Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

A Library controversy

Nationalism is identified by what you shouldn't eat, mustn't read, can't watch, and certainly not share or like on social media

Makarand Paranjape is a well-regarded scholar who teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). On that campus, he considers himself among the minority—the campus is known to be left-leaning, and Paranjape has lately been calling out the double standards of the left, arguing for the need for honesty in facing the past and emphasizing how important it is to appreciate nuances, as he challenges the conventional wisdom on the campus.

Paranjape obtained his doctorate from an American university when he was not yet 25. He has received many academic honours and is a prolific author: he has published nearly 40 books. He has also signed one misguided petition. Since then, in a curious turn, he has been defending the act by deploying arguments lacking the same nuance he expects of others.

Many have signed a petition to Rohan Murty, who is a fellow at Harvard University and the son of one of the founders of Infosys Ltd, N.R. Narayana Murthy, to protest Murty’s generous donation of $5.2 million to Harvard, to launch the Murty Classical Library of India, which will publish new translations of great works from Indian literature for a global audience. Over time, 500 volumes will be produced from many Indian languages. The first nine volumes are already out, and include Tulsidas’s Ramayana, Bulleh Shah’s Sufi lyrics, Abu’l Fazl’s Akbarnama, early poetry by Buddhist women, and Surdas’s poems, among others.

According to the critics, everything is wrong with the project. Why should a project of such a scale be housed at an American university? Why should its general editor be an American? And why, in particular, should that American be one who, according to the petitioners, is a “Hinduphobe"?

The general editor in question is Sheldon Pollock, a renowned Sanskrit scholar who teaches at Columbia University. He is the target now because in recent weeks he has criticized the Indian government’s handling of the campus unrest at JNU—and that’s what the brouhaha is about. The dispute has less to do with Pollock’s scholarship, and more with India’s cultural wars, sprinkled with a generous helping of nationalism. As Murty tartly hinted in an interview, it is highly unlikely that more than a handful of those who have signed the petition (which he is ignoring) have read any of the published volumes.

Patriotism is being redefined now, measured by the decibel level at which you can shout a particular slogan, and your nationalism is identified by what you shouldn’t eat, mustn’t read, can’t watch, and certainly not share or like on social media. In such a philistine world, the backlash the library has generated is not surprising. The logic of opposing it, however, remains disingenuous.

Paranjape explained his stance in an article in The Indian Express, which was an odd mix of economic, polemical and nationalistic arguments. He complained that the project spent too much money to produce too little. He estimated the cost of each volume to be 40 lakh. But surely, that’s for Murty to worry about? Paranjape rhetorically asked if Americans would accept if Bill Gates endowed 500 works of American culture to Chinese scholars. That’s an odd argument—first, it is irrelevant in the Indian case, and second, it is speculative—it assumes that Americans would object, whereas most simply wouldn’t care. More seriously, Paranjape suggested that Pollock is a left-liberal and a Hinduphobe. The former should not matter, and the latter is simply not true. Judge him by his work.

Raising fears of colonization of the mind, Paranjape asked why such a venture should be based in America. But nobody had stopped Indians from setting up a library of classics out of India. It would be an awful world where only Indians could interpret Indian classics. Should Greek academics have prevented the Gujarati novelist Manubhai Pancholi, or Darshak, from writing a novel called Socrates in 1975, which was prescient in describing and criticizing the Emergency? Should the British have objected to Sunil Shanbag’s Gujarati interpretation of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well? (Instead, they invited him to stage it at the Globe Theatre in London). Why then should there be this fear of the foreigner, this sense of inferiority?

There is a sensible way to challenge the Murty-Pollock project: to compete. Sampadananda Mishra, director of Sri Aurobindo Foundation in Puducherry, is planning a library called Vande Mataram, which will be an open-source, volunteer-driven project. Mishra had signed the anti-Pollock petition, but he now says he intends to build this library, working with US-based technology professional Rajiv Malhotra, who has been writing and campaigning for Hindu assertiveness, although Malhotra’s own scholarship has been questioned. He continues to challenge what he believes are institutional biases in western academia against India.

Whatever the merit of that venture, this competition between the two libraries is a far more constructive response than the churlish attempts to ascribe motives to Pollock, or to insist on how Murty should spend his money: those arguments are unworthy of scholars.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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