Nonscholarly Litmus Tests for Key Scholarly Role

Thousands of academics and others in India attack esteemed book series by Harvard U Press and its well-respected editor, a Columbia professor, because the project is in the U.S. and the editor has differed from Hindu nationalist teachings.

March 1, 2016
Logo for the book series

The Murty Classical Library of India has been praised as an ambitious scholarly effort to make the classics of India available in the highest-quality English translations -- and to promote more study of those classics around the world. In the series, works are presented in their original languages (which include Bangla, Hindi, Panjabi, Persian, Sanskrit, Tamil and Urdu) with English translations on opposite pages. Hundreds of titles may eventually be published. An article in The Hindu in October said that "few intellectual and literary ventures have more transformative potential" for scholarship and understanding of India.

In what some fear is an escalation of demands from Hindu nationalists to control study of their country's history and culture, more than 11,000 scholars and others in India have in only a few days signed a petition demanding the ouster of the lead editor of the series, Sheldon Pollock, who is the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University and generally considered a leading expert on the classic works of Indian civilizations.

Academics in the West are concerned not only about the petition but the reasons it gives. Pollock is criticized because he disagrees with some views of Hindu nationalists, because he is leading the project (which involves an international team of scholars) from the United States and because he recently signed a statement of scholars that defended students and faculty members at Jawaharlal Nehru University who are protesting the arrest of the president of the student union on sedition charges.

Effectively, say Western academics, their counterparts in India who are affiliated with the governing Bharatiya Janata Party are sending a message to the United States and elsewhere that professors who criticize the nationalist moves by the government will find themselves facing hostility or other obstacles to working on India. The petition is attracting widespread attention -- much of it positive -- in the Indian press.

Several scholars said they were deeply concerned but also afraid to speak out right now. Harvard University Press declined to comment. So did Pollock.

One who did talk on the record was Dominik Wujastyk, who holds the Singhmar Chair in Classical Indian Society and Polity at the University of Alberta. He is among scholars circulating rebuttals to the petition on email discussion lists.

Pollock and Harvard University Press likely will do the right thing and refuse to give in to demands that the series get a new editor and the project be relocated. Wujastyk said that the series and Pollock are held in high regard by most scholars of the region.

"But there will be weaker publishers who would bend," and scholars who may be afraid to take public stands, Wujastyk said.

While scholars have a range of views about the history and culture of India, "ideological and political tests" on those issues should not be used to select or keep people who edit book series, he said. "This petition is introducing new criteria for editing a series that are very dangerous."

He said it was "absurd" to say that classics of India may only be edited in India, as the petition suggests. The question should be whether a series editor has the necessary experience (a look at Pollock's biography suggests he does), not where the person lives. "This is a position being taken by demagogues trying to capture the debate," he said. Many could be at risk, he said, noting that he signed a petition recently of Canadian scholars who took a similar view as one that Pollock signed.

Wendy Doniger, a professor at the University of Chicago who is a leading scholar of religion in South Asia and who has also been attacked by Hindu nationalists for her work, said via email, "I deplore these attacks on my colleague, and the whole situation both in India and among the American Hindu diaspora worries me greatly."

The petition created in India takes another perspective. It says that by signing petitions about academic freedom in India, Pollock "has shown disrespect for the unity and integrity of India."

Further, the petition references a movement in India to use locally made products and services rather than those produced in the West. The petition says this principle should be applied to scholarly book series.

"The project must be part of the 'Make in India' ethos and not outsourced wholesale to American Ivy Leagues," the petition says. Moving the project to India "would entail developing an entire ecosystem of India-based research, translations, journals and conferences. These would be run by leading Indian academicians as well as traditional practitioners."

Many academics in India have been posting statements of support for the petition, such as, "I am leery of anti-India subversives masquerading as scholars. Today, Indian culture needs to be protected from digestion and appropriation by outsiders more so than ever before."

The debate over the Harvard University Press series comes at a time when some scholars in India whose views clash with nationalists report losing their jobs or their influence. Further, some American universities have been debating grants from Indian nationalist groups that some say go too far in letting those groups influence those who would be hired as scholars and teachers. The University of California at Irvine in February rejected grants for endowed chairs for this reason.

University presses, which both publish about and in India, have been the focus of debate previously.

In 2011, Oxford University Press ended publication in India of some essays that angered nationalists. After many scholars worldwide protested the move, Oxford reversed itself and said that it would publish the works in India. Among the organizers of a letter by scholars that was influential in getting Oxford to resume publication was Pollock, who is now editing the Harvard series.


Back to Top