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Sunday, May 28, 2023

False narrative of the ‘removal’ of ‘Dalit’ authors from Delhi University syllabus

Recently did you read anything about exclusion of a few marginalised writers from the University of Delhi’s BA Hons. English syllabus and you thought that was a complete fact?

If yes, I am sorry to say that you have become a victim of a propaganda of a few people of the University of Delhi who have been using academics as a tool to drive an ideological and political agenda. As a faculty of English at Delhi University, I place facts before you regarding the said syllabus.

False narrative of removal of Dalit writers

The narrative of removal of Dalit writers is completely false. Rather, 21 additional full-fledged optional papers have been approved and many of them have focus on literature of marginal sections. Some of the papers which have been added are: Caste and Literature; Interrogating Queerness; Literature and Disability; Marginalities in Indian Writing; Literature for Children and Young Adults; Applied Gender Studies: Media Literacies; Indian English Literatures; Literature and the Contemporary World; Literature in Social Spaces; Literature in Cross-Cultural Encounters; African Literatures; Latin American Literature and more.

The titles themselves are suggestive of the content which is related to the complex nuances of gender, caste, sexuality, racism, cultures, disability and others. Total 16 Dalit authors have been included in one paper alone- Caste and Literature and proportionately in 20 other papers.  Overall, seven papers in DSE, nine in GE and five in SEC have been added.

These papers have been included in addition to the already being taught papers which have a focus on literature of marginalised sections, like Contemporary India: Women and Empowerment; Language, Literature and Culture; The Individual and Society (with specific sections on Caste, Gender, Race etc.); Readings on Indian Diversities and Literary Movements etc.

The case of Mahasweta Devi

A specific allegation that the Bangla writer Mahasweta Devi has been ‘removed’ from the syllabus has no truth as two of her works have still been included in two papers- The Why Why Girl, the story of a tribal girl and Bayen, a play centred around a tribal woman and her struggles in patriarchal society.

One of her stories Draupdi, translated from Bangla to English by Gaytri Spivak has been replaced by a story Sultana’s Dream by Begam Sakhawat Hossain, popularly known as Begam Rukhaya, in the paper, Women’s Writing. The specific paper has literature by women writers about women across cultures and regions of the world. The paper, which includes works of Alice Walker, Emily Dickenson, Mary Wollstonecraft, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolfe and others is not a paper about caste or tribal issues. Therefore, the inclusion of an Indian Muslim feminist writer of the early 20th century in the women specific paper must be appreciated.

Most of the readers of Devi have not read the original story Draupdi written in Bangla, which is about a tribal Maoist who has been gang-raped by the Indian Army. The Gayatri Spivak translated version along with a long foreword by the translator is further more offensive. Notwithstanding the de/merits of translation of Spivak, who has translated Ma Durga as ‘the Lion-seated’ in another story of Devi and calls the Nobel Laureate Tagore as ‘the Bourgeois poet Rabindranath Tagore’ in the Translator’s Foreword, her comments certainly are derogatory and belligerent. She has blatantly justified and romanticised the Naxalite movement of Bengal of the 1960s. In the apparently agenda-driven Foreword, Spivak deliberates on the already defunct Aryan invasion theory to prove ‘Aryans’ as ‘outsiders’ and tribals as non-Hindus.

Unnecessarily, the holy book of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib and Five Ks have been denigrated in the story. As a Sikh army official Arjan Singh (reminder of the Sikh Guru who sacrificed his life) is shown as a caricature who in spite of being a true Sikh suffers from diabetes and anxieties as his religion and its 5 symbols fail to keep him healthy. The Sikh community is laughed at as ‘Polish in North America or the Belgian in France’.

Exploring the root of the English Curriculum issue

One needs to understand why the Oversight Committee on Curriculum was constituted first of all and the root of the issue.

The English curriculum issue began in 2017 when the Department of English revised the syllabi of the undergraduate programme. Many changes were introduced as per the requirements of Choice Based Credit System (CBCS). However, a controversy was created by ‘a few teachers’ of English on JUST ONE TEXT, i.e. Five Point Someone by Chetan Bhagat, whereas more than 60 changes were made in the syllabus.  Bhagat’s text was to be part of an optional paper Popular Literature. A lot of hue and cry was made by a few faculty members on this. Eventually, not only the said text was removed from the proposed syllabus but the entire course curriculum design work came in the hands of the same teachers who had created noise.

The strategy of making noise about a non-issue worked perfectly well as henceforth they drove the revision of curriculum. Of course, neutral faculty members too joined the process, however, essentially it was steered mostly by the same set of teachers. Eventually, one of these faculty members became a part of sub-committees of as many as 16 papers, followed by other few in 15, 14, 13 papers respectively. Ten faculty members were part of more than 10 sub-committees working simultaneously in the LOCF syllabus of English in 2019.  

As a consequence, overhauling, agenda-driven changes were made in the syllabus, as a core paper like Indian Writing in English was completely taken out. Content of some core papers was changed to the extent of 100%, whereas UGC guidelines mandate it to be capped to 30%. Some new papers were introduced and partisan and offensive content was included.

These issues were raised in the meetings of Standing Committee on Academic affairs, the Academic Council and the highest academic body, Executive Council held on 11 July 2019, 15-16 July 2019 and 20-21 July 2019 respectively. However, it is surprising to note that the syllabus unapproved at lower levels (Standing Committee and Academic Committee) made it to the Executive Committee level. Nevertheless, the anomalies were brought to notice and an Oversight Committee was constituted.

The status of the syllabus since then is that the Oversight Committee had to approve the UG English syllabus in parts, keeping students’ interest in mind. Stubborn attitude of the English Department backed by a few members in the Academic Council and the Standing Committees, who doubled up as conveners/members of the curriculum design sub-committees, and a few others during this time period has been detrimental in getting it approved.

The recent English Syllabus controversy is a diversionary tactic

Now coming back to the present ‘controversy’ manufactured regarding removal of ‘Dalit’ authors from the syllabus, it can be called a diversionary strategy. Just like the 2017 Chetan Bhagat controversy, the 2021 Dalit writers’ removal narrative is again a smokescreen to hide facts. Some of the papers included in the approved syllabus have significantly partisan and agenda-driven content. Some of the papers have literature which apparently is detrimental to harmony and peace among various sections of the society and are also ideologically loaded. Many examples of the same can be quoted to substantiate the point. The present controversy has proved successful for the creators as deliberations are not happening on real issues.

Twisting and subversion of facts, creating confusion over an issue and manufacturing a narrative suiting their agenda, has been a well-established strategy of the political Left in the country. The same tactic has been followed time and again by the Left-aligned teachers’ groups and academics in the University. Curriculum of schools to colleges to universities has been a tool, particularly in social sciences and humanities’ subjects. Unfortunately, vulnerable students become the ultimate victims and the present case is no exception.

Prerna Malhotra teaches English at Ram Lal Anand College, University of Delhi. She may be reached at [email protected]

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Dr. Prerna Malhotra
Dr. Prerna Malhotra
Prerna Malhotra teaches at Ram Lal Anand College, University of Delhi


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