After a committee at Delhi University recommended removing three books from courses designed and taught by him, N Sukumar of the Department of Political Science has said he is “prepared to go to court”, if the university removes the books without further discussion.
All three books – God as Political Philosopher: Buddha’s Challenge to Brahminism, Why I am not a Hindu and Post-Hindu India: A Discourse in Dalit-Bahujan Socio-Spiritual and Scientific Revolution – are by scholar Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd. According to The Times of India, the books were judged “derogatory towards the Hindu faith” by several members of the Standing Committee on Academic Affairs, which reports to the Academic Council, the university’s highest statutory body dealing with curriculum.
Another member, Hansraj Suman, from Delhi University’s Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes Teachers’ Association, objected to the use of the word “Dalit” in course titles. “The term is unconstitutional,” he told Scroll.in. “The term in the Constitution is ‘Scheduled Castes’.”
Sukumar, 48, was the first Dalit scholar to be appointed to posts reserved for the Scheduled Castes in the department. Since he joined in 2001, the professor has ensured students are exposed to the Dalit perspective on India’s culture and politics. Two of the three books now being considered for removal are part of “Social Exclusion: Theory and Practice”, an optional course that Sukumar has been teaching for nearly a decade. “They have not found anything objectionable in 10 years,” he said.
The course on social exclusion, offered in the third semester – or second year – of MA Political Science, is followed by one on “Democracy and Human Rights in India” in the fourth semester. This pair is offered every alternate year with a second pair of thematically-linked courses – “Dalit-Bahujan political thought” and “Ambedkar in Contemporary India” – offered in between.
Sukumar said he was expecting trouble since his courses challenged the “Brahminical pedagogy” adopted in universities.
On Thursday, he wrote to the head of his department. “I said this will obviously come back to the department and that we need to discuss this,” he said. Currently in Chennai, he intends to organise a protest on campus once he returns and hold a workshop where those who objected to the books will be invited to discuss them.
He spoke to Scroll.in about the courses, why the books must be retained and why he sees owning the word “Dalit” is a “confident assertion of identity”. Edited excerpts below.
How did these books come to be included in the MA Political Science syllabus?
We have a paper on Indian political thought, taught for decades, that is organised thematically. Themes such as freedom, justice, are addressed but there is also greater emphasis on certain thinkers such as Manu, Kautilya, Rabindranath Tagore, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, VD Savarkar and Jawaharlal Nehru.
A few years after I joined, I insisted on changing the paper from theme-based to thinker-based because in the first, there is a tendency to ignore certain thinkers and their ideas. Whoever teaches freedom, say, can pick up ideas of freedom from one or two thinkers and teach just those and their contexts. In a course based on thinkers, diverse perspectives can be part of the syllabus. That is how BR Ambedkar came to be included in the syllabus.
Initially, my interest was to include Ambedkar specifically because no one taught Ambedkar in any form. About five years ago, several other colleagues joined who wanted to teach Indian culture, nationalism and subjects like that. In the new proposed syllabus, they have also included the Vedas. I felt that “Dalit-Bahujan Political Thought” merited a separate paper. It covers Gautam Buddha, Ravidas, Kabir, Jyotiba Phule, Ambedkar, Periyar, Tarabai Shinde and Kanshi Ram. I am teaching this course right now and there are about 75 students. Ilaiah’s God as a Political Philosopher was included for its discussion on Buddha and the political discourse he engaged in.
“Social Exclusion: Theory and Practice” includes a number of sub-themes on the socio-cultural dimensions of exclusion including caste, class, gender, religion and sexuality. Not less than 100 students opt for it whenever it is offered. Some years ago, 320 students had picked it. Ilaiah’s other two books were discussed in the context of socio-cultural exclusion and caste. I have taught this for a decade – no one said anything.
How do you respond to the objections raised now?
