Monday, 22 October 2012

"The greater part of the law is learning to tolerate fools.”

Vol. 11 No. 2, September 2012

“A University should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning,” stated Benjamin Disraeli. I would like to examine this statement in the context of an event of considerable importance that took place two centuries ago at Oxford University, “the oldest university in the English speaking world [that] has been educating world changing leaders for over 800 years.” Inspired by intense love for scientific reasoning, a beautiful and effectual angel, hailing from the protected precincts of an aristocratic order, dared to sing hymns unbidden in praise of “atheism.” Yes, the reference is to P.B. Shelly and his (in)famous “The Necessity of Atheism,”  the thirteen-page tract that led to his expulsion from Oxford University on March 25, 1811.
The pamphlet argued the lack of evidence for the existence of God and suggested that God was just a projection of human ideas. The title page of the tract displayed his avowed purpose in writing it: “love of truth.” Far from being impressed by his innocent demand for qualified reasoning, the presiding dons at Oxford – “the men who had made Divinity the study of their lives” – found his reasoning reprehensible and asked him in an abruptly summoned summary trial, “Are you the author of this book?” The impetuous one curtly replied: “If I can judge from your manner, you are resolved to punish me if I should acknowledge that it is my work. If you can prove that it is, produce your evidence; it is neither just nor lawful to interrogate me in such a case and for such a purpose. Such proceedings would become a court of inquisitors, but not free men in a free country.”
In a letter written to William Godwin, his future father-in-law, Shelley recorded his complaint of college tyranny in no uncertain terms: “Oxonian society was insipid to me, uncongenial with my habits of thinking. I could not descend to common life….I became in the popular sense of the word ‘God’ an Atheist. I printed a pamphlet avowing my opinion, and its occasion. I distributed it anonymously to men of thought and learning wishing that Reason should decide on the case at issue. It was never my intention to deny it.” Perhaps Shelley was unaware how, even in the heyday of the Romantic age, when to be young was very heaven, such thoughts were blasphemous.
Strangely coinciding with the bicentenary year of Shelley’s expulsion from Oxford University, we may shift our gaze to an event located in the capital town of the world’s largest democracy. Showing scant regard for the ideals of “light, liberty and learning,” the Vice Chancellor and the Academic Council of Delhi University brazenly removed A.K. Ramunjan’s brilliant and insightful essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation,” from the B.A. (Honours) History course. The controversy came to the fore in the year 2008 when some activists, inspired by their concern for saving “Hindutwa,” attacked teachers in the Delhi University’s history department and demanded that the essay be removed from the B.A. History syllabus. The matter finally landed up in the Supreme Court which sought the opinion of an academic expert committee on the issue. Surprisingly, three out of four members on the said committee voted in favour of the essay. The lone dissenting voice was that of the fourth member who, while praising the essay’s scholarship, came to the conclusion that “it would be difficult for college lecturers to teach with sufficient context, especially those who weren’t Hindu.”
It may be pertinent to mention here the remarks of Professor Michael Shapiro, University of Washington, Seattle, who, responding to my “Editorial” in the March 2012 issue of Re-Markings, stated: “I enjoyed what you had to say and agree with you totally.  By the way, your article made me reflect on all the nonsense that’s been taking place at Delhi University with regard to A.K. Ramanujan’s old article on the various versions of the Ramayana.  There seems to be no end of craziness.”
Such craziness, however, is not a rare instance in the general atmosphere of intolerance that prevails in our groves of academe. In very recent times Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey was removed from Mumbai University’s literature syllabus simply because it allegedly contained some “disparaging” comments about “Shiv Sena and the Marathis.” No less absurd is the logic forwarded by the powers that be in removing the sixty-year old Ambedkar cartoon from NCERT books. The price paid by Professor Ambikesh Mahapatra of Jadavpur University for circulating a cartoon featuring Trinamool Congress leaders is common knowledge now. Robert Frost’s candid confession that he left Harvard “to be educated” does make a lot of sense.
Disturbing events that threaten to destroy the very rationale of intellectual autonomy in democratic societies do urge us to reformulate Benjamin Disraeli’s statement to accommodate the express views of Doris Lessing, the Nobel Laureate: “In university they don't tell you that the greater part of the law is learning to tolerate fools.”
- Nibir K. Ghosh
Chief Editor

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