Delhi University’s standing committee for academic affairs has recommended that the word ‘Dalit’ be replaced with “bahujan’, “ambedkarwadi” or “scheduled caste” in books used by post graduate political science students. It recommended that three “controversial” books written by activist and academic Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd also be dropped from the reading list of political science students. N. Sukumar, a professor in the Department of Political Science at Delhi University, has written a statement against these recommendations, alleging that it is an attempt to “sanitise” what is taught to students and browbeat Dalit scholars. His statement is reproduced in full below.
For centuries, knowledge production and its dissemination was considered an exclusive privilege. What constitutes knowledge, its philosophy, its relationship to one’s lived experiences etc. was not available to the masses. However, in the last few decades, the walls of academia were breached by the lower castes and women, and the dominant paradigms of knowledge production began to be challenged. This affected the prevailing pedagogy which needed to accommodate newer ideas and questions, in the process overturning myths and legends used to justify the socio-cultural oppression and dehumanisation of the people.
The Department of Political Science, Delhi University offers an array of courses on various themes for the students. For years, Indian Political Thought only dealt with Manu, Kautilya and coming to more modern times, Tagore, Gandhi, Savarkar etc. A range of thinkers were simply ignored and after acrimonious debates in department meetings, it was decided to also include Iqbal, Jinnah and others. I have taught this course and in order to critically engage with political discourse in India, devised a course – Dalit Bahujan Political Thought – which analyses the ideas of Gautam Buddha, Jotiba Phule, Ambedkar, Periyar, Tarabai Shinde, Kanshiram etc. The reading list of the course includes the works of Professor Kancha Illaiah, amongst other scholars.
Similarly, I also introduced a course – Social Exclusion in India – which focuses on the specificities of exclusionary practices in the context of family, gender, caste, religion, disability etc. and introduces the students to pedagogic interventions on these themes. Again the works of Professor Kancha Illaiah is part of the reading list as he has critically engaged with these ideas and provided epistemic alternatives. Many might not agree with his formulations, but it’s for the students to read and analyse the text. Both these courses are interdisciplinary in nature.
The discomfort with the term ‘Dalit’ in the course title is not a new development. The word has always rattled the state and many in academia as it signifies a positive sense of the self. The word ‘Dalit’ was coined by Jotiba Phule and used by Ambedkar in the context of the socio-cultural oppression of the vast masses of the country. It was further popularised by the Dalit Panthers, who wore the badge of being Dalits with pride and assertion. It has its own history and politics.
The ruling establishment is feeling rattled by the uncomfortable questions being raised by assertive Dalit scholars through their pedagogic interventions. They do not wish to lose their caste- and gender-based entitlements and hence make periodic attempts to browbeat Dalit scholars and students under the garb of social harmony. Such policing and surveillance tactics to sanitise academic spaces needs to severely condemned.