During my undergraduate years at Yale, one of the most celebrated seminars was a class called ‘The Bible as Literature’. The course gently lifted the sacred scripture from its pedestal and examined it for what it was, a written text that could be analysed in nimble and surprising ways. In so doing, nobody was disrespecting the billions of people who consider the Bible holy, who treasure its tales and seek to adhere to its teachings. Instead, through rigorous literary analysis, students explored how scripture works and how the Bible inspires so many people around the world.

The basic principle embodied in the class is fundamental to life in secular society. Scripture exists simultaneously on two planes, the sacred and the historical. It is imbued with the ineffable power of the divine, but at the same time it is also the work of human beings who lived in real places and in real political and social conditions. In order to respect the sanctity of the former, you do not have to deny the truth of the latter.

This is an important distinction. Maintaining the divide between the historical and the sacred is not simply an academic exercise, it’s what separates secular democracy from theocracy. A society that insists on mingling the sacred and the historical will creep towards becoming Saudi Arabia or, for that matter, Pakistan and Israel, all countries where religious understandings of the past supersede present-day concerns.

I recalled ‘The Bible as Literature’ while following the controversy caused by the amateurish petition to unseat Sheldon Pollock, the American scholar of Sanskrit, as editor of the Murty Classical Library. The petition launched a thousand headlines and made a voluminously-bearded and otherwise innocuous ivory tower denizen a household name in India.

I’m glad that Rohan Murty — the founder of the Library — swiftly rejected the claims of the petition and supported Pollock. The petition’s signees alleged groundlessly that Pollock “has deep antipathy towards many of the ideals and values cherished and practised in our civilisation”. They also cited Pollock’s defence of the students at Jawaharlal Nehru University as proof that he disrespected “the unity and integrity of India,” as if the professor’s criticism of the government calls into question his deep erudition and nuanced understanding of the Indian past.

The petition has been widely panned in the media and by academics. Its arguments have been systematically dismantled and the threadbare credentials of many of its backers exposed. Yet despite its flaws and logical inconsistencies, the petition is setting the terms for a new conversation about who has the right to interpret ancient Indian history and what that history should look like. While it has won few converts among the chattering classes, it has struck a chord elsewhere, gaining thousands of signatures.

The petition demands that scholars recognise the “greatness of Indian civilisation.” It may be possible to arrive at an understanding of the “greatness of Indian civilisation,” but real scholarship cannot proceed from that triumphalist notion as a premise.

Tellingly, the petition insists that in the ranks of scholars attached to the Murty Classical Library, “there must be a fair representation of the lineages and traditional groups that teach and practise the traditions described in the texts being translated. This would ensure that the sentiments and understanding of the millions of Indians who practise these traditions are not violated.”

What does this mean? Here, we see the dangerous mingling of the sacred and the historical, the notion that an ancient scripture’s holiness is inextricable from its academic study, that only those who believe can properly know. Indian and NRI critics often accuse Pollock and other western Indologists of not respecting the full holiness of ancient Hindu scriptures. Since Pollock cannot bring “authentic” faith to the study of these texts, the argument goes, he is doomed to distort the “true” meanings embedded within them.

I think scholars should be open to traditional pundit forms of learning. But scholarship, like other aspects of public life, should be beyond the diktat of fragile religious “sentiments” — a term always invoked to shut down debate and conversation. We should be able to study Hindu, Muslim and Christian scriptures as literature, as the work of human hands and minds, without fear of censure or violence (A truly progressive, scientific society does not privilege belief over knowledge.)

There is an unfortunate strain of provincial patriotism in this, the prickly rejection of Pollock as an outsider — “What can a white man tell us about our history, our religion?” But I don’t think the angst directed at Pollock is really about the colour of his skin or his country of citizenship (his critics cluelessly accuse him of “Orientalism,” even though their own preferred interpretations of the Hindu past owe much to Orientalist thought).

No, it has to do with something far worse than casual xenophobia. In the petition — and in the work of its guru, the New Jersey-based writer Rajiv Malhotra (who is to sophisticated historical scholarship what Subramanian Swamy is to civil political discourse) — we see an intolerance for the critical intellectual habits that are the bedrock of not only a liberal arts education, but also a liberal, open society.

Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories, a collection of short fiction; @kanishktharoor