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Rohinton Mistry's such a short journey in Mumbai academics

October 13, 2010 15:21 IST

Why did the city's decision-makers take a book off the Mumbai University's curriculum without bothering to read it? Mahesh Vijapurkar wants answers and remedies

Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey was taken off the curriculum of the University of Mumbai in haste at the behest of a student and his father's political party's student wing. The issue brings up three questions for which society has to find answers and -- remedies.

One, should we allow a person, Aditya Thackeray in this case, who has, by his own confession, not read the book, to sit on judgment on it and seek its removal from the curriculum of a university?

Two, should decision-makers like Rajesh Tope, Maharashtra's minister for higher education who says the book ought not to have been a part of the syllabus in the first place without reading the book, be allowed to steer the course of higher education? Adtiya Thackeray and Tope have been quoted in a section of the media admitting they have not read it.

Three, is it appropriate to have a vice-chancellor who was picked to head the university after an excruciating -- and now, apparently without a happy outcome -- selection process so that the institution's academic excellence is promoted but, now, just succumbs to a demand, promptly slices off the book from the courses using his emergency powers, which is not known to have been used before?

Thought Aditya Thackeray would have an open mind

A bit about Aditya Thackeray who, I thought, as a young man, exposed to good learning in an institution like Mumbai's St Xavier's College, despite his upbringing in a family known to believe that they have the given rights to be moral arbiters, would have an open, inquisitive mind. I thought he would discuss the book before he petitions the VC with a mob in tow. The least he should have done is to discuss it with the fine faculty at St Xavier's.

On Dassera, the Yuva Sena, a youth wing distinct from the Vidyarthi Sena, is likely to be launched by the grandfather, Bal Thackeray in the presence of Aditya's father, Uddhav Thackeray. Which means a mindset of intolerance, the propensity to take quick decisions without rationalising it or understanding its implications, the ability to shoot from the hip -- all move like DNA to the third generation in the family and politics. My speculation is that Aditya will head the Yuva Sena.

Now that the university has made such a short journey of the book on his demand and having tasted first blood with such ease, will the young Thackeray who shows all signs of being callow, not take to the streets and demand that the book not be stocked, sold and read in the state? And that just because some content in the book was not palatable to someone.

I would like that Chief Minister Ashok Chavan ensures that the book is freely available. Since this issue of freedom to write, express and read is fundamental to life, I would not mind if the CM even encroaches on the autonomy of the university -- which we know is only a sham -- and ask Dr Rajan Welukar to retrace his steps and restore the book to its earlier status on the curriculum till the Board of Studies takes a call on academic grounds. A constant review of the curriculum actually is the right thing to do.

Talibanisation of Maharashtra

Maharashtra has been known to be progressive as a society and vigorous discussion and debate are its hallmarks, but unfortunately it has been sliding, given the number of books that are easily banned -- almost as easily as changing underwear.

B R Ambedkar's Riddles in Hinduism for instance. James Laine's Shivaji, the Hindu King in a Mogul India for instance. The movie Fire for instance.  All these are instances of decisions under duress, not cold, calculated choices made after due deliberation.

The outcry about the Aditya Thackeray misadventure and Rajan Welukar's compliance to the demand had been muted, first heard of in one single newspaper after which it did not pick up steam in other sections of the media. Which, to say the least, is quite mystifying.

Only now does one see some well-argued protests, the first to go on record being Dr Aroon Tikekar, the feisty protector of intellectual freedoms, then Fr Mascarenhas, principal of St Xavier's which Aditya attends. Then there has been a protest and petition online, which I have signed after writing about it on my own blog. But the fact remains that the outcry has not been loud enough and this emboldens the Thackerays and the Welukars of this world.

The sad thing is that though the Supreme Court has upheld the right to keep James Laine's book in the hands of the readers, the Maharashtra government has ensured that it doesn't happen. It possibly does not want a headache or hurt the so-called pride of the Marathas, which was said to have been pricked.

The right to choose

In fact, a debate was triggered in the venerable Asiatic Society of Mumbai, as to it whether it was right to have a section which stores all banned books as it was an institution promoting scholarship.

Being an institution which secures state aid, it chose not to perform such action because it would be illegal. The very fact that a resolution was sought to be moved is an indication that the intellectual sections of Maharashtra does value scholarship and research. And it is worried that if a book is pushed out of circulation, future scholars would not know what was written and what was banned and why it was banned.

The reasons for the bans would remain unknown to them except for the broad understanding that mobs have a field day in Maharashtra. That freedoms can be trampled on nonchalantly. That there will only be whimpers as the State remains a bystander till the courts intervene. I had expected that the James Laine's book would have been freely available, but the government did not want it in bookstores, let alone in the hands of readers. Most only have a second-hand knowledge of the content and can't even figure out what was 'objectionable'.

The writer is a commentator on public affairs.

Mahesh Vijapurkar Thane