By Rudrashish Chakraborty
University of Delhi has been ravaged by a recent controversy pertaining to the revised syllabi of a few departments — namely, English, History, Political Science and Sociology. On August 24, 2021, the Academic Council, the highest statutory body on academic matters, approved syllabi of the aforesaid departments with arbitrary additions/deletions suggested by an ‘Oversight Committee’ which acted as an extra-statutory authority on academic matters despite having no member from the concerned departments.
The genesis of this issue lies in the events of 2019 when the University of Delhi directed all its departments to upgrade their undergraduate syllabi as per the instruction of the University Grants Commission to adhere to the format of LOCF (Learning Outcome Curriculum Framework). This format mechanically aims to measure the learning outcome of a course among students without any tangible methodology to do the same. Some of the departments, especially the four mentioned above, took this opportunity to revise their syllabi in order to correct the glaring anomalies in them arising out of irresponsible academic reforms like the semester system (2010-11), the aborted FYUP (2013) and the CBCS (2015). This syllabus revision was also conceived as an exercise to incorporate all those voices in various disciplines which hitherto did not get due representation.
However, in the meeting of the Academic Council in July 2019, goons affiliated to the ABVP-RSS stormed the vice-chancellor’s office and tried to barge into the meeting of the Academic Council, egged on by the elected teachers affiliated to the teachers’ group of the RSS-BJP in the University of Delhi. Together they threatened the elected members belonging to the Left and secular, progressive forces as well as the professors, especially the heads of the four departments mentioned above, about serious consequences if the UG syllabi of these four departments were approved as per the recommendations of the respective departments.
They held the entire Academic Council to ransom while the university administration merely looked on, clearly exposing its complicity with the ABVP-RSS gang. They wanted the syllabi to be rejected verbatim on fabricated grounds of “hurt sentiments” without any shred of evidence for the same. Instead of providing any academic rationale or allowing a debate on the matter, the ABVP-RSS gang was hell-bent on scuttling the revised syllabi altogether through coercion, threats of violence and their proximity to the government and the university administration.
In order to placate this gang, the University of Delhi formed an ‘Oversight Committee’ of senior academics to scrutinise the syllabi of each of these departments threadbare in each semester and to excise any material which would have the remote potential to “hurt sentiments”: in stark violation of the laid down academic procedures as per the statutes of the university. The said committee neither had the requisite expertise in any subject for that matter, nor did it have any statutory sanction. Yet it became a ‘supra’ committee to impose academic censorship on departments at will without any rationale and judgement: an act which it is still doing with impunity.
Matters came to a head in July 2021when the fifth semester syllabi of the four departments, including English, History, Political Science and Sociology, were supposed to be approved before the reopening of classes. The oversight committee clearly overreached its brief when, at the behest of the BJP-RSS forces, it committed maximum vandalism to different papers of BA (H) English. In a core paper titled Women’s Writing, the oversight committee first decided to remove the works of two Dalit women authors from the paper– namely, Bama’s Sangati and two poems by Sukirtharani – both Tamil feminist authors who were replaced by an upper caste author, Pandita Ramabai without any academic rationale.
In this entire fiasco of syllabus revision, the pertinent question to be asked is: Why is there so much aversion to the authors who have been removed from the syllabus despite so much opposition including that of the chief minister of Tamil Nadu? Who is afraid of writers like Mahasweta Devi, Bama and Sukirtharani so much so that they cannot find a place in the syllabus of BA (H) English in the University of Delhi? The answer is not difficult to seek at a time when the state has infiltrated all the public institutions, especially our once hallowed public universities, to create its own ‘non-state actors’ who act as instruments of saffron hegemony.
In the meeting of the Academic Council on August 24, 2021 (and subsequently in the meeting of the executive council on August 31, 2021), two important decisions were taken by the DU administration: first, the Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP) under the National Education Policy (NEP) and second, the Oversight Committee recommendations on syllabus revision. The modus operandi was the same in both the cases: to steamroll the decision without any discussion in the statutory bodies. The New Education Policy has been introduced by the government through a cabinet decision bypassing any discussion on the same in the Parliament: the same model has percolated into the university system where policy decisions are taken through the emergency powers of the vice-chancellor.
The NEP envisages a paradigm shift in higher education: not only in terms of altering the funding architecture (from grant-based to loan-based) but also in terms of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs),Multiple Entry Exit System (MEES)and Academic Bank of Credits (ABC)– features which will transform the ethos and meaning of a university. In a society like ours fraught with so much social inequality, the public funded universities are the only credible mode of ensuring a sustainable social upliftment and mobility for a large section of the masses.
What is the bitter lesson of the fight over academic censorship within the university? That the academia and the intellectual classes have no option but to forge solidarity with the labouring classes and other groups in their struggle against the fascistic state. The university can no longer be treated as an intellectual protectorate oblivious to the body politic ravaged by the onslaughts of an autocratic government.
For a very long time, the English teachers have carved out an exclusive, elite space for themselves, basking in the glory of their cultural capital and their exposure to global ideas. It is ironic that when the English teachers were consciously social and intellectual snobs, they were left untouched; but when they consciously and painstakingly tried to declass themselves in pedagogic terms by being sensitive to the issue of caste and representation, they were at the receiving end of a policy assault and academic censorship. Their intellectual labour of the last few years invested in the syllabus revision was dismissed by the university through the oversight committee: making them at least aware of the formidable challenge posed by the authoritarian state. Hence, the only road ahead for the academia is to join the struggle of other labouring groups against the policy assault of the authoritarian state and to politicise the intellectual space against all kinds of undemocratic attacks. (IPA Service)
The author is Associate Professor of English at Kirorimal College, University of Delhi.