The University of Delhi (DU) recently saw a row emerge over the proposed syllabus changes in some undergraduate courses. To understand this better, we spoke to some of the key players involved.
The story developed rapidly in the last couple of weeks in what has now become an ideological battle as various organisations clashed over proposed changes in a variety of the University’s undergraduate programmes – English, History, Political Science, Sociology. Both sides levied a number of accusations on the other – in essence, ranging from trying to manipulate academic spaces to spreading propaganda against certain ideologies. However, some claim that the issue is not a Left vs Right matter at all.
A few characters seem important to this story: Professor Rasal Singh, the Academic Council (AC) member who opposed these proposals; the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which protested against these changes; a host of Left organisations like the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), All India Students’ Association (AISA), Collective, and others, who staged counter-protests against the ABVP’s demonstration; Professor Saikat Ghosh, another AC member who defended the recommendations of the departments. Our conversation with Professor Sanam Khanna, who was involved in the syllabus drafting exercise, is also of great interest.
But first, here’s the background. After objections from within the AC and the protests by the ABVP over the alleged negative portrayal of the RSS and its affiliates, and what was called “inclusion of false facts relating to Hinduism and nationalist organisations,” organisations like the SFI, AISA, Collective and others staged a ‘joint protest’ in return. As reported by The Indian Express, the University’s English department has decided to drop the “objectionable” portions as it did not want to “hurt anyone’s sentiments”. With “minor modifications,” changes in the Political Science and Sociology courses were reportedly passed, while the Head of Department of History said that the department may “consider changes”.
In a long text sent to us by Professor Rasal Singh, he detailed the reasons for his opposition to the proposed syllabus changes. Some of the more widely reported reasons were his objections over the alleged depiction of the RSS and its affiliates as “looters” and “murderers” in the story Maniben Alias Bibijaan – a background to the infamous 2002 Gujarat riots – and also the usage of Hindu deities, such as Vishnu, Shiv, Kartikeya and Ganesh, in readings about queerness, based on what he called secondary sources “written by Leftists on the basis of foundational texts of Indian culture like the Bhagavata Purana, Skanda Purana, and Shiva Purana.”
While his right-wing leanings might be apparent above, he also cited some concerns – which were not as widely reported – that perhaps blur the typical ‘rightist’ and ‘leftist’ lines, as we generally understand them. Among these were the alleged removal of the histories of Amir Khusrau, Sher Shah Suri and Dr B.R. Ambedkar, along with those of the Rajputs; the absence of social movements like Bacha Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgar movement; the removal of topics on environmental discussions and nature worship in Sociology courses. In addition, he also alleged that the English Department had made close to “100 per cent” changes in the syllabus, instead of 30 per cent, as supposedly mandated under the rules of the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) curriculum. Yet, he also stated that the syllabus showed “tremendous predominance of leftist ideology and a ceaseless opposition towards nationalist ideology, Indian culture and the RSS”.
For more details on why the revised syllabus faced objections, read this author’s previous piece here.
We asked Mr Singh what was a bigger reason for his objection – the content of the proposed chapters or the English department allegedly not following the ‘30 per cent’ CBCS rule. While he said that the latter was also an issue, the content of the chapters remained more problematic. Objecting to what he called the “monopoly” of one ideology (read leftism) in the syllabus revision exercise, he said that a more inclusive process, accounting for teachers with “diverse ideologies and specialisations,” would have been less controversial.
At this point, we wondered whether Mr Singh had some reservations about the ideology of the left itself. He denied. He said that he did not have any issues with the priorities and politics of the left, but with their “exclusive” presence in the process. “Inclusion of other ideologies in the process would have made for better discourse,” he said. Mr Singh’s reservations over the inclusivity of the process also extended to the sources of information supposedly used. Claiming that most news sources used for the Gujarat and Muzaffarnagar riots case studies – The Wire, Scroll, Al Jazeera, to name a few – were ideologically-driven and not mainstream either, he said that other sources, such as Aaj Tak, ABP News, NDTV and The Indian Express, should also have been used.
An SFI press release had mentioned other instances of what they called attempts by the RSS and its “frontal organisations” to “tamper with the education curriculums”. There had also been allegations – such as the one by Professor Nandita Narain, former President of Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) – that the ABVP protest turned hostile wherein the protesters allegedly demanded that the Heads of Department of English and History departments of the University and AC member Professor Saikat Ghosh be “handed over” to them. Mr Singh – an ABVP leader during his student days – denounced violence and misbehaviour against teachers perpetrated by any organisation. However, he claimed with “full responsibility” that these allegations were false. Christening the ABVP “the most culture-conscious party” out of all student organisations, he said that while the protesters did enter the Vice-Chancellor’s office, they did not enter the Council Hall. “I’m disappointed that some AC members called the students ‘goonda’; students are also important stakeholders [in determining the syllabus],” he said.
