A few weeks ago, on Sep 26, 2016 to be specific, Dr. Rohan Narayana Murty made it to the headlines of Business Standard and ET tech, the headlines being: “India should work on policy to use white spaces for rural internet access: Rohan Murty” and “Use WhiteFi to connect an India WiFi can’t reach: Rohan Murty”.
For a person whose PhD thesis at Harvard reportedly was ‘on the use of white spaces (spectrum)’ and which is ‘considered path-breaking’, he seems to be in the news for reasons related more directly to his domain and experience and this aspect of Rohan Murty seems certainly inspiring and commend-worthy, if ‘WhiteFi’ should indeed achieve for rural India what ‘Wifi’ can’t, without undermining in any way, rights of any individual and the sovereignty of the Indian state.
Rohan Murty has, in the not-so-distant past (between Jan & Mar 2016), though been in the headlines for other reasons too, Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) being one of them (See this, this and this, to get part of the context) with one particular line which he is reported to have made getting considerable coverage: “It is quite rich to sit in the peanut gallery, pass comments and throw empty shells at those who are actually rolling their sleeves up and working on the ground.”
Between March and September, in August (on Aug 10, 2016), he was in the news again, certainly not for WhiteFi, as INDIA TODAY in its INDEPENDENCE DAY SPECIAL section carried a 311-word (short) Story-piece (attributed to Rohan Murty) titled “My freedom to know: ‘Reading Shakespeare is not political, so why should reading Kalidas be?’” the twenty statements of which are enumerated below:
- Sixty-nine years after Independence you would think we’d have the freedom to know about our past without getting dragged into an ideological debate?
- We’ve all had a one-sided, watered down view of history taught to us in school and college.
- When one begins to explore the truth, perhaps for the sake of one’s own identity or because of a more idealistically-driven pursuit of knowledge, one realises the minefield it has become.
- Where did we come from, what did we do, who are we?
- There is an extraordinary intellectual history which we have been deprived of because we haven’t been made familiar with the rich tradition of our texts, our literature, our mathematics, and our philosophy.
- What is worrying is we have a limited window to access this.
- This is not a debate about who is better, East or West.
- Or who is better, a Westerner or an Indian.
- We have to learn to respect the ‘other’ if we want to be truly educated.
- Rather, this is about discovering the tremendous depth and diversity in our own intellectual history.
- That our own history and heritage can offer the world a unique perspective.
- Introducing diverse ideas does not have to be a drastic surgery.
- Reading Shakespeare is not political, so why should reading Kalidas be an issue?
- I was fortunate to discover our literary heritage by accident as a PhD student when I read Kumarila Bhatta’s Shlokavartika.
- Such fortuitous accidents do not necessarily happen to everyone.
- But what I wish to do is to help increase the likelihood of such wonderful accidents happening to everyone.
- I wish we would all have the freedom to pursue a rediscovery of the great intellectual history of this part of the world, without political or ideological labels.
- That freedom will perhaps truly liberate us from the vestiges of the past 300 years.
In sentences 1-3, he seems to imply that ‘we’ (I take it he means citizens of Bharat, i.e. India) don’t ‘…have the freedom to know about our past without getting dragged into an ideological debate.’ after ‘Sixty-nine years after Independence’.
Note the usage of the words ‘ideological’, ‘freedom to know about our past’ and ‘Sixty-nine years after Independence’.
One way to interpret the import of sentences 1-3 is:
In 2016 (i.e. Sixty-nine years after Independence), which happens to a year when the BJP government is at the centre in India, ‘freedom to know about our past’ is being hampered by ‘ideological debates’, i.e. by Hindutva (While Hindutva is not explicitly specified, in my humble opinion, that is what is implicitly implied, by the usage of the word ‘ideological’).
In sentences 4-8, he seems to make atleast 3 points:
a) that the view of history taught in Indian schools and colleges are ‘one-sided’, ‘watered-down’
b) that there has been a deliberate deprivation of access to our ‘extraordinary intellectual history’ because ‘we haven’t been made familiar with the rich tradition of our texts, our literature, our mathematics, and our philosophy’ and
c) that he is worried about ‘limited window to access this’
Point a) above is so carefully worded that while it might, at first glance, appear to be:
i) critical of ‘Eminent Historians‘ (Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib et al, who, along with others from their Secular-Marxist brigade, have deeply influenced the shape of Indian history textbooks today), and,
ii) encouraging to those sensitive to misrepresentation of Sanatana Dharma’s historicity and near elimination (from the textbooks i.e.) of its many achievements
the words ‘one-sided’ and ‘watered-down’ could, however, well mean that Indian history textbooks do not fully include theories of the likes of Sheldon Pollock, the General editor of Murty Classical Library of India (Click here to read an assortment of 20 statements from Pollock’s scholarship, about India, Hinduism and Sanskrit), who is seen as, amongst other things, to have developed ‘new chronology of Sanskrit history to support his claim that the Buddhists started the process of detoxifying Sanskrit’ (p. 125, The Battle for Sanskrit, Rajiv Malhotra) and who has been recorded making irreverent (to Hindu sensibilities), statements such as “I wish Saraswati had invited me to be her lover.”
