Draupadi, Dalit writers and Delhi University: Inconvenient truths as politics rules

This is not the first time that political considerations will determine what universities in India should teach, or which books may be banned

Lekha Rattanani Sep 23, 2021
Delhi University

Delhi University (DU) enjoys the stature of an “Institute of Eminence” in the Indian educational setup. In less than a year from now, the University established in 1922 with just four colleges, will celebrate its centenary. Its motto is “Nishtha Dhriti Satyam”, which translates to mean dedication, steadfastness and truth. With some 650,000 students (conventional and distance mode) enrolled across more than 500 programs and over 90 colleges affiliated with it, DU stands out as a premier institute of higher learning.

It is this prestigious University with its rich history that has now decided to drop some inconvenient truth from its syllabus. Of those erased from the syllabus of BA (Honours) syllabus is the late author Mahashweta Devi, who is a winner of the Jnanpith award, the Padma Vibhushan, the Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration, the Sahitya Akademi award for Bengali writers and the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts.

The axe has fallen on Mahashweta Devi’s short story ‘Draupadi’, which is a raw, chilling and explicit story of a tribal woman brutalized by Indian security forces. The English translation of the original in Bengali by post-colonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has now been dropped from the BA (Honours) course, stirring controversy. While 15 members of the Delhi University Academic Council protested, a rival group endorsed the change. The changes were ordered by DU’s oversight committee, which also dropped from the syllabus the works of two Dalit writers, Bama Faustina Soosairaj and Sukirtharani. The changes and their enthusiastic endorsement by the DU administration have led to new fears of political control on academia and what this might mean for an education system that is already under strain.

This is not the first time that political considerations will determine what universities in India should teach, or which books may be banned. But the action this time is blatant, and worse, is explained away in equally blatant language on what these stories do to India’s image.  Consider the DU registrar saying that the “gruesome” details in the sexual assault of Draupadi in Mahashweta Devi's story are “uncomfortable” and also show the Indian forces in a very poor light.  “We don’t want our students to hate them based on fictional stories,” he has been quoted as saying.

Later, in a signed statement, the DU registrar Vikas Gupta said: “The University subscribes to the idea that the literary content forming part of the text in a language course of study should contain materials which do not hurt the sentiments of any individual and is inclusive in nature to portray a true picture of our society…(this) is important for young minds who imbibe the content…”

The University statement has come in for severe criticism. Three members of the Delhi University Academic Council and the Delhi University Teachers' Association said the administration was "complicit in the unethical and the unacademic chopping of authors".

Dalit writers' works dropped

Among other changes, two poems by the Dalit poet Sukirtharani and selections from Bama’s Sangati were excluded from the syllabus. Some 1,500 writers, academics, artists and celebrities who petitioned DU against the step, argued that these writings are essential readings, noting that “Bama and Sukirtharani articulate the lived experience of being Dalit women in contemporary India. They illumine how caste oppression colludes with modes of patriarchy to produce gendered oppression and exploitation.” The dropped writers were part of a core paper of the final year English Hons. Syllabus, titled ‘Women’s Writings’ that aims to explore past and contemporary lives of women in India and elsewhere.

Both Bama and Sukirtharani are Tamilian Dalit authors and are therefore important for a central university, located in the national capital, to teach the regional diversity of contemporary India. They also bring out the complex, discriminatory socio-cultural realities of India, both past and present.
Another text that has been removed is a feminist reading of the Ramayana which has been part of a DSE (Discipline Specific Elective) paper titled “Pre-colonial Indian Literatures”.  The Oversight Committee has instructed the English department to replace “Chandrabati Ramayana” with Tulsidas. Chandrabati who lived in what is now Bangladesh is believed to be the first Bengali woman poet. Chandrabati wrote a woman-centric version of the Ramayana which has been translated into English by the noted academic Nabaneeta Dev Sen. 

Very little is known about the author Chandrabati except that her version of the Ramayana is believed to be sung even today by peasant women in Bangladesh. But Chandrabati’s work is a unique example of looking at the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view and it also comes well before works that questioned the undisputed place of Lord Rama in India. 

Ravana lionized

Nineteenth-century Bengali poet Michael Madhusudhan Dutt, who followed some 300 years after Chandrabati, challenged the position of Ram over Ravana. The Lankan monarch is the hero of Dutt’s works and not portrayed as a demon king. His “Meghnad Badh Kavya” about the killing of Ravana’s son Meghnad, while he is unarmed and worshipping at a Lankan temple, is portrayed as an act of cowardice by Lakshmana.

Lionizing Ravana is not new in India. While his effigies are burnt across the country on Dussehra, his devotees worship at the five temples dedicated to Ravana in India.

The village Ravangram in Vidisha has one of the most famous temples of Ravana whose wife Mandodari is believed to be from the place. There is also a temple at Mandsaur where they are believed to have been married. Both Vidisha and Mandsaur are in the central Indian State of Madhya Pradesh.

In her original introduction to the collection of stories of which ‘Draupadi’ is one, Mahashweta Devi wrote: "Life is not mathematics and the human being is not made for the sake of politics. I want a change in the present social system and do not believe in mere party politics.”(as quoted by Spivak in the foreword to the translation of ‘Draupadi’) 

It is the misfortune of DU to show that the system isn’t changing and politics will rule - more forcefully and blindly than ever before.  

(The writer is the Managing Editor of The Billion Press. The views expressed are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press - editor@thebillionpress.org)

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