“This is the most ridiculous allegation that can be heard,” says Siddharth Yadav, the Delhi State Secretary of ABVP, when we ask him about the veracity of the alleged hostile nature of his party’s protest. “We have fundamentally opposed the changes, both technically and ideologically. Why would we demand the teachers be handed over? I don’t even know who comes up with these things. Technically we oppose the process which was adopted for these changes. We have been demanding student representation in the academic council for a long time. A handful of teachers made the entire course without any discussion with the stakeholders. This was our second protest in a row to prevent the mishappening,” he adds.
In their press release, the ABVP had said that they don’t want the “anti-Hindu mindset of the left” to dominate the curricula. However, professor Rasal Singh of the AC had raised other objections also. Was the ABVP against those issues as well or only against RSS’ alleged negative portrayal? We posed this question to Mr Yadav, to which his response was: “Ideologically we are opposing a lot of changes. All Dalit writers have been removed from ‘Hindi Upanyas’ curriculum, Ambedkar’s name has been removed from Dalit thinkers, Godhra riots have been wrongfully presented, a lot of ancient history has been deleted and only the colonial period is focused upon, Maoism and Naxalism is shown as a social movement, Hindu gods and goddesses have been wrongfully commented upon by relying on secondary sources and the list goes on.”
Saying that “all we wanted” was a “review of the syllabus”, Mr Yadav said that there was “a lot more than what is being told. I hope it comes out soon.”
The Vice-President of SFI Delhi State, Sumit Kataria, says, “Whenever the BJP has been in power, they’ve always attacked our education system”.
There is a general belief that the academia is largely populated by left-liberals. From some of the most prominent historians of our country, who tend to belong to Marxist schools of thought, to litterateurs critical of the right-wing, there probably is a presence of a more left-oriented academia. After all, the ABVP and Professor Rasal Singh expressed clear displeasure over the alleged leftist character of the revised syllabi. This situation is perhaps not even unique to India either; conservatives in the United States have been claiming for quite some time now that their voices in the university spaces are shrinking. We asked Mr Kataria if he felt that there was a general dominance of the left in academia and if that could make the right-wing voices feel that they are not heard properly. “To say that there is a general dominance of the left ideology is a very ahistorical statement. When has the left ever dominated the academia? It [academia] has always been dominated by the elite and the upper caste sections in India. The left is not in power, so how can we dominate?” he responds. “It is the right-wing organisations’ propaganda and nothing else.”
Now that the revised syllabus has been taken back, essentially ending things the way the ABVP wanted, do parties like the SFI consider it a loss? Mr Kataria says, “It doesn’t mean that ABVP has won. It is our education system that has been defeated and not SFI or any other organisation…These are just attempts at destroying our democratic education system.”
Professor Saikat Ghosh. AC member. Professor of English. Allegedly wanted by the ABVP to be “handed over”. Speaking to Mr Ghosh brings a few twists, and confusions, in the story.
He tells us that the information about the alleged “handing over” demand of the ABVP was given to him by the security personnel at the Viceregal Lodge, where the office of the Vice-Chancellor is located. “We were told by the security guards to disperse from the University premises at the earliest as the threat of violence is real.” He further added, “We were escorted out of a back entrance of the Viceregal Lodge in a clandestine way. We were also told that the lights surrounding the Garden outside the Viceregal Lodge were switched off by the ABVP to ensure that CCTV becomes ineffective in the case of an actual physical attack.”
“Unfortunate and indicative of vindictive rejection of the English Dept’s academic autonomy,” was how Mr Ghosh described the resultant withdrawal of the proposed syllabus by the English department. Claiming that the department’s “academic arguments are not being heeded,” Mr Ghosh alleged that the University Undergraduate Curriculum Revision Committee – tasked with overseeing the revision process – had “taken the role of a bully on behalf of the ABVP and NDTF (National Democratic Teachers’ Front)” – both linked to the RSS.
