Many Ramayanas: Cultural Censorship and Intellectual Freedom

The Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association organized a half-day symposium on the theme, ‘Many Ramayanas: Cultural Censorship and Intellectual Freedom’ where the guest speakers included Nilanjana S. Roy (writer and critic), Prof. Mridula Mukherjee (historian, JNU) and Dr. P.K Basant (historian, JMI)

TanweerFazal, a member of JTSA, initiating the meeting spoke about the urgency of discussing the issue of free speech and censorship in all intellectual spaces, be it the University of Delhi University or Jamia Millia Islamia. He stressed that we need to constantly guard against intolerance of whatever variety and stand for the principle of intellectual and academic freedom.

Dr. P.K Basant discussing his own personal encounters with Ramayanas, spoke about the multiple renditions of Ramlila and how each enactment is a new and unique version of the Ramayana. The attempt to impose totalitarian unity on a text is incorrect as notions of authorship were different in early India. Our tradition is littered with counterfactual writings of Ramayana such as Meghnada-Vadha in Bengal.

This issue is also linked to the question of modern university system which was born from the womb of European enlightenment where scepticism and questioning of everything is a given. It is important to emphasise that the university has to be different from a madrasa and gurukul. Opponents of Ramanjuan’s essay do not represent tradition but are beneficiaries of modernity. The danger is not of this small mob which barges into the History department but of a silent majority which accepts this and dos not resist this.

Nilanjana S. Roy pointed out that when we look at what is happening in Burma or Pakistan, the classic response of Indian liberals is that India is a democracy and we are not like them. However, we can no longer afford this complacency. She traced a history of book bans in India, starting from Kiran Nagarkars’s play Bedtime stories, which was not banned officially but its performances were disrupted violently, to Aubrey Menon’s Rama retold; a satirical look on Ramayana, to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Both Rama Retold and Satanic Verses’ ban were watershed bans in the sense that they legalised the right to be offended and legitimated the logic of hurting religious sentiments. She remarked that the Indian state has not made up its mind about whether we are free to question and mock religion. The attacks on books rob books and ideas of their complexities and flatten them into simplistic offenses. But books are not simply for entertainment; they are written and read for the ideas that challenge and disturb. Can a University say that this idea is too dangerous or explosive to be allowed to be read by the students? It must make up its mind whether it is part of the Enlightenment tradition or not.

Focusing on book bans is important because it is the beginning of assaults on freedom of expression and art, which are non-negotiable and absolute rights. Censorship is not simply that imposed by the state but also includes self-censorship and is reflective of the internalization of censorship.

Prof. Mridula Mukherjee shared with the audience the manipulation of the University of Delhi’s AC meeting through which the resolution on the ban of Ramanujan’s essay was passed: how the item was placed in the supplementary agenda and taken up for discussion when only a few members remained and pushed through by a vote. She pointed out that what is acutely disturbing about the ban was how easily it was allowed to be carried through and how easily the university caved in. She said it was unimaginable that the university could take away the right of the teacher to teach in the manner she wanted to teach and to prescribe readings that she wanted to. This surveillance was unacceptable and must be resisted at all levels. She suggested that in protests against the ban, all teachers of History should circulate this essay and discuss it with their students. It is the finest example of doing historiography.

She argued that ultimately this was a deeply political issue about how a certain political group which rode the wave of the Ram temple issue would find itself without any ground if students learnt that there were other versions of the Ramayana that conflicted with its own; how students would learn that the story of Rama was ultimately in the realm of mythology and not historical facts, thus taking the winds out of its sails. She also urged that we should protest against the publishing houses like OUP who have stopped publishing books that have been under threat from the Right wing.

The talk was followed by a vibrant discussion where historian and writer Mukul Kesvan spoke about how both UPA and NDA regimes have been equal participants in this culture of censorship and bans.

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