Furore over Hindu epic essay points to India’s cultural divide

November 1, 2011

(Rama -- at centre, in blue, with his wife Sita -- receives Hanuman in a scene from the Ramayana/Smithsonian)

Under pressure from Hindu hardliners, a prestigious university has dropped a scholarly text on the Ramayana epic from its history syllabus, in the latest sign of conservatives’ deep influence over a globalizing India’s cultural battles.

In October, Delhi University removed the essay by eminent academic A.K. Ramanujan from the reading list after Hindu nationalist students vandalized the history department and lodged a complaint that the text’s bawdy references offended beliefs about the life of hero-god Rama.

Liberal thinkers are furious at what they see as another capitulation by a secular institution to pressure from hardliners — in a tweet last week author Salman Rushdie called it “academic censorship.”

The furor bears some resemblance to U.S. tussles over the teaching of evolutionary theory and highlights the resurgence of India’s religious right at a time when voters are turning away from a center-left Congress government weakened by corruption scandals.

This was not the first case of radical Hindu pressure over India’s culture. It has ranged from state governments banning books seen as offensive to raids on bars by Hindu groups in the IT hub of Bangalore to protest Western culture corrupting Indian values.

Last year, Mumbai University removed Rohinton Mistry’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel Such A Long Journey from its literature syllabus after threats and book burnings by radical Hindu political party Shiv Sena.

India’s best-known artist, painter Maqbool Fida Husain, fled the country in 2006 and died in exile in London this year after his depictions of naked Hindu goddesses enraged zealots who attacked his house and vandalized shows.

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