2019 August 2019

Adjusted Syllabus: The Political Struggle over the Teaching Curriculum in the University of Delhi

On the recent fight to prevent Modi's government from controlling the University of Delhi's teaching curriculum, which is part of a larger effort by Hindu nationalists to maintain cultural and political hegemony in India.

By Dimple Khattar

The recent fight in the University of Delhi over the curriculum of four undergraduate disciplines, English, Political Science, History, and Sociology, is yet another example of the Indian federal government’s desire to control universities at the cost of the academic freedom. This is not the first time the government has interfered in the academic curriculum.[1] However, in the present context, the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is advancing its political interests — the establishment of Hindu majoritarian state, which involves subverting (cultural, religious, and political) minority’s identities and practices–even at the cost of violence and riots in the streets (Ganguly, 2019).[2] This article examines the various motives of the BJP in attacking the University of Delhi teaching curriculum, a major target of the government, in its quest to maintain power.

According to an anonymous professor closely involved in the conflict, there are three reasons for the syllabus conflict at the University of Delhi. First, the conflict is politically motivated. The changes demanded in the teaching curriculum of the University of Delhi by the National Democratic Teacher’s Front (NDTF) and Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP)[3] are in line with the political interests of the ruling political party, Bhartiya Janta Party and its ally Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).[4] NDTF and ABVP members demanded that a short story that depicts RSS workers as perpetrators of violence during the 2002 Gujarat riots[5] be removed from the English literature undergraduate curriculum in an attempt to reshape public memory. ABVP and NDTF have also demanded the deletion of journalistic coverage on the Muzaffarnagar riots[6], a clash backed by the Hindu Mahasabha (the parent organization of the RSS and BJP) between Hindus and Muslims that resulted in high Muslim casualties, from undergraduate curriculum. The motive of these right-wing politicians is to remove the subjects which are not in tandem with the ideas of BJP and RSS and the subjects which interrogate their political power.    

Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh meeting people impacted by the violence in Muzaffarnagar district on September 16, 2013. By Prime Minister’s Office (GODL-India), GODL-India, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71907681

Relatedly, the curriculum change orders the exclusion of the marginalized — the deletion of Dalit literature and queer literature—the inclusion of Brahmanical superiority, and the removal of caste discrimination from the curriculum. The government’s desire to exclude non-Hindu communities, like Muslim communities, is apparent from NDTF and ABVP members’ attempts to remove topics such as Delhi Sultanate and the history of Muslim rule in the Indian subcontinent from the curriculum by appealing to the University of Delhi’s Academic Council. The council, a non-partisan, university-recognized body formulated by the faculty members of the University of Delhi that handles academic (curriculum and research) related issues, has so far rejected NDTF and ABVP appeals to remove this content, as well as the alternate text recommendations suggested by the NDTF.

Third, the personal vested interest of professors and research scholars is another factor contributing to the syllabus conflict at the University of Delhi. The new proposed curriculum plans to do away with certain ‘substandard’ courses which were disliked by professors and considered unimportant by students. However, deletion of those courses means that the books pertaining to those courses will be scrapped, causing financial loss to its writers, who are professors affiliated to NDTF. These professors are ready to overlook the ideas of academic merit, academic exploration, and research to preserve their financial interests.  

The timing of the University of Delhi curriculum conflict is perfect for ABVP and NDTF members. They seek to polarize electorates for the upcoming Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU) and Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) elections by drumming up support for Hindu nationalism. According to the workers of RSS- BJP, anyone who does not stand for their struggles and their notion of righteousness, is an anti-national. 

Professors associated with Delhi University’s Undergraduate Curriculum Revision Committee (UGCRC) have been physically attacked, trolled on Facebook, and threatened over WhatsApp. Professors have not been offered university protection even after they pleaded for it. Another example, ABVP members entered the Vice Chancellor’s office demanding that they handover professors associated with UGCRC for the ABVP to ‘handle’ them themselves. Prof. Rudrashish Chakraborty of the English department says that there have been various instances where faculty are not allowed access to the Vice Chancellor’s office building, while ABVP members were given entry to the VC office. If this is not indicative that the institutional authorities of the university are acting in the interest of ABVP members, then what is?

On one hand, professors call the syllabus conflict a conspiracy between right-wing political parties and the government. On the other hand, certain members (ex-members of NDTF) of the Academic Council are claiming to constitute an “independent inquiry committee… to expose the persons behind the conspiracy against academics, Indian culture and Indian state” (The Indian Express, August 3, 2019). Student unions are fighting a similar ideological battle. Left-wing student unions, All India Students’ Association (AISA) and Student’s Federation of India (SFI) organized protests condemning the ideological attacks and wrote letters to the Vice-Chancellor and Ministry of Human Resource and Development. ABVP members are harassing students associated to student unions or who have been part of protests. Seemingly all government universities are facing the polarization of academic spaces and constant interference by Hindu nationalist political parties, leading to regular disruption of lectures and academic activities.  

