Syllabus Revision in DU: Assault on Academic Autonomy
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.
ORIGIN OF THE CONFLICT
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): a format which 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 and 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 evidence for the same. Instead of providing any academic rationale or allowing a debate on the matter, the ABVP-RSS gang was hell-bent in 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. The modus operandi of the oversight committee is simple: it does not hold meetings on time, keeps teachers and students on tenterhooks for the syllabus every semester, defers the notification of the syllabus beyond the commencement of the semester and then tries to censor the syllabus at the last moment when the teachers and students have no option but to accept whatever comes their way. For the last four semesters, the teachers and the syllabus committees of these four departments have been jostling with the oversight committee through persuasion and cajoling so that the syllabi could be notified on time with minimum academic damage.
THE RECENT CONTROVERSY
Matters came to a head in July 2021 when 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. This was followed by another act of unprecedented censorship when the oversight committee, as an afterthought, directed the English department to remove ‘Draupadi’ by Mahasweta Devi – one of the iconic classics of feminist writings in modern times – without any tangible reason. Moreover the committee refused to accept any story of Mahasweta Devi when the same was suggested by the department despite her global standing as a writer of international repute and a recipient of countless awards, including the Sahitya Akademi, the Jnanpith and the Padma Vibhushan from the Government of India. When the English department refused to accept this unreasonable diktat, the oversight committee arbitrarily imposed another short story in place of Draupadi without the consent of the teachers, undermining all academic propriety and statutory processes. In another paper titled ‘Pre-Colonial Indian Literatures’, the oversight committee decided to replace Chandrabati Ramayana by Nabaneeta Debsen with Tulsidas’s text – thus denying students the opportunity to have a feminist reading of Ramayana. In another paper titled ‘Interrogating Queerness’, the oversight committee arbitrarily deleted sections from different units at the cost of academic rigour in the paper.
It is evident from the details mentioned above that the oversight committee constituted by the University of Delhi has always been prejudiced against dalits, tribals, women and sexual minorities as evident in the concerted efforts of the committee to remove all such voices from the syllabus. This is a discernible pattern in the committee’s insistence to forcefully excise authors like Bama, Sukirtharani and Mahasweta Devi who give representation to such marginal voices in their works. It is important to note that the oversight committee does not have any member from the socially marginalised sections like the dalit or the tribal community who can bring some sensitivity on the issue. Rather the oversight committee continued its ostrich-like blindness to this matter of representation and shamelessly defended its act of unwarranted censorship in front of the media and the public on the grounds that literary texts should not be read in terms of ‘divisive’ categories like caste, gender, religion etc.
The complicity of the administration of the University of Delhi in this entire controversy of academic censorship is unprecedented as evident in its brazen defence of all the omissions of the oversight committee. First, the university officials did not allow any discussion on the matter of the oversight committee when it was placed as an agenda item in the meeting of the academic council on August 24, 2021 despite repeated appeals by the elected members of the academic council. It was historic that 15 elected members across the political spectrum signed a common dissent note against the recommendations of the oversight committee as they were all exercised about the erosion of academic autonomy of departments. However that did not deter the administration to ride roughshod on all opposition and carry on its determination to impose thought control on teachers and students in the form of academic censorship. Second, faced with a public outcry and drawing flak in the media owing to the removal of the text, the university brazenly defended its nefarious action in the form of a press release which was a bundle of lies. The claim of the press release that the oversight committee had followed all democratic processes was contrary to the actual undermining of the same processes involved in the syllabus revision where departmental committees having the requisite expertise in specific areas were ratified by the general body of English teachers. The real intention of the university administration was exposed in the same press release in justifying the arbitrary addition/deletion of texts on the ground of ‘hurt sentiments’ of invisible, abstract entities: an action which is neither inclusive nor democratic. Rather removal of voices from the socially underprivileged groups, namely that of the dalits and the tribals from the syllabus amounts to the trampling of the democratic and the inclusive process of representation in mainstream academia and pedagogy.
CURRICULUM DEVELOPMENT AND
THE POLITICS OF REPRESENTATION
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 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 fascistic state has infiltrated all public institutions including public universities to create its own ‘non-state actors’ who act as instruments of hegemony and coercion through a strategy of discipline and control. It is indeed ironic that while Mahasweta Devi’s story ‘Draupadi’ is globally considered to be an iconic text of seminal academic value because of which it has been taught in the University of Delhi since 2001; it also figures in the model LOCF syllabus of BA (H) English uploaded by the UGC in its website. Yet the university administration felt the need to remove it from the revised syllabus as they were extremely riled by the subversive potential of the text. The reasons furnished by the university officials in defence of removing the text – that it includes ‘gruesome sexual contents’ which would make women teachers ‘uncomfortable’ in the classroom and also that the story portrays the Indian Army in a ‘poor light’ – were at best an afterthought: a desperate attempt to salvage the bruised reputation of the university for its act of academic thuggery. The dominant discourse controlled by the privileged, upper caste, patriarchal males in the university administration and their shenanigans in the oversight committee cannot digest the fact that the tribal woman in Mahasweta Devi’s story ‘Draupadi’ – who has been raped by her tormentors in the uniform – can stand against oppression: that too in an unconventional way of refusing to conform to the patriarchal diktat to cover her ravaged body. The stark nature of her refusal transforms the tribal woman to an epitome of resistance against oppression: an agency she acquires from an image of hapless victimhood. This is a symbolic act of attaining a political agency beyond the imagination of her male tormentors and also that of university administrators who are incapable to understand the value of a literature course beyond the use of language: an idea stated by the DU press release that BA (H) English is essentially a language course with a little bit of literature.