These courses had a purpose. For many decades, knowledge production in the universities was an exclusive privilege of the upper castes. What constitutes knowledge, its philosophy, its relationship to one’s lived experience – none of this had anything to do with the masses, the sufferers from the majoritarian discourse. Over the past few decades, people from the lower castes have started entering academia. They started questioning the dominant paradigms of knowledge. Is only what Manu taught knowledge? Phule, too, spoke about knowledge production. What about Periyar, who talked about equality, freedom and women’s rights? He challenged the patriarchal discourse and spoke of equalising the relationship between the genders in everyday context. Their inclusive and egalitarian thoughts were treated as radical thinking of the past. Their inclusion in the curriculum challenged and clearly affected the prevailing Brahmanical pedagogy.
Members of the Standing Committee felt the texts preach against Hinduism and also that they are not academic works.
How do we teach Hinduism? Do we teach it only as a religious idea? When we teach the works of anti-caste intellectuals and we talk about caste, we need to talk about the basis of the caste system which is rooted in religion. I need to engage with Hinduism – what Buddha, Ambedkar and Periyar critiqued. I need to talk about the Hindu religion which is perpetuating caste system every day and in every relationship. The committee-members’ understanding of these concepts must be limited. They must not have read these books. Their opinion might differ from Ilaiah’s but that does not mean his ideas are meaningless. Ilaiah is necessary to have perspective.
Why I am not a Hindu critically engages with Hinduism and Hindutva and whether Dalits really are a part of Hindu society; God as a Political Philosopher examines theology and spiritualism along with politics. Post-Hindu India is the study of an Indian village.
Who defines scholarship? Is it only when Radhakrishnan writes about Hinduism, it will be considered scholarship but not when Kancha Ilaiah or Gopal Guru does? These books are widely read and debated.
It is interesting that the committee has not asked for the entire papers to be removed. They do not have problems with just Kancha Ilaiah – his books are just an entry point for them. They are disturbed by the very idea of anti-caste intellectuals being taught and studied. But how long can they stop? If they found Ilaiah’s books problematic as they speak against Hinduism, what about Ambedkar? He had a range of writings in which he critically engaged with Hinduism. Will they – and the people behind this ideology, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – ask for Ambedkar’s writings to be removed from the syllabus? Let them ask for that!
But I was expecting this kind of attack on the syllabus, knew it was coming any day. The first generation of teachers from these communities has grown more vocal. We are all under surveillance – academic surveillance by the university and nationalistic surveillance by the state. The reduction of reserved-category posts [because of a change in the way the reservation policy is implemented] and this attack on the syllabus – now they want to demoralise. But no one can stop me from teaching Dalit-Bahujan political thought. They may stop me in the classroom but not in the public domain.
And I am not going to give up. I am prepared to go to court over this. A few people cannot decide what can be taught and what cannot. If there are drawbacks, let us discuss them. They cannot simply ask for something to be removed because it is critiquing Hinduism. I, too, have a different opinion on Hindutva but we cannot keep disapproving of others’ perspectives. We should engage with different ideas – all perspectives are important and there is scope for dialogue. If they have not found anything objectionable in syllabus for 10 years, why now? Is it because they are in power now? I am planning to hold a half-day workshop in the department after going back from Chennai. I will ask committee members to come and have a debate on what we should teach.
The impression given that Savarkar is not taught is a misrepresentation. Savarkar and Hindutva thinkers are represented in the syllabus.
Hansraj Suman objected to the use of the word “Dalit” in the syllabus. He is Dalit himself and an activist. Do you agree with him?
I don’t think he is speaking independently. He has a book called Media aur Dalit in Hindi and six months ago, we spoke on the same platform at the Delhi School of Journalism on Dalit and the Indian media.
The use of the word Dalit is a source of discomfort to Hindutva forces and university Dronacharyas, the word has always rattled them. For me, the word signified a positive sense of the self. It was coined by Phule and used by Ambedkar in the context of socio-cultural oppression. It was further popularised by the Dalit Panther Movement in Maharashtra.
The term “Scheduled Caste” was used by the colonial government to put these communities on a list and give them give some kind of benefits – it is bureaucratic terminology for identifying beneficiaries. The word “Dalit” signifies something else. It is consciously used, unites the vast masses of oppressed communities and carries the cultural weight of the experience of oppression and the struggle against it. The Brahminical lobby is afraid of the word. It is a powerful word, a confident assertion of identity, it challenges their prejudice.