculum Revision Committee (UGCRC) has realised, is to hit the syllabus — as a report in TheIndian Express revealed last week.

Several texts from the English and history curricula in DU colleges were earmarked for removal by the UGCRC — The Shadow Lines, which won Ghosh the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1989, is just one of these texts. Among the others are Meena Kandasamy’s 2006 poetry collection Touch, as well as sections of Studies in Modern Indian Performance Traditions that talk about the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), the iconic Jana Natya Manch street play Aurat and writer-director Badal Sircar’s street play Procession (often called Juloos in its Hindi iterations).

Meena Kandasamy’s poetry collection Touch is among the texts marked for replacement - S S Kumar   -  The Hindu


The UGCRC wanted to replace Kandasamy’s poetry with Munshi Premchand’s story Kafan (The Shroud), and Ghosh’s novel, which takes a dim view of nationalism, was to be substituted with RK Narayan’s Swami and Friends.

Although the English department in DU has rejected the suggestions, the chapter is not closed. After all, the process of curriculum revision is a long one, and it started in 2017. In another news report, Raj Kumar, the head of the English department at DU, confirmed that since 2017 several meetings had been held and over 120 teachers from 52 colleges had spent 3,000-plus hours revising syllabi. But the UGCRC never thought to make any objections, and instead chose to spring its recommendations upon DU on the eve of a new academic session.

But just what about the texts is deemed soscary that the UGCRC, which enforces updated UGC norms, wants them removed from the syllabus?


Take the case of Touch, Kandasamy’s first book. Kandasamy, author of the novel When I Hit You Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2018), is one of India’s better-known English-language writers today.

Those familiar with Kandasamy’s work can easily see why this collection raised the hackles of the UGCRC. Poems such asBecoming a Brahmin and Ekalaivan aren’t just solid comedic works, they are also serious indictments of India’s caste system, a position that would not be viewed kindly by censorship committees. Other works, such as the poem Liquid Tragedy: Karamchedu 1985, are rooted in specific historical contexts — in this case, the Karamchedu massacre of July 17, 1985, when six Dalit people were killed and 20 others injured in this Andhra Pradesh village in an attack by upper caste men. The conflict was triggered after two upper caste men washed their buffaloes’ feeding buckets in a drinking water tank belonging to the Madigas (Dalits). When a young boy protested, the men tried to beat him up, prompting a Madiga woman, Munnangi Suvartha, to intervene. When the men turned to attacked her, Suvartha, who had come to the tank to fill water, raised her pot in self-defence.

Kandasamy’s poem evokes this image with the initial lines (“Buffalo Baths. Urine. Bullshit / Drinking Water for the Dalits / The very same Pond. / Practice for eons. / A bold Dalit lady / dares to question injustice. / Hits forth with her pot. Her indignation / is avenged”), but also with the poem’s very shape on the page — that of a pot.

In an email interview, she spoke about the era which saw her writing these poems. “Touch was written in the early 2000s. I was in a kind of milieu where I personally felt that to publish with my name on it was a selfish/ambitious thing — and felt much more comfortable translating others or writing reports. And I think that book is very much a product of its time,” she says

The late 1990s and early 2000s, she adds, were when Tamil Nadu witnessed an “extreme spike” in caste atrocities. “It’s the poetry’s preoccupation. Caste became contentious in love, in a panchayat election, in a funeral, in which street a corpse could have its final procession.”

The titular poem Touch sees Kandasamy addressing an unnamed yogi immersed in his meditations. The idea of touch as something ‘betraying’ the yogi is introduced. (“And, the only failure, that ever came, / the only gross betrayal — / was from your own skin”.) Even as the yogi “blames skin as a sinner”, the poet reflects that the yogi “will have known” the various sins being alluded to, especially the pleasures of the flesh. However, in a perfectly built-up final stanza, the poem concludes by noting that the yogi is surely ignorant of how “(…) touch — the taboo/ to your transcendence, / when crystallized in caste / was a paraphernalia of / undeserving hate”.


Clearly, for the censors, the poem was iconoclastic — and had to be removed forthwith from the textbooks of college students. Kandasamy writes: “I want to demolish/dismantle the whole mythical, esoteric build-up around Indian traditions that are made to appear grandiose, absolute and pure — by pointing out how much they are underpinned by caste. So you hear all these lofty constructions about how great yoga is or how great and peaceful and what-not meditation is, and that’s like this country’s single big export: Healthy living, yoga and everyone’s so impressed. We have to look a little further at realising that all of this spirituality about the body and the mind also has an inhumane aspect, which is the caste system (which at the level of the body makes some people impure, and at the level of the mind considers some people inferior).”

This, she believes, extends to grammar and language. “Tholkappiyam, the oldest extant grammar in the world, talks about touch being the first of the senses. Great; Proud of the Tamil semiotics, but where are we now where touchability-untouchability is concerned,” she asks.