While Mr Singh had called for consultations with more teachers to ensure inclusivity in the process – he said only around 15 teachers of the English department drafted most of the new syllabus – Mr Ghosh contradicted him. “Prof. Rasal Singh is conveniently hiding the fact that 120+ teachers from across 50 DU colleges participated in the English syllabus revision,” he claimed. He further said that an “open call” was given in the English teachers’ General Body Meeting (GBM) in 2017 for voluntary participation in the syllabus revision, of which the “right-wing” teachers chose not to be a part. “Students, alumni and peers in the international academia recorded overwhelming praise,” he said about the revised syllabus, which was supposedly open for “public review and feedback for a month”.
“The NDTF and ABVP seemed to be sleeping through the entire exercise. The RSS is politicising it and not engaging with the academic merits of the syllabus,” he alleged. When we asked Mr Singh whether this was true, he replied that he said “whatever is fact.”
Mr Ghosh profoundly disagrees about the whole issue being an ideological one. He has been associated with the SFI in the past, but strictly maintains that his support for the syllabus has been on academic grounds and that he has not “asserted any party agenda.” He also said that many of the teachers involved in the exercise did not belong to any political background.
“The issue is not a battle between the Right and the Left. It is being given an ideological colour by those who don’t want the English department to give its students a world-class syllabus that allows them to engage with contemporary social and aesthetic concerns. The people opposed to the English syllabus are being unfair to thousands of students who dream of pursuing an English Honours degree from DU colleges,” he said.
Was the process really ideological in nature? Were only members of a certain ideology considered for the syllabus revision exercised, as alleged by some? Or was there an attempt made by the departments to accommodate as many teachers in the drafting exercise as possible, as was claimed by some others?
Professor Sanam Khanna, a teacher of English at Kamala Nehru College, also participated in the syllabus revision exercise. She said that the whole syllabus drafting exercise, which began two years ago, went something like this: “The English department called a General Body Meeting of all teachers from across the University. From the GBM, subcommittees were formed to look after clusters of papers. The drafting process starts from there based on what the teachers feel the students need, the shortcomings of the current syllabi, and feedback from their departments.”
DU Beat got access to some of the emails, dated 2017, which were sent as intimation regarding the syllabus drafting exercise.
The first and second images of the email dating 30 August 2017 show that the revision exercise was already underway at least as early as September 2017. Here, a clear request has been made for publicising the email as widely as possible and suggestions and recommendations have been invited. The email was sent by Professor Christel R. Devadawson, the then English HoD. The second email – also by Professor Devadawson – dated 29 October 2017, was sent to 357 recipients. The email seems to be about the committee on revising the syllabi for the core courses – an indication that multiple people were involved in the drafting exercise. “Mails such as these were sent to all principals and colleges as well as English teachers’ groups and email lists, inviting suggestions and participation,” Ms Khanna said. “So how can anyone say the process was ‘limited’? Whoever was interested came, attended and worked for over two years,” she added.
Ms Khanna also denied any ideological motivation behind the syllabi. “This is a huge collective effort. It decolonised the study of literature. For the first time in DU, so many Indian authors have been introduced in the syllabus. More than 100 Indian authors across different time periods and genres [were included]. What is leftist here? It is deeply painful to hear such unacademic responses,” she said.
We tried contacting Professor Sunil Kumar, the HoD of the History Department, via email but he did not respond to our queries by the time of publishing this article.
What may have started as a purely academic exercise has now taken the form of an ideological and political tussle. The organisations holding protest after protest all come from one or the other ideological leaning; and the demonstrations seem to have taken an ugly shape. While all the politics is fair and well, we do wonder if the agitating parties have gone through the newly proposed texts. For all their claims of holding dialectics and discussion in high regard, did the right engage enough with the left and vice-versa? We may never know.
However, as things stand, another protest was held on 23rd July. Two days earlier, the revised syllabus was put before the Executive Council of the University for final approval; it was sent back for revision. Mr Singh welcomed this decision of referring back what he called the “propagandist” and “non-inclusive” syllabus to the respective departments. He said that the syllabi of these departments should be “comprehensively reviewed by including more teachers and stakeholders in the exercise.” He however expressed disappointment as “the teachers are hardly given any reasonable time to comprehensively and critically analyse all contents of these departments. The cosmetic and superficial approach on such an important academic matter will not serve the purpose.”
An oversight committee is now tasked with finalising the syllabi by 31 July. The syllabi of these departments was supposed to take effect from the current session onwards. While the revised syllabi of many other courses has been approved, as available on the University website, that of these departments hangs in the balance. Ms Khanna hints at this when she says, “We are worried about our students who are without a syllabus when every day is precious in this short semester system.”
- Cover image – Sriya Rane for DU Beat
- Email-1, Email-2, Email-3 – Ms Sanam Khanna
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