On August 3, a lecturer in a junior college in Pune was arrested under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which speaks of “deliberate and malicious acts that are intended to outrage religious feelings”. The arrest was triggered by a video shot by a student in the lecturer’s class that went viral. The video brought the Samast Hindu Bandhav, a lesser-known Hindu outfit, to the gates of the college to demonstrate. Soon the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, joined the Bandhav, and the lecturer was taken into custody. The college promptly suspended the lecturer.

The lecture, in Hindi, was supposedly based on a lesson on Bhakti Rasa, to explain which, the lecturer extolled the virtues of monotheistic religions like Islam and Christianity, while critiquing Hinduism for being polytheistic. There is only one god, the lecturer seemingly intended to say, regardless of what we call him.

The arrest sent alarm bells ringing among the academic community. There is no knowing what can be construed as a deliberate and malicious act intended to outrage religious feelings. While educational institutions pride themselves on introducing newer and newer subjects into the curriculum, the teachers who teach these subjects, often with PhD degrees and books and articles to their credit, expose themselves to grave risk. They can be jailed, beaten up, and thrown out of their jobs. They can be ostracised.

If feelings are so fragile that they can be hurt at the drop of a hat, it’s best that we go back to the days of the gurukulas and madrasas, where religious education was the only education that was imparted.

Worrisome questions

As an expert in the field of LGBTQIA+ Studies, which I have taught for many years, I find myself mulling over many worrisome questions.

How on earth can I cite the work of contemporary scholars like Saleem Kidwai, Wendy Doniger, Ruth Vanita, Devdutt Patnaik and many others, who have spent a lifetime researching same-sex love in India, without jeopardising my safety?

Based on research, how can I tell my students, for example, that the saptapadam – seven steps around a fire – that sanctify a heterosexual marriage, were also taken by Lord Ram and Sugriva in the Ramayana to sanctify their friendship, even as Hanuman lit the fire? How can I speak of Shikhandini’s sex change from female to male, to take revenge on Bhishma? In the words of best-selling author Devdutt Patnaik, “Shikhandini, who became Shikhandi, is what modern queer vocabulary would call a female-to-male transsexual, as her body goes through a very specific change genitally.”

Then there’s Harihara. As Ardhanarishwara represents Shiva and Parvati in fusion, Harihara represents Shiva and Vishnu in fusion. The birth of Ayyappa is a result of this fusion. In turn, Ayyappa develops a close friendship with a Muslim pirate, Vavar. He is said to have refused marriage to a woman, Leela, preferring instead an all-male following, even taking a vow of celibacy. Ayyappa is worshipped at the Sabarimala temple in Southern Kerala. The temple is situated far away from civilization, on a forested mountain. The pilgrimage to Sabarimala is conducted only by men. This, in Ruth Vanita’s words, “can be seen as providing temporary freedom to men from the burdens of compulsory heterosexuality and reproduction”.

The story of Aravan

Again, if students ask me about the significance of the Kovagam Festival in Tamil Nadu, how do I explain to them that the festival is celebrated by Tamil Nadu’s hijra community, who identify with Lord Krishna, who married Arjuna’s son Aravan for just a day? The story is that Aravan is to be sacrificed in the war the next day, but wants to experience marital bliss before his death. Thus, Krishna comes to his aid and marries him.

How can I talk to my class about Vatsayana’s Kamasutra, which has explicit descriptions of male servants performing oral sex on their masters? Wendy Doniger quotes an explicit passage from the Kamasutra that says: “The women of the harem cannot meet men, because they are carefully guarded; and since they have only one husband shared by many women in common...they give pleasure to one another using the following techniques...By imagining a man, they experience a heightened emotion that gives extreme satisfaction. These things have a form just like the male sexual organ: the bulbs of arrowroot, plantain, and so forth; the roots of coconut palms, breadfruit, and so forth; and the fruits of the bottle-gourd, cucumber, and so forth (5.6.2).”

Universities usually have a budget for field trips. If I decide to take my post-graduate students on a field trip to Madhya Pradesh’s Khajuraho temples, can I read the following explanatory passage to them from Doniger’s book before starting, without being accused of outraging religious sentiments? Doniger says, “Three levels of eroticism are depicted [in Khajuraho] with very different degrees of prominence. The sexy women are the largest images; the amorous couples are nearly not so large; and the scenes of group sex, stylised and geometrically arranged, are smaller still. The few obscene friezes are very small indeed and placed at difficult-to-spot places, perhaps a private joke on the art of the sculptors who carved the temples.”

But if the sculptors had private jokes amongst themselves back then, why can’t we view all this today with the same sense of humour?

Ghazal as gay poetry

In the Islamic tradition, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni who plundered the temples of Somnath had a male slave lover, Ayaz. The legendary love story of Mahmud and Ayaz is often compared to legendary heterosexual love stories, such as that of Laila and Majnu, and Shirin and Farhad; and, according to Saleem Kidwai, unlike those love stories that ended tragically, the Mahmud-Ayaz love story is said to have had a happy ending.

The first Mughal emperor, Babur, fell madly in love with a boy in the camp-bazar named Baburi. In one of his couplets, translated by Kidwai, he wrote: “I am abashed with shame when I see my friend. My companions look at me, I look the other way.”

In Persian and Arabic ghazal poetry, the gender of the beloved remains unspecified, leading scholars to view the ghazal as a form of gay poetry, where both lover and beloved are male. However, once the ghazal headed towards South Asia, and Urdu and Hindi poets appropriated it, it got “heterosexualised”. The lover was male and the beloved female.

Now, the question is, if one spoke about the love affair of Mahmud and Ayaz, or of Babur’s love for Baburi (which literally meant he who belongs to Babur), or of the ghazal as gay poetry, would Muslim students be offended? This is likely, though with minorities, going as far as getting one’s professor arrested does not seem plausible.

Where vice-chancellors of universities and principals of colleges need to stand by their faculty in times of crises such as these, they have always been known to side with rabble-rousing politicians. This is truly unfortunate.

A final question that arises, then, is that, fascist as it sounds, should we go back to the days when students were banned from bringing mobile phones to class? Perhaps, if nothing else, this would at least introduce a measure of safety in the lives of faculty.

In the end, one can only ruefully say that with the teaching fraternity having today become as vulnerable as we are, it is little wonder that the profession no longer attracts the best talent. We have become pawns in the hands of the upstarts we teach, who care two hoots about education, and who only dream of starting money-making start-ups.

R Raj Rao is former head, Department of English, University of Pune, and is currently Visiting Professor, School of Languages and Literature, Nalanda University, Rajgir.