About-Face by Oxford Press

December 12, 2011

Just weeks after hundreds of scholars blasted Oxford University Press for ending publication of certain works that have become controversial in India, the press announced that it would republish the works, and distribute them in India and elsewhere.

Oxford made the announcement Friday in an e-mail to the scholars who signed a letter to the press expressing their anger over what was viewed as caving in to right-wing Indian nationalists who were offended by some of the work of the late A.K. Ramanujan. The author, during a career largely spent at the University of Chicago, was considered one of the most influential scholars of Indian cultures and literatures. The scholars charged that the press -- by stopping distribution of Ramanujan's works -- was engaged in scholarly "self-abasement."

Immediately after the scholars sent the letter, Oxford played down the dispute and said that the various works of Ramanujan were out of circulation for economic reasons, withdrawn due to "minimal sales," not due to any pressure in India. While the press offered to meet with the concerned scholars, officials indicated that there was no need to change any publishing decision.

But on Friday, the press reversed course. Its letter to scholars said: "Given the current concern expressed by members of the scholarly community about the availability of The Collected Essays and Many Ramayanas we have taken the decision to reprint both titles immediately and make them available in India and beyond. We are also making Questioning Ramayanas available again. All three titles are available to order from the OUP India website and bookshops across India."

The Ramayana is a Sanskrit epic revered by many Hindus. An essay by Ramanujan -- "Three Hundred Ramayanas" -- has infuriated some in India for references to Rama, a Hindu god, that were not consistent with right-wing Hindu beliefs. That dispute led Delhi University in October to agree to stop teaching the essay -- a move that Salman Rushdie said amounted to "academic censorship." And the controversy then led a group of scholars worldwide to demand that Oxford either start publishing the books again, including in India, or to give up copyright over the books so that others could publish them.

The letter used unusually strong language to criticize a university press and was signed by a who's who of scholars of India (many of whom have previously published with Oxford). The effort was organized by Sheldon Pollock, Ransford Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Columbia University; Vinay Dharwadker, a professor of languages and cultures of Asia at the University of Wisconsin at Madison; and Paula Richman, William H. Danforth Professor of South Asian Religions at Oberlin College.

Oxford's response Friday pledged support for the traditions of distribution of scholarship, including work that offends. "OUP has an important role to play in ensuring that the best scholarship is disseminated freely, and we hope the reprinting of these three important works will demonstrate our commitment in this regard."

Another complaint of the scholars was that part of a response from Oxford to a suit in India over distribution of the controversial essay was to appear to apologize for doing so. Oxford press officials have been quoted as telling the court hearing the suit: "Our client further wish to assure your client that as publishers of long standing and repute, it has been their conscious endeavour to respect the plurality of Indian culture in all publishing activities which they undertake and very much regret that the essay in question has inadvertently caused your client distress and concern."

In Friday's statement, Oxford said: "We also wish to restate the fact that OUP does not and never has apologized for publishing any work by Ramanujan. Any previous communications from OUP India that have given the impression of such an apology have been misinterpreted. We recognize that it is not in the best interests of the scholarly community of which we are a part for such a misinterpretation to remain, which is why we are clarifying our position once again."

The three organizers of the scholars' letter -- Dharwadker, Pollock and Richman -- issued a joint statement in which they said that they "welcome" Friday's statement from Oxford. "We whole-heartedly support this affirmation of OUP’s longstanding commitment to excellence in scholarship, to the broadest possible dissemination of knowledge, and to the right of scholars, writers, and artists to freedom of thought and expression everywhere," the statement said.  

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