Ramayana, May 1968

Remembering Ramanujan's Three Hundred Ramayanas through the prism of the luminescent May 1968 students' uprising in France
Manoj K Jha Delhi

If asked which decade I would have preferred to be born in and enjoyed being in when young, my choice would have been the decade of the 1960s with 1968 as the embodiment of all that was great in that decade. Alas! I was born a year before 1968 but missed all the fun of 'being young was heaven' through the age, when 'poetry ruled the streets'. Being in my mid-40s, I can clearly discern that while scores of other regrets have been fairly ephemeral in my life, missing the politics of 1968 does not seem to ever go away. It sets a progression of nostalgic thoughts which guide me further to discover as well as uncover the spirit of 1968 almost on a daily basis.

It was the momentous year of 1968 which taught the world that history has an inherent tendency to defy the logic of evenness and predictability. It was a minor spark which began on the eve of May 10, 1968 at Nanterre campus that ushered in such a qualitative transformation that seemed possible only through several decades. The year 1968 was the year of the rebellion of youth, not only for France, but for students across campuses from Berkeley to Tokyo.

The events of 1968 not only marked a critical rupture with the past, but also heralded the dawn of a new era; a new politics through which everyone began to desire an unsullied perspective to make sense of the world they lived in. The movement of the students that emerged so spontaneously during the May events scuttled the widely shared assumption that a modern society, with enormous abundance of consumer goods and with a tiny but relatively prosperous middle class, would be unable to witness a revolution. The 1968 uprising in France as also in Britain and America literally compelled the reluctant commentators to acknowledge that the 'student class' had arisen and that this phenomenon was analogous to the 'rise of the working class' in the 19th century.

Students were passionate about their politics and boldly signed in to alter the course of history of the times they lived in. One of the most popular slogans was 'All Power to the Imagination'. It educated them to insist that universities be transformed from being 'sites producing programmed androids' to becoming 'cradles of revolutionary protest'. Through their carefully crafted cognitive frames, lovingly and relentlessly, the students and their working class comrades violated the rigid boundaries of varied ideological dispositions of the Cold War years.

Another remarkable feature of 1968 was that unlike 1848 and 1917, wherein the revolutionaries pressed for a fundamental shift in the existing regimes, the generation of 1968 did not desire that, for their intent was to revolutionise the society itself. That politics need not look distant and power had no business to appear scary was the unambiguous understanding of the spirit of 1968.

The question is, why should melancholia prevail upon me to articulate all this in 2012, after more than four-and-a-half decades? Looking through the images of 1968 has been triggered by one of the recent decisions of the University of Delhi, where I studied and am presently teaching.

In October 2011, the Academic Council of the University of Delhi decided to drop an essay titled, 'Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation' by noted linguist and historian AK Ramanujan from the university's syllabus for undergraduate courses in history. The reasons cited were alien not only to secular-democratic minds, but also to the very edifice of higher education based on reason. This certainly was not a mechanical decision bereft of motives, and caused brutal damage to the opportunities and possibilities of alternative interpretations and the respect for diversity of belief.

The 1968 uprising in France, Britain and America compelled the reluctant commentators to acknowledge that the ‘student class’ had arisen and that this phenomenon was analogous to the ‘rise of the working class’ in the 19th century 

Several groups of students and academicians from within the university as well as outside were outraged. Many of them organised a series of protests, but what was noticeable was the conspicuous absence of what constitutes the 'critical edge of protest'. If, indeed, the protestors could have chosen to draw strength from another 1968 slogan, Arise! Wretched of the University, the moments of collective anger would have certainly paved way for the realisation of the immense power of imagination.

While Ramanujan's essay was being pushed out from the university, I was reading Niall Fergusson's edited volume on Virtual History, an anthology of counterfactuals and possible alternatives in history. It was during one gloomy afternoon when resistance to a rotten structure was earning a bad name that the idea of writing a counterfactual narrative occurred to me. Now I understand that the difference between factual and counterfactual rests on shaky ontological claims.

Hence, I have tried to locate the duplicity in the judgments of our times through an invented dialogue between two of the most prominent student leaders and intellectuals of 1968: Daniel Cohn-Bendit from France, and Tariq Ali from Britain. Knowing their politics and their perception, I am also convinced that there is a 'factual' component in this counterfactual narrative.

Tariq Ali (TA): Hello! Daniel....Missing the disobedient generation of the 1960s?
Daniel Cohn-Bendit (DCB): So very true! I am lamenting the life and times therein. It is so reassuring that even our detractors of those days now believe that 1968 was an absolutely critical moment when political and cultural movements came together and changed how one looked at the world emotionally and politically.
TA: There was no distinction between getting emotional and being political... Whether it was in Britain or in France, just to be there was a bridge course in political education with a lovely human face. It, indeed, was one of the rarest moments in history and we were fortunate to be active witnesses to it.

