Spread over 550 acres in the outer fringes of Tirunelveli in South Tamil Nadu, the Manonmanian Sundaranar (MS) University, has an old world charm to it with its open brick structure buildings designed by the renowned architect Laurie Baker. Established in 1990, MS University, fulfils the educational aspirations of people in Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi, Kanyakumari and Tenkasi districts of south Tamil Nadu.
In 2017, MS University prescribed Arundhati Roy’s controversial book Walking with comrades (that details the author’s visit to Maoist hideouts and glorifies Maoist terrorism in Bharat) as part of Commonwealth Fiction for post graduate students of English literature in the university. According to sources, despite misgivings about such a book being prescribed, it was nevertheless included in the syllabus.
According to Shri C. Vignesh, Joint Secretary, Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, (ABVP) Dakshin Tamil Nadu, the pan Bharat student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), some of the students expressed their dismay and disappointment at such a brazen anti-national book being prescribed in the syllabus. Shri Vignesh, a student of law, says that Roy’s book condones the killing fields and riots by the anti-national Maoists and wilfully distorts the image of the Indian army. He regretted that such urban naxalism was rampant in academia across the country, this incident being merely a blip in the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
“The teachers also taught an anti-national subject. Students were subject to considerable anguish and agony as the book openly advocates hatred against our country,” says Vignesh.
ABVP, in a letter to the Vice-Chancellor Dr. K. Pichumani, brought the matter to his notice.
“MSU is an important institution where innumerable scholars and intellectuals have studied. Arundhati Roy’s book Walking with the Comrades has been included in the syllabus for MA English (third semester), as part of Unit V (Commonwealth Literature). This is about the arms training given to the Maoists, who are considered as anti-nationals. It is highly regrettable that this book has been in the syllabus for the past three years. All these years Maoists thoughts and ideologies have been taught to the young students. The book instils anti-national sentiments in young fertile minds and encourages terrorism. We urge the MSU to condemn the inclusion of this book and withdraw the book immediately. The people behind this ulterior move should be asked to apologise. We will organise protests if it is not withdrawn from the curriculum,” said the student organisation.
In an assertive, free-from-hidden-compulsions and bold gesture, the vice chancellor, constituted a six-member deemed committee to look into the allegations. Based on their recommendations about the disruptive, incendiary and anti-statal themes highlighted in the book, he took the unanimously supported decision to withdraw the book.
As an antidote to the anti Bharat venom spewing tenor of the Roy book, the syllabus committee replaced it with well-known naturalist and wild life photographer late Shri M. Krishnan’s book ‘ My Native Land: Essays on Nature’.
“[Roy’s] book was included in the syllabus in 2017. It was only a week ago that it was brought to our notice that Ms. Roy had glorified Maoists. So, we formed a committee to discuss the issue and the panel recommended its withdrawal. Besides the ABVP, others complained too, and the issue assumed multiple dimensions. So, we decided to withdraw the book. It is also appropriate that Krishnan is from Tirunelveli,“ said Dr. K. Pitchumani, Vice Chancellor, MS University.
Meanwhile, opposition parties in the state have been expressing their displeasure over the withdrawal of the book. According to a report, DMK Deputy General secretary and former minster A. Raja said, “It is an attempt to saffronize education and foster a mindset against alternate views.”
“Is Dr. Pitchiumani, the Vice Chancellor, following the footsteps of Anna University VC Dr. Surappa, who imposed the Bhagavad Gita in place of Tirukurral in the syllabus?” asked Mr. Raja, who asserted that the book was withdrawn in response to the pressure tactics of the ABVP. He wondered how the chief minister of Tamil Nadu could justify the decision to succumb to pressure tactics ‘from the student wing of the BJP’ as the Department of Higher education was controlled by the State Government.
Continuing his tirade against the ABVP, Mr. Raja said that the ABVP forced Delhi University to withdraw AK Ramanujan’s book on the Ramayana and has now invaded South Tamil Nadu with its brand of ‘aggressive nationalism’ that silences alternative voices and diverse experiences and representations.
“It is an extension of the communal forces’ design to brand their rivals as urban Naxals and anti-nationals,” said Mr. Raja, who also believes that “students have to learn and unlearn about Hitler and Idi Amin” to reclaim their humanity!
Kanimozhi, DMK women’s wing leader and MP, said, “If politics is going to decide what is art, literature, culture and curriculum, it is very dangerous for the pluralistic society. CPI (M) MP Su. Venkatesan demanded the withdrawal of the decision to remove the book, saying a curriculum should be decided only by the syllabus committee, standing committee and the senate of the university.”
Arundhati Roy described the decision as symbolic of a “narrow, shallow, insecure attitude towards literature displayed by the current regime is not just detrimental to its critics but is also detrimental to millions of its own supporters.” She also added that such decisions will limit and stunt our intellectual capacity as a society in a country that’s striving for a place of respect and dignity in the world.
However, despite such political rantings, it is obvious that urban naxalism in academia is a serious threat. Author and film maker Vivek Agnihotri in his book Urban Naxals: The Making of Buddha in a Traffic Jam, defines an ‘Urban Naxal’ as an intellectual, influencer or activist who is an invisible enemy of Bharat. He believes there is a nexus between Maoists and their “supporters” in academia and the media who peddle disruptive narratives to destabilize the country not only politically, but also insidiously, through dismantling the foundations of culture and eroding and destroying people’s pride in their civilizational heritage.
The bold move by the MS University is also reflective of the recent welcome change in the appointment of Vice chancellors in universities in Tamil Nadu. It is an open secret that until two years back, appointments of Vice chancellors were politically mandated, controlled and orchestrated with ‘crores of rupees’ involved in the process of appointment.
In a report, Shri Banwarilal Purohit, Governor of Tamil Nadu, Chancellor, universities in the state, acknowledged the rampant corruption in appointment of vice chancellors in the state, and has ensured that the VC appointments are currently made based on merit.
“After taking charge I came to know how VCs are appointed. I didn’t believe it first but discovered it myself and decided to change it. I was astonished to see that crores changed hands for these appointments,” Shri Purohit said.
The TN Governor said that nine VCs have been appointed since he took charge and all of them were appointed on the basis of merit. No one can allege corruption in these appointments, he claimed. Efforts are on to change corrupt practices but yielding results will take time, he added.
In several university campuses in the state, the impact of the merit-based appointments in the highest echelons of academia are beginning to be felt. One sees value-based decisions driven by strong convictions and a desire to redress wrongs – as in the recent decision of the MS University to weed out campus urban naxalism.
PS: Rhetoric apart, the replacement of the controversial book with Shri M. Krishnan’s book My Native Land: Essays on Nature is most appropriate. Shri Krishnan belonged to Tirunelveli and was internationally acclaimed as naturalist, photographer and writer. His father was the well-known Tamil writer and reformer Shri A. Madhaviah
As an admirer of the life and legacy of Shri M. Krishnan, there are few writers whose prose sparkles with elegance, clarity and precision and pride in this country like M. Krishnan—these are reasons why students of English need to read ‘real’ writers like him and not pretentious serial activists, however compelling their writing!
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