SUCH A BANNED JOURNEY
Students at the University of Mumbai might take Aditya Thackeray's soft launch with a big pinch of salt
Aritra Bhattacharya Mumbai
The fracas concerning the University of Mumbai taking Rohinton Mistry's book Such A Long Journey off its BA (English) syllabus starts with Aditya Thackeray, whose complaint led to the action. Aditya - all of 20 years old, a final year BA student at St Xavier's College in Mumbai - took offence to the book primarily because a character in the book uses abusive words while referring to Bal Thackeray, his grandfather.
Newspaper reports since have spoken about how Aditya comes across as intelligent and sensitive and his letter to the Vice Chancellor (V-C) Rajan Welukar asking for the book to be taken off the syllabus goes against this grain of his personality.
But is it so unusual for someone to take offence when his grandfather is being abused? Does one need to be Rightwing, parochial and fundamentalist - all characteristics attributed to the Sena - to take offence in such cases?
"One can argue that the words are being spoken by a fictitious character, but then, they are about a person who is present in the flesh and blood in the real world," says Dr Edward Rodrigues, Professor of Sociology at the University of Mumbai, adding that the answers are not as simple as we would like to believe.
There's nothing wrong about Aditya approaching the V-C, says Shefali Balsari-Shah, Head of the Department of English at St Xavier's College, who taught the Thackeray scion for two years. If the 'freedom of expression' card is used to defend Mistry's book, the same card can be used for Aditya as well. "In a democracy, he has the right to express himself in a peaceful manner without offending anybody, which he did," agrees Rodrigues.
However, what has gone against every tenet of democracy, or academic freedom, norms and convention, is the way the V-C reacted. "The V-C arbitrarily issued a circular asking all colleges teaching the book to take it off their syllabus within 48 hours of receiving Aditya's complaint," argues Rodrigues.
Ideally, the V-C should have taken cognisance of the matter, waited till a new board was constituted (the earlier board has been dissolved), put the matter before them for discussion and debate, and conveyed the decision to the Academic Council, which would have perhaps ratified the decision; then he should have sent a letter to the colleges conveying this decision.
"None of this was done," says Balkrishna Bhosale, President, University of Mumbai Academic Staff Association. "Instead, the university used the emergency clause that has never been used in the last 150 years to take the book off the syllabus."
The pace of events has left Shah surprised. The book is part of a paper at the second year of BA (English) called 'Indian Writing in English', and is taught during the first half of the academic year, which is almost over. It is part of the University syllabus for the last ten years. "The V-C had six months to take a decision before the book would come up for teaching again, but he chose to act in haste," says Shah.
This has led commentators to speculate that events were stage-managed to give Aditya a soft launch for the Sena's annual Dussehra rally. "Bending before political pressure is not good for the university's autonomy," says Bhosale. The Staff Association has sent a letter to the university authorities seeking an explanation, and will deliberate taking the matter to the Governor and state education minister.
Meanwhile, the meek response from civil society and student and teacher bodies has left Rodrigues and some fellow academics confounded. "No one is ready to take up the
issue with the V-C." He is critical about what stands to be achieved by organising reading sessions of the book, attended by celebrities, except for generating publicity!
Shah is worried if this 'ban' will become a protocol for removing texts that have abusive language, like Vijay Tenduilkar's Silence, The Court is in Session and Dalit poetry, which is part of various courses. Any word, sentence or idea can be picked up and branded offensive. "Students are simmering with anger about the way this has been done; many of them have studied the book for six months only to know at the end of the term that it has been scrapped and they will have to study another book in a month's time and appear for an exam," she says. "They have been silent all this while since they were busy with exams."
By mid-November, when most colleges reopen, the university might see students marching to the V-C's office and demanding an explanation, at the least.