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Sep 20, 2021

The Call to Ban Savarkar and Golwalkar from the Classroom Reflects Culture of Intolerance

The opposition to Kannur University including texts by Hindutva ideologues in its reading list tells us that engaging an intellectual, ideological or political opponent on the level of ideas is no longer acceptable.

The unseemly row over the inclusion of a few texts written by Hindutva ideologues Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Madhavrao Sadashiv Golwalkar, Deendayal Upadhyaya and Balraj Madhok in the MA (Governance and Politics) syllabus of Kerala’s Kannur University is a reminder that all political forces are to blame for creating and fostering a culture of intolerance in the country.

One is not surprised to see that political parties covering the entire spectrum are arrayed against the university, which has a well-respected historian, Gopinath Ravindran, as its vice-chancellor. It’s rare to see the ruling and opposition parties singing the same tune, except when it comes to stifling things they do not agree with.

While the Congress and the Indian Union Muslim League have alleged that the inclusion of these texts represents the “saffronisation of education”, Ravindran has explained that the writings of the Hindutva icons have been included “to enable students to develop a critical understanding about various strands of the Indian political thought”. He has also said that the syllabus is meant for post-graduate students and not for school children and that Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University too had included these texts in their syllabus. Just as including Das Kapital in a course syllabus does not turn a university and its faculty and students into Marxists, it is absurd to equate the reading of Savarkar or Golwalkar with “saffronisation”.

Nevertheless, R. Bindu, Kerala’s higher education minister, has voiced serious concern over the inclusion of these texts and described the move as “dangerous”. Armed with an MPhil degree from JNU, she belongs to the CPI(M). Ravindran has sent a report to her and the university has appointed a two-member expert committee to take another look at the syllabus. Chief minister P. Vijayan has expressed alarm at the “glorification” of those who had turned their faces from the freedom struggle.

This is nothing but a culture of intolerance. In this culture, ideas are not countered by alternative and better ideas but are suppressed with the aim of eliminating them – using the coercive power of either the state or of powerful social and political groups or both. Ever since the Narendra Modi regime came to power, this culture has got a tremendous boost but the onus of creating a conducive atmosphere lies with all political parties. The alternative culture of engaging one’s intellectual, ideological or political opponent on the level of ideas has not been allowed to take roots.

Photo taken during the trial of the persons accused of participation and complicity in Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in a Special Court in Red Fort, Delhi. The trial began on May 27, 1948. V.D. Savarkar, wearing a black cap, is seated in the last row, while Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte are up front. Credit: Photo Division, GOI

This approach is alien to common sense, modern pedagogy and also India’s own tradition of philosophical, ideological and intellectual debate and argumentation which had well laid down rules of engagement. The earliest terms for these debates are brahmodya, as mentioned in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, and vada. Siddhartha, before he attained enlightenment and came to be known as the Buddha, engaged in vada with whomsoever he met. The great Sanskrit poet Ashvaghosha describes in detail in Buddhacharita how Magadh’s king Bimbisara questions the Buddha on every aspect of his doctrine. Shankaracharya’s shaastraartha with his philosophical opponents are well known. In a vada or shaastraartha a person would first state the philosophical or ideological position of his opponent clearly and cogently. This was known as Poorvapaksha. After making an authentic presentation of the opponents’ views, he or she would begin to offer counter-arguments to demolish the opposite viewpoint. It is obvious that a deep and thorough study of the opponent’s views was mandatory before one proceeded to argue one’s own case against them. And, how would one do this if the texts containing the opponent’s views are not available because they have been suppressed?

So, shaastraartha was meant to be a transparent public debate between two intellectual adversaries who were well versed in the views of the opponent. As the Upanishadic dialogues show, disciples freely questioned their gurus and these free discussions often resulted in achieving greater clarity on philosophical, metaphysical and theological issues. There is a well known Sanskrit saying: “Vade vade jaayate tatvabodhah (Truth is born out of interaction among different viewpoints)”. Al-Biruni, who described India of the 11th century, wrote that a unique trait of the Indians was they were engaged in discussing something or the other among themselves all the time. So, a spirit of enquiry distinguished Indians from others and argumentation was the norm in their day-to-day life. It was not viewed with suspicion and no lack of respect was attributed to it. We have accounts of the Mughal emperor Akbar inviting Jain scholars and Jesuit priests to his court for philosophical debates and discussions.

Against this historical background, it is very difficult to understand how a culture of intolerance for differing opinions and viewpoints grew so rapidly in modern India and succeeded in vitiating the intellectual atmosphere so thoroughly.

The rot began in the early years of independence. In 1949, Amrit Rai brought out a special number of Hans, a literary journal founded by his father Munshi Premchand in 1930, focusing on the repression of protests by the Central as well as state governments. This Anti-Repression Special Number was promptly proscribed by the Congress government.

Later, many a book was banned. The most shocking case was that of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, which was banned within nine days of its release in the UK in 1988 by the Rajiv Gandhi government. India was the first country in the world to have banned it, much before even Pakistan. And, a suave, sophisticated and intellectually-inclined leader such as Syed Shahabuddin, who belonged to the Janata Party in those days and was in the forefront of those demanding a ban, did not feel an iota of embarrassment in admitting that he had not read the book!

Also Read: What Hindutva Really Is and Why It’s Risky to Debate It

In May 2012, both Houses of parliament witnessed several adjournments forced by several parties including the Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Republican Party of India, Communist Party of India and the AIADMK over the inclusion in NCERT textbooks of a cartoon drawn by Shankar showing Jawaharlal Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar. They found it offensive and BSP chief Mayawati demanded criminal proceedings against the editors. The CPI’s D. Raja also condemned the cartoon. Two of the editors immediately resigned.

Under Kapil Sibal’s watch as the Union human resource development minister, Delhi University removed A.K. Ramanujan’s celebrated essay titled ‘300 Ramayanas’ from its syllabus because saffron organisations had demanded it. Now, the same university has removed the writings of Mahashweta Devi and Tamil writers Bama and Sukirtharani because saffron elements do not find them palatable. But the Congress seems to have no problem with that, as we do not see any agitation on the issue by the party or its student wing NSUI.

Kuldeep Kumar is a senior journalist who writes on politics and culture.

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