Need to include texts that challenge caste

BY V Geetha| IN Censorship | 26/02/2014
To remove ostensibly casteist texts does not address the problem, for, how do we get students to think critically of caste,
asks V GEETHA

(The recent decision of Madras University to withdraw two short stories written by eminent Tamil short story writer, Pudumaipithan, on the grounds that they depicted Dalits in bad taste and that a reading of the text, in the current context, would cause embarrassment to Dalit students, has caused consternation in academic circles.

The short story, Thunbakkeni, was removed two months ago from the undergraduate course. A decision to remove the second short story, Ponnagaram, was taken by the University’s Academic Council on Saturday. Both stories were written in the 1930s.

What are the implications of this decision? How will it impact learning and understanding the role of caste in society? It also follows other controversial decisions- including Mumbai University withdrawal of Rohinton Mistry’s ‘Such a long journey’ after objections from the Shiv Sena and Delhi University’s decision to drop the teaching of A K Ramanujan’s 300 Ramayanas in 2011 following a protest by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).

Free Speech Hub asked well-known writer and editor, Tara Books, Chennai, V Geetha, what she thinks of the decision. V Geetha has been active in the women’s movement for over two decades, and has written in Tamil and English on gender, caste, anti-caste radicalism and socialism
).

It is not clear what the decision to replace the "controversial" Pudumaipithan story with another text by the great modernist will achieve. The demand was based on the understanding that certain references in the text were derogatory to dalits.
 
The demand to have texts that challenge caste is a very just one. It needs to be addressed in enabling ways: by ensuring that more texts that do this, including by dalits are made part of the curriculum; by insisting on dalit representation in academic bodies in the University, a demand that Dr Ambedkar put forth as early as 1927.
 
However to simply remove ostensibly casteist texts does not address the problem at hand: for the challenge in the classroom in a practical sense is to get students to think critically about caste; to understand that if a text is derogatory about dalits (or women, for that matter), it needs to be critically reviewed, its politics understood.
 
This means that we teach students to approach caste critically, read texts from an anti-caste point of view. It also means we include texts that challenge caste, including by dalits. The late Sharmila Rege who headed Women's Studies at the University of Pune did just that: she taught students to 'read' casteist texts critically. She ensured that there were enough dalit and female students from marginal classes in the classroom who would present other points of view.
 
In fact Women's Studies offers many lessons in this respect: how does one challenge something so pervasive as patriarchy and caste, especially in the class room? For the challenge has been, if all culture is patriarchal, when all texts are derogatory about women, are scornful, and some openly misogynistic, how does one study literature or culture?
 
Not that Women's Studies has answers, but it has done a lot of work in this regard, and it is a pity that we are not making these connections. Sadly, academic institutions in Tamil Nadu may have formal spaces assigned to Women's Studies, but very little critical work has emerged in these spaces, especially in the classroom, with very few exceptions.
 
As an aside: in the early 1990s, the brilliant dalit critic Raj Gautaman wrote a magnificent book on Pudmumaipithan (Pudumaipithan Endra Brhamarakshas). A work written with great elan and subtlety. He argued that Pudumaipithan may have been a liberal but he was not entirely free of casteism; on the other hand, argued Gautaman, his literary imagination was something that he would not like to discard. It possessed a certain creative power, a ferociously imaginative energy that he desired to make his own, in other words, claim it for the cause of dalit literature.
 
One wonders what present day students would make of that.

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