DCB: You are right... 1968 was marked by exuberance and resilience in the face of the appalling political changes which came in the wake of the Cold War posturing by the superpowers. As you know, the proximate causes and intellectual inspirations for the 'spirit of 1968' were varied and they all contributed en masse to the configuration of a creative restlessness among the youth. It was this creative restlessness which made the disobedience of the generation a dynamic entity – an endearing proposition. What do you say Tariq?
TA: Unlike the years before and to some extent after, in 1968, laws were broken in the name of something beyond what those laws could offer. We were keen to have freedom, communication, equality and expression, but we wanted all of them unhyphenated. However, it is really unfortunate that a post-1968 political movement did not develop in the way we would have desired it to be. This triggers me to raise an integral issue of relevance to the context here and that is, in our struggle through the 1960s, universities were the natural counter-hegemonic sites, but that somehow has been lost on the subsequent generations of youth. What do you feel?

DCB: I concur with you and also feel that what we learnt from and taught each other at the universities of Europe and America was plain and simple, both to understand and imbibe. Activists at Nanterre campus and elsewhere, in the civil rights and anti-war movements, were of the view that everyday life was in itself a fundamental slice of politics, and the opportunities and choices therein had deep political implications. We were keen to see universities across the globe working passionately to facilitate resistance and actions by intellectuals and students in a way as was innate to their ontological being.
TA: On the contrary what we see now is that the present day universities are relishing their evolution as technocratic systems which find alternative views, leave aside contentious politics, as anathema. Otherwise, how does one make sense of the decision of the University of Delhi, one of the largest in India, to drop that beautiful essay on Ramayana by the historian Ramanujan?

DCB: I cannot term this decision merely as a mindless and pervert one... it singularly goes against the very 'spirit of the sixties'. We had learnt that universities were meant to convey that changing oneself by changing the society can never be an obsolete idea, and this most certainly can never be a threat to the 'age of reason'. But what we see in the case of Delhi is an abject surrender by the university to the Rightwing hullabaloo in the country. This stands to seriously jettison the location of universities and their roles and responsibilities in building a modernist outlook. Instead of opening up the critical faculties of young minds, this irresponsible action aims at shutting down the windows of diverse interpretations and alternative frameworks forever.
TA: Going a little further, I would like to underline that what has been done to the Ramanujan essay is but a small footnote in the larger manuscript of contemporary Rightwing politics of India, which is brazenly attempting to reconstruct the nation as well as its collective memory. The decision of the University of Delhi negates the very premise that freedom of expression and diversity of opinion not only strengthen democracy, but make it vibrant and multi-coloured.

Contrast this with our times, where, in spite of the resistance of the university authorities, the generation had an amazing 'refresher course in state and revolution' as was stated by Daniel Singer. I also believe that such regressive decisions as the one taken by the University of Delhi tend to project an inward journey in history as a matter of celebration for the youth, whereas, in reality, it is nothing but an occasion of perennial mourning for the values of pluralism and democracy.

Insist that universities be transformed from being ‘sites producing programmed androids’ to becoming ‘cradles of revolutionary protest’


What Ramanujan had written in his essay was in sync with the 'Idea of India', for it reflected the diversity of traditions and how each one of them comes up with their 'versions' which also change over time. In view of India's secular, democratic framework, one would have expected the university to say a bold 'NO' to a highly monochromatic version of any text, leave aside the epic Ramayana. But these are the times of 'neoliberal consensus' with a 'Right turn' and that is why fanaticism and intolerance to creative imagination does not come across enough protest. In such a context, people like us can only lament: Where has all the rage gone?

DCB: As I browse through media reports, what I find most worrisome is that out of more than a hundred members in the Academic Council of the University of Delhi, only nine – just nine of them – chose to dissent this blatant act of censorship over academic freedom. For me, this shrinking width of dissent is of greater importance because it signals a massive exodus of voices which stand contrary to the clamour of cultural and political fascism. The seemingly reckless authorities at the university have failed to take cognisance of a 1968 slogan: 'The act institutes the consciousness'. The protestors fell short of comprehending another one: 'Imagination has the potential to seize power'.
TA: You know that, across Europe and America, we struggled so hard to ensure that universities should not pose as systems of domination and sites for reproducing dominating ideas. We shuddered to think of the eventuality of the university as a technocratic system blatantly indulging in cultural manipulation. But here, in the case of the University of Delhi, weird things are happening under the cover of 'academic uprightness'. One of the members of the expert committee in this case said that teachers belonging to the minority community (reference was to the religious minority) might find it awkward to teach the said essay.

Now! That makes a very interesting case for both of us, in view of who we were and remained through 1968. Daniel! If I recollect, you were popularly called 'Danny the Red', a person of Jewish background and the legal status of a German citizen. Yet, for your friends as well as adversaries in the French streets, your identity posed any problem. In a similar vein, I was a Pakistani Muslim and was yet to get a permanent citizenship in Britain, but the processions and the protest meetings I was part of, never bothered about my identity.

I get a feeling that, 'we are rapidly moving in the rear of time and history' but one must not give up on contestation; which means to question the validity of what is prearranged as 'fact' and only then the 1968 dream of a 'critical university' shall be a reality. What do you say Daniel? 

DCB: I would just paraphrase what we used to pronounce during the May moments of 1968. Let the walls have ears; do not allow your ears to have walls. The youth everywhere must make sure that their minds are not policed by the structures of control and dominance and patrolled by the elusive ghetto of privileges. Take it from the generation of 1960s that only then one shall be able to reclaim the space of university as counter hegemonic site.

The writer is Associate Professor, Department of Social Work, University of Delhi

Also read One Hundred Thoughts Of Solitude in the Inside Pages of www.hardnewsmedia.com

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2012