Changes in syllabi: Delhi University embarrasses itself

Dropping stories from the DU syllabi will do little to deter readers or reduce their appeal and popularity. The decision merely reflects poor and arbitrary judgment

(Frome left to right) Writers Sukirtharani, Mahasweta Devi and Bama
(Frome left to right) Writers Sukirtharani, Mahasweta Devi and Bama

Sanjukta Basu

The stories have been translated into foreign languages. They continue to be taught in a large number of universities in India and abroad. They are all acclaimed literary works and above all, they have been in the syllabus of Delhi University (DU) for many years.

But when the DU last month decided to drop three much acclaimed short stories, translated from Tamil and Bengali into English, by three women writers, Sukirtharani, Bama and late Mahasweta Devi, from the English undergraduate course last week, there was surprise but few explanations.

Unnamed members of the Oversight Committee were quoted as saying that explicit sexual content was the reason for dropping Mahasweta Devi’s story ‘Draupadi’. The story, about oppression of tribals by security personnel, and defiance of a woman, Dopdi, was also said to be derogatory to the Indian army. On the two Tamil stories dropped from the syllabus, there was no explanation forthcoming.

Tamil writer Sukirtharani said she was not surprised but pointed out that her story first became popular abroad following translation into foreign languages. “We are sending human beings to space etc. but we still allow manual scavenging to continue. When they want to project an image of India wherein there are no caste and religious inequalities, our works point out that caste and religious inequalities exist in our society. So, it is obvious that they want such works removed from the syllabus,” she was quoted as saying by The Hindu.

The other Tamil writer Bama said, “For more than 2,000 years, we have been segregated, our histories have not been written. This government is trying to strangulate our voices, but we will shout. The youth of this nation have understood [what is happening]. Rather than being upset, we are angry. The anger will reflect in our works in future.”

The powerful translation of Mahasweta Devi’s story into English by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak had drawn international attention to the evocative tale. The following passages from the translation show us why. “In 1971, in the famous Operation Bakuli, when three villages were cordoned off and machine gunned, they too lay on the ground, faking death. In fact, they were the main culprits. Murdering Surja Sahu and his son, occupying upper-caste wells and tubewells during the drought, not surrendering those three young men to the police. In all this they were the chief instigators. In the morning, at the time of the body count, the couple could not be found.”

"The blood sugar level of Captain Arjan Singh, the architect of Bakuli, rose at once and proved yet again that diabetes can be a result of anxiety and depression. Diabetes has 12 husbands – among them anxiety.”

“Dulna and Dopdi went underground for a long time in a Neanderthal darkness. The special forces, attempting to pierce that dark by an armed search, compelled quite a few Santhals in the various districts of West Bengal to meet their Maker against their will. By the Indian Constitution, all human beings, regardless of caste or creed, are sacred. Still, accidents like this do happen. Two sorts of reasons: (1) The underground couple’s skill in self-concealment; (2) not merely the Santhals but all tribals of the austro-asiatic Munda tribes appear the same to the special forces.”

“Trying to move, she feels her arms and legs still tied to four posts. Something sticky under her ass and waist. Her own blood. Only the gag has been removed. Incredible thirst. In case she says ‘water’ she catches her lower lip in her teeth. She senses her vagina is bleeding. How many came to make her?”

“Ironically, the same officers who violated her body, insist that she covers up once she is ‘done with’. Intransigently, Dopdi rips off her clothes and walks towards officer Senanayak, “…naked. Thigh and pubic hair matted with dry blood. Two breasts. Two wounds”. Senanayak is shocked by her defiance as she stands before him “with her hand on her hip” as “the object of [his] search” and exclaims, “There isn’t a man here that I should be ashamed.”

The DU Academic Council approved the decision despite strong dissent from 16 of its 26 elected members. No substantive discussion was allowed. No voting took place. Dissenters were asked to submit dissent notes. The academic Council consists of around 80-90 members out of which only 26 are elected from 10,000 DU Faculty members.

“The minutes of the meeting suggest that the Oversight Committee, constituted arbitrarily for the first time, is influenced by feedback from unspecified sources. They talk of ‘hurt sentiments’ of anonymous, invisible, and abstract entities; It is they who are hurting sentiments of the marginal sections by excluding their representation from mainstream academia and pedagogy,” says Dr Biswajit Mohanty, Asst Professor, Deshbandhu College.

“The Oversight Committee has become an overreaching committee,” concurs Dr Mithuraaj Dhusiya, Asst Professor at Hans Raj College and another elected member of the academic council. “Mr. M.K. Pandit, the Chairman of the OC told the media that he doesn’t know the caste of authors whose works are dropped. He doesn’t believe in casteism, he says. It is easy for those in privileged positions to not see caste. Next, rich people will say we don’t believe in poverty,” quips Dhusiya.

Draft syllabi in DU are framed by Committees of Courses at the level of each Department. The proposed syllabus is then examined by the faculty, sent to a standing committee on academic affairs before reaching the Academic Council. The stories were included after this process. But now it can be undone by an Oversight Committee, which does not even exist in the statutes.

“The syllabus is prepared by a rigorous statutory process involving hundreds of academics over a period of 2-3 years. It is even shared with the public for feedback,”says Dr Dhusiya.

“Literature is primarily space for dissent. You cannot have any literature which will not hurt somebody’s sentiments. But how would they understand that when most of the OC members do not have a literature or English background,” he laments.

There are other instances of the OC making such arbitrary modifications, says Dr Mohanty. “They made changes in history syllabus exercising powers they do not even have. They removed Chandravati Ramayana, a feminist reading of Ramayana and replaced it with Tulsidas.

It is unlikely that the decision will be reversed. But that will not prevent students and others from reading the stories.

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