Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Counter Narratives: Murty Classical Library of India

In a finely written opinion piece, Ananya Vajpeyi from the Centre for Developing Studies in New Delhi, argues that online opposition demanding Professor Sheldon Pollock’s dismissal as the mentor of the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) is based on mere ‘right-wing propaganda’. In this article, I take objection to the term ‘right-wing propaganda’. Social media has taught us that anyone who challenges an intellectual by arguing on facts is sidelined and labelled for furthering a ‘saffron’ agenda.
While arguing for Professor Pollock’s retention, Ms. Vajpeyi passes a value judgment of the 132 principal sponsors of the online petition by denouncing them for ‘not having the knowledge of Sanskrit and other classical