About 250 academics and teachers, including historian Romila Thapar, have expressed concern over a letter sent by the University Grants Commission to Registrars of all Central Universities on March 16 regarding a question asked in Parliament. The question from the Rajya Sabha to the Center asked whether the latter had taken cognizance of the fact that a book by a Pakistani author was being taught at Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Millia Islamia or any other educational institution in the country. The question also wanted to know whether the language was derogatory to Indian citizens and also if it supported terrorism.
The academics said such a question is alarming for several reasons. “The language of the question can only be read as being deliberately ambiguous. While it appears that a specific book by a specific author is the subject of the question, neither the author nor the book is named. Surely this is not simply an error? For leaving the book unnamed allows the question to be read as suggesting that any book by any Pakistani author that might possibly be read as being ‘derogatory to Indian citizens’ and ‘supporting terrorism’ must not be taught in any Indian university; that teaching any such book will result in punitive action and perhaps criminal charges being lodged against teachers,” said a statement by the academics issued here on Tuesday.
They added that the punitive threat mentioned at the end of the question seemed to foreclose any possibility of discussion or dialogue regarding textbooks chosen for particular courses. “It assumes that a teacher who assigns a reading must agree with all the arguments of the assigned text. But teachers do not present texts—especially works of fiction or even historical accounts—as if they were gospel truth. It is more often the case that syllabi are made, especially in the Humanities and the Social Sciences, to expose students to varied historical and cultural perspectives. Our role as teachers is precisely to encourage students to discuss, question and learn about these perspectives, not to endorse or follow them uncritically,” he said.
They urged the Center to fulfill its constitutional mandate and create democratic spaces by fostering the autonomy of educational institutions, empowering faculty, and encouraging debate, critical thought, and discussion on all possible topics. “Attempts to continually link central universities with identifiable Muslim associations, such as Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia, with ‘terrorism,’ must be resisted in every possible way. Not doing so will only endanger our own lives, the lives of our children, and, perhaps more importantly, the very possibility of a future world in which difference and equality may coexist,” he said.