Point b) above, similarly, is vague enough to give room for unsuspecting, pressed-for-time Hindu readers of the article to be hoodwinked into thinking that Dr. Murty may after all not be unsympathetic to Hindu sensibilities, and,
point c) neatly spells out the need, i.e. Murty’s worry about ‘limited window’, for which MCLI becomes the solution.
In sentences 9, 12 (i.e. ‘This is not a debate about who is better, East or West’, ‘Rather, this is about discovering the tremendous depth and diversity in our own intellectual history’), there is an allusion to a ‘This’, seemingly the same ‘This’, without articulating though, what exactly was the ‘This’ that was being alluded to. Over here, I venture a guess that the ‘This’ refers to MCLI. Replace ‘This’ with MCLI in statements 9, 12 and they would read as follows:
iii. MCLI is not a debate about who is better, East or West
iv. Rather, MCLI is about discovering the tremendous depth and diversity in our own intellectual history.
Sentence 9 (and point iii, which is modification of sentence 9) refer to a certain ‘debate’. As of Oct 10 2016 (IST 1600 hrs), 18,304 people have lent their name to a petition to Murty for “Removal of Sheldon Pollock as mentor and Chief Editor of Murty Classical Library“, taking a position in what could be perhaps be seen as a debate, which too is neither about East or West (sentence 9) nor about who is better, a Western or an Indian (sentence 10), but about a debate between Insiders (of a tradition) and Outsiders, where, for instance, Ananya Vajpeyi and Devdutt Pattnaik would be ‘Outsiders’, despite being Indians, on account of the position they take about the tradition/s.
If through sentence 12, Dr. Murty was trying to imply that MCLI is genuinely ‘about discovering the tremendous depth and diversity in our own intellectual history’, how does the notion/s of the ‘Classical’ of Murty Classical Library of India reconcile with the claim of discovering ‘tremendous depth’, given the chronological limitations implied by the ‘Classical’ of MCLI, which effectively cuts off all Indian literary (and more) antiquity before ‘the last centuries of the first millennium BCE?’ (Click this link to read an attempt at a detailed Purva-Paksha of Pollock’s notion of Classical, Classic, as applicable, per him, to Indian (literary) context.)
Sentence 15, also part of the title of Dr. Murty’s article, i.e. ‘Reading Shakespeare is not political, so why should reading Kalidas be an issue?’ is, to me, the most intriguing. Intriguing because while Murty seems to, on the one hand, call reading Kalidasa an apolitical act and appearing to delink Sanskrit literature from political, on the other hand, he has donated $5.2 million for MCLI and is in cahoots with MCLI’s general editor Sheldon Pollock, whose lens and methodology for studying Sanskrit (and conclusions thereof, as found in his book The Langauge of Gods in the World of Men) are deeply political and who openly upholds Political philology and calls, dangerously enough, for it to not be limited to academia but to also be systematically applied to India’s current civil scenario. A brief note by Rajiv Malhotra, of Pollock’s Political philology (included below), should help anyone see the deep irony in Dr. Murty appearing to uphold, on the one hand, reading Sanskrit literature as apolitical yet, on the other hand, not heeding to the request of 18,304 signatories who see Pollock as an Outsider (given the deployment of his deeply political lens in constructing a narrative about Sanskrit literature and Indian (literary) Classicism).
Political philology: While philology has been a formal discipline for a long time and has many kinds of approaches that different scholars use, once again Pollock has developed his own original variety. The prefix “political” is what differentiates his method from prior philology. To give an indication of the importance of this building block, Pollock’s book “The language of the gods…” uses the term “power” about 600 times and the word “politics” about 900 times. A central argument he advocates with evangelical zeal is that Indian texts must be studied not for legitimate spiritual/sacred content, but for the purpose of finding the social exploitation and political domination contained in them. Before he can show the texts to be political, he has to devalue (and debunk) the legitimacy of the sacred dimension; then he can substitute the political motive as the reason for the successful spread of Sanskrit. In item (1) above he has identified the tools to remove the sacred. Then, in this item (4) here, we find his tool which he uses to develop his heavily politicized lens.
One wonders how will Dr. Murty’s wish, as expressed in Sentence 19, that ‘we would all have the freedom to pursue a rediscovery of the great intellectual history of this part of the world, without political or ideological labels’ become true when he is funding the editorship of a man whose method and consequently his scholarship (and MCLI’s narrative) is unabashedly political, in the garb of objectivity (and intellectualism)?
And finally, in sentence 20, Dr. Murty opines that the freedom mentioned in sentence 19, would truly liberate Indians from ‘…the vestiges of the past 300 years.’ Whether it would liberate Indians from the vestiges of the past 300 years or not (whatever that means), it would perhaps lead to greater fruition of certain objectives ambitiously dreamt up and put into action in the 18th century, by Indology scholars (and many others) of India’s then colonial master Britain: that of thoroughly disconnecting Indians from Bharat’s antiquity, (as Pollock’s notion of Indian literary classicism deployed in MCLI effectively does, by limiting India’s literary history chronologically, and his denouncement of Bharat’s ‘oral tradition’), particularly, its indigenous Vedic antiquity.