If Mahasweta Devi is excised from the syllabus for underlining a vocabulary of resistance hitherto unheard of, both Bama and Sukirtharini as Tamil poets are removed for being forthright about their articulation of the plight of the dalit women in no uncertain terms. Both these Tamil poets of contemporary times provide a stark reminder of the social faultlines of caste and gender and the intersections between the two: thus rupturing the attempts of the dominant discourse to provide a sanitised narrative of the modern Indian society in the twenty-first century. Bama’s text Sangati and Sukirtharini’s poems ‘Debt’ and “The Body’ which have been removed from the syllabus are testimonies of ‘double oppression’ faced by dalit women: that of caste and gender, leading to unprecedented exploitation and discrimination in an unbearably hostile society. Their texts challenge the predominant discourse governed by patriarchy, caste privileges and the politics of labour by constantly highlighting the precarious position of the dalit women as being at the receiving end of all discriminatory practices.
It is this assertion of marginal voices within the academia which has disturbed the pristine, haloed spaces created by the brahminical meritocracy in the university system. The biggest site of conflict in this syllabus revision has been the issue of caste: while the syllabus committee was conscious of giving representation to the writers belonging to the underprivileged castes as a recognition of the diversity in the classroom space, the brahminical forces represented by the RSS brigade was staunchly opposed to this policy of representation as their social hegemony within the university space was threatened. It is indeed a travesty that the opposition to the revised syllabus did not come from English teachers at least in the public domain; rather the job of scuttling the syllabus was outsourced to members of other disciplines like Hindi, Chemistry, Physics and Maths: storm-troopers who are not even remotely connected to the nuances of the English studies and also who believe more in muscle flexing than engaging in a rational, academic debate. Incidentally, these are disciplines which have more infiltration from the RSS-BJP and which are notorious for rampant discrimination against the socially underprivileged: as evident in the horrific narratives of rampant discrimination and torture against teachers and students of the dalit and tribal communities in the institutions of science and technology owing to policies of apathy and exclusion. The hypocrisy of the RSS brigade lies in the fact that while it has been very critical of English studies all these years for not including enough Indian texts/authors in the syllabus, they try to scuttle the inclusion of those Indian texts which defy their vision of a monolithic, monochromatic Hindutva culture. It is a matter of record that the recent syllabus revision in BA (H) English increased the number of Indian texts from 45 in the unrevised syllabus to 102 in the revised LOCF syllabus: a staggering increase by any standard. Yet the Indian texts invited the assault of the RSS brigade for not conforming to their notion of cultural homogeneity and constantly puncturing any attempt to portray any singular idea of India.
Another major bone of contention in the syllabus revision has been region or ethnicity: a crucial aspect of the politics of representation. Despite being the biggest central university in the country – a stature which should make its syllabus more pluralistic and inclusive – the provincial mindset of the university administration is evident in its visible discomfort with authors belonging outside North India. The RSS-BJP slogan of ‘Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan’ evident in its entrenched presence in the Hindi heartland finds its resonance in the Sanghi attitude to the ‘non-Hindi’ author as a ‘cultural other’. Hence the removal of authors like Mahasweta Devi, Bama and Sukirtharini is not an accident but a concerted effort to excise those cultural voices from places like Bengal and Tamil Nadu which have been able to reverse the Sanghi juggernaut in the recently concluded assembly elections this year. The patriarchal and the brahminical milieu of the Hindi heartland is unable to accept the powerful presence of the women’s voices, that too from the socially disadvantaged communities of the non-Hindi belt of the country.
NATIONAL EDUCATION POLICY
AND THE POLITICS OF EXCLUSION
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 by 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. The NEP aims to change that irrevocably by not only privatising education but also through the board of governors: represented by the nominated members of the state and the money bags of the society. This model of governance will implement policy decisions mechanically in the university system without any space for deliberation: and curriculum development will be no exception. In a university system under NEP which will perpetuate social disparity like never before, syllabus and curriculum will be framed to cater to the interests of the dominant social groups – that of caste, class, gender, language, ethnicity, religion etc. The university authorities will have no qualms about gross pedagogic compromise and erosion of academic autonomy: qualities which uphold and sustain the ethos of a university. There is a very genuine apprehension among teachers and students that the high-handed manner in which both the NEP and the academic censorship have been carried out in the University of Delhi is a template of something more sinister: the gradual dismantling of quality, rigour and critical thinking within the public funded education for higher learning.
THE ROAD AHEAD
What is the bitter lesson of the fight over academic censorship within the university? That the academia and the intellectual class have no option but to forge solidarity with the labouring class 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 fascistic state. Hence the only road ahead for the academia is to join the struggle of other labouring groups against the policy assault of the fascistic state and to politicise the intellectual space against all kinds of authoritarianism.