educational politics

Writers hit out at 'ill-motivated' attempt to remove Sheldon Pollock as editor of Sanskrit series

Attaching ethnic origins to the acquisition of knowledge is divisive, reads statement signed by Romila Thapar, Nayantara Sahgal, Kiran Nagarkar and others.

Renowned writers and historians including Nayantara Sahgal, Romila Thapar, and Kiran Nagarkar on Thursday hit out at what they described a campaign by self-styled scholars and academics to have American Indologist Sheldon Pollock removed as editor of the Murty Classical Library of India.

The Murty Classical Library of India plans to translate ancient texts in several languages including Sanskrit, Telugu, Hindi, Bangla and Pali into English to make them accessible to a wider audience.

On February 26, a petition signed by 132 scholars and intellectuals, including professors from several Indian Institutes of Technology and government officials, had asked that Pollock be removed as general editor as he was not qualified for the job because he is not "deeply rooted and steeped in the intellectual traditions of India". The petition deemed Pollock's past lectures as being anti-India, and also criticised him for signing public letters that spoke against the Indian government in the ongoing Jawaharlal Nehru University row. More than 10,000 people have supported the petition.

Rohan Murty, the funder of the project, had earlier in the day taken a strong stand against the petitioners and insisted that Pollock would remain in the job.

A statement released by the The Indian Writers Forum, a public charitable trust started to safeguard and celebrate Indian cultural diversity, called the petition an ill-motivated attack. It said that attaching ethnic origins to the acquisition of knowledge was divisive and detrimental to the idea of scholarship.

Here is the full text of the statement:

We are worried and angered by the campaign by some self-styled scholars and academics to remove Sheldon Pollock, the well-known scholar on South Asian studies, as the General Editor of the Murty Classical Library of India Series. The academics in question seem to have misunderstood (or deliberately misrepresented) Pollock’s criticism of Western Universities that ignore South Asian knowledge traditions as a criticism of South Asian traditions.

Pollock has established himself as one of the finest Sanskritists and philologists, and his department in Columbia University has enhanced its reputation through its association with him. The petitioners say he is "culturally not rooted in the Indian tradition" as if those who are born in India are naturally endowed with an understanding of Indian knowledge systems and knowledge of Indian texts, and as if such knowledge cannot be acquired by someone who is not born here. 

We have examples of any number of scholars from the West who are among the tallest in their fields, whether it be the study of Kabir and Bhakti traditions, the Ramayanas, Kalidasa and Bhasa, Buddhism, the Vedas and Upanishads, or Indian poetics. Attaching ethnic origins to the acquisition of knowledge is divisive; it is also detrimental to the very idea of scholarship.

The petitioning academics complain that Pollock has signed certain petitions and statements “against the Government of India”. Such an argument – that showing solidarity with large numbers of intellectuals and academics in India in their criticism of a particular government action would make a person anti-Indian – would mean diminishing the support of world scholars including Noam Chomsky to the support of democracy in the JNU campus to being "anti-Indian". We condemn this ill-motivated attack on Sheldon Pollock and appeal to all concerned to ignore a protest orchestrated by vested interests.

K Satchidanandan

Romila Thapar

Nayantara Sahgal

Shashi Deshpande

Kiran Nagarkar

Shyam B. Menon

Githa Hariharan

Anuradha Kapur

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