This is not the first time the Modi government and its supporters have violently attacked faculty and students. My first such experience was in my first year as an undergraduate in July 2015, where ABVP workers entered the seminar hall of Kirori Mal College and disrupted the screening of a documentary “Muzzafarnagar Abhi Baaki Hain.[7] The documentary tells the story of the Muzzafarnagar riots of 2013, portraying RSS workers as the perpetrators of violence against Muslims. ABVP workers gained entry to the college campus (even though students do not get entry into the college without a college identity card), entered the hall, broke the projector, and attacked professors and students. It was haunting for me personally, as I had never witnessed any such incident before. But in the three years of my undergraduate education, I have since witnessed various incidents and attacks on cultural events: street plays, paintings, graffiti for being supposedly against Indian culture and values. Any form of art and content which portrays the RSS and BJP workers in a bad light comes under attack. Violent attacks on the faculty members and students have been common in light of this. 

Academic institutions influence the values, norms, ideas, expectations, worldview, and behavior of society. A Foucauldian interpretation of hegemony sees truth as constructed through the control of discourses (“Truth and Power”). In the modern world, it is more difficult for a class to dominate by advancing just their economic interest, or through force and coercion (Gramsci, “The concept of Ideology, Hegemony, and Organic Intellectuals”). Gramsci’s sees ideological apparatuses, education and media, as central to maintaining hegemony.[8] When the dominating class controls all sources of information, there is a need for ‘counter hegemony’ through ‘alternative ideology’. While intellectuals can act as agents of counter hegemony, Gramsci acknowledges that education in the schools follow a top down approach when government controlled. One can assume Hindu nationalists are attempting to control the University of Delhi’s curriculum as a small step in the large motive to subvert cultural minorities (Muslims, dalits) and political minorities (Left leaning political parties) to maintain hegemony in India.

Dimple Khattar pursued her undergraduate degree in English literature from the University of Delhi. She is interested in assessing the relevance of Marx in the present society and can often be found with a copy of The Communist Manifesto. She takes interest in the issues of political shaping of our everyday reality, assessing and reinstalling the public value of humanities. Presently, she is pursuing her Master’s from the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, India.

Further Reading

[1] During the rule of the Indian National Congress, the national academic curriculum was such that course on national centered the Independence struggle centered around Gandhi and Nehru, disregarding the efforts by all other leaders specifically the fundamentalist and radical leaders. During the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule in the nation, Rajasthan’s school curriculum adopted to glorified the practice of sati, the historical Hindu practice in which widow sacrifices themselves by sitting atop of their husband’s funeral pyre. Sati was abolished in 1829.

[2] Since the 2014 formation of the Modi government, there has been a rise in ‘state sponsored’ attacks in the name of Hindu nationalism.

[3]  NDTF is Delhi University teacher’s political party and ABVP is Delhi University student’s political party. Both the political parties are governed and sponsored by BJP

[4] Leaders of BJP are in majority in the parliament. The interest of BJP are strongly aligned and influenced by RSS. the current prime minister Narendra Modi was a RSS worker in the past, many BJP workers have been RSS workers in the past or have been affiliated to RSS.

[5] In 2002, due to demolition of Babri mosque and certain events which followed thereafter led to a bloody battle on the streets amongst Hindus and Muslims. The riots involved death and injury of men and women, burning of houses, rape of women, butchering of children, the Muslim casualty rates were much higher than that of Hindus. The attacks were backed by the Hindu Mahasabha, the parent organization of RSS and BJP. 

[6] In 2013, a clash amongst a Hindu and a Muslim stirred up to become a major mass conflict between the Hindu Jat (the powerful landowners) and Muslim community. The Hindu Jat community received support from the Hindu MLAs and MPs. This led to relocation of approximately 40,000 Muslims of and around Muzaffarnagar.

[7] A hard look at the causes and aftermath of the September 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots through the eyes of local people of Muzaffarnagar in the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh.

[8]  In the present context, we can term the ideology of the ruling political party as the ideology of the dominating class.

Chowdhury, Shreya Roy. “BJP’s Major Achievement in Rajasthan: Rewriting School Textbooks to Reflect RSS Worldview.” Scroll.in, Scroll.in, 15 Nov. 2018, scroll.in/article/901001/bjps-major-achievement-in-rajasthan-rewriting-schools-textbooks-in-the-rss-worldview.

“Don’t Approve New Syllabus Yet: Delhi University AC Members to V-C.” The Indian Express, 3 Aug. 2019, indianexpress.com/article/education/dont-approve-new-syllabus-yet-du-ac-members-to-v-c-5874018/.

Ganguly, Sumit. “India’s Prime Minister Modi Pursues Politics of Hindu Nationalism – What Does That Mean?” The Conversation, 19 Aug. 2019, theconversation.com/indias-prime-minister-modi-pursues-politics-of-hindu-nationalism-what-does-that-mean-117794.

Josh, Jagran. “DU Teachers Slam Politically Motivated English Syllabus, Students Left in Lurch.” Jagranjosh.com, 4 Aug. 2019, http://www.jagranjosh.com/news/du-teachers-slam-politically-motivated-english-syllabus-students-left-in-lurch-150836.

Tnn. “Delhi University Syllabus Row: Over 100 Teachers Speak out: Delhi News – Times of India.” The Times of India, timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/70517067.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst.

Tnn. “Delhi University Syllabus Row: Over 100 Teachers Speak out: Delhi News – Times of India.” The Times of India, timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/70517067.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst.

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