The poems in Touch, written nearly two decades ago, underline that little has changed since then. Take the recent suicide of Payal Tadvi, a Dalit woman who was allegedly bullied and humiliated repeatedly by her seniors at a Mumbai hospital and medical college. Despite the fact that such cases are commonplace in colleges and universities across India, there is no institutional cognisance of caste-based discrimination.

The scourge lives on: Caste-based discrimination in educational institutions came to the fore with the recent suicide of Payal Tadvi, a young doctor - Vivek Bendre   -  The Hindu


Which is why, for Kandasamy, the recent events around Touch and the DU curriculum are just manifestations of an age-old, ongoing malaise.

“With caste, there’s no moving forward: It is the nature of the beast to push us all backward, to consume us in its hatred. A patently Hindutva government such as the present one is going to do everything in the book to be 100 per cent Hindutva, and being 100 per cent Hindutva means being 100 per cent anti-Dalit, anti-Shudra, anti-Adivasi, anti-minority, anti-anything-that-is-not-Brahmin-Baniya. I think their tampering of textbooks has been going on for a very long time in a very insidious fashion — we are speaking about some of it now because it happens in a power-centre (Delhi), or in a language more powerful in the hierarchy (English).”


Unlike Touch, where the poems’ ire is explicitly directed, the Hindi-language Aurat is a much broader allegory, one whose vision of social justice cuts across several axes — class, gender, social capital and so on. The street play was first performed by the theatre group Jana Natya Manch (Janam), led by writer-director Safdar Hashmi in 1979 (with Moloyashree Roy playing the titular woman) in North Delhi. It went on to become one of Janam’s more successful works and was translated into several other languages. The play itself begins with Hashmi’s Hindi translation of I Am a Woman, a poem by an Iranian schoolteacher named Marzia Ahmed Oskoui.

Too close for comfort: Safdar Hashmi in the play Aurat, first performed in 1979   -  BusinessLine


Through several short episodes, the play looks at the various stages of discrimination a woman faces in India — starting with a young girl whose father threatens to pull her out of school (he doesn’t have enough money to educate two children, and he’d rather send his son). Other scenes include a young woman at a college admission interview, where she’s ridiculed for speaking Hindi and told she should study home science rather than physics. The same woman is later seen being sexually harassed at a job interview. As a framing device for these episodes, the play has the character of a working-class woman, a mazdoor, narrating these stories — and it’s a female mazdoor who is seen being bullied and summarily fired by a loutish factory-owner in the concluding scene. She is then joined by others, who pledge to fight for their rights together.

One of the bigger themes of the play is the relationship among different kinds of oppressive systems. A tired factory worker comes home late at night and hits his wife. He says, even as he shouts at his wife, that all day, his supervisor has been making his life hell. In the opening scene, the penniless father asks his young daughter to get flour on credit; when she does so, the shopkeeper’s son propositions her. Oppression begets scarcity begets oppression.


Sudhanva Deshpande (actor and director with Janam), who has been a part of many Aurat performances over the years, recalls the first time he saw the play as a schoolboy. “I saw it for the first time at JNU, I must have been in Std XI or XII, I think. This was in the early ’80s. I remember the impact the play had on me. I’m writing a book on Safdar (Hashmi) currently, and while reading and interviewing people for that, one of the things I realised was that the first reaction of many people who watched Aurat mirrored mine,” he says.

Drop scene: “There’s no real reference to government in Aurat or even to Hindutva,” says actor and director Sudhanva Deshpande, who has been a part of many Aurat performances   -  The Hindu


Ironically, the administration that advocates the slogan Beti bachao, beti padhao (Save your daughter, educate your daughter) failed to see that Aurat actually covers much of the same ground. The very first scene of the play is a powerful statement in support of a woman’s right to education. The play also focuses on issues such as female entrepreneurship and participation in the workforce.

“There’s no real reference to government in Aurat or even to Hindutva — it is a critique of society, and of the patriarchy that runs deep in our society,” says Deshpande. “For them (the UGCRC) to remove a reference to a play like Aurat is still expected, at some level. But I should also say that I was amused that they should do this to a play like Aurat at a time when their own government is going to town about Beti bachao, beti padhao — this is a play that has been advocating the same long before the BJP came into power. They could have used it to their advantage.”


Perhaps the UGCRC and its allies ought to remember that today, suppressing information is a sure-fire way of ensuring it’s circulated far and wide. The internet even has a name for this phenomenon — the Streisand Effect — coined on the blog TechDirt in 2005, after the American singer-actor Barbra Streisand. In 2003, after Streisand’s Malibu house was photographed inadvertently by an environmentalist tracking the entire California coastline, she claimed that the lensman had violated anti-paparazzi laws and claimed $10 million in damages. The move backfired spectacularly when the lawsuit itself ensured that the pictures were circulated on the internet thousands of times.

Every time the UGCRC seeks to suppress a text, there will be millions of people who will read it again and again. The curricula may remain tightly controlled, but the internet isn’t.

What of the actual students, though? As the political theorist- philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.”

Published on August 09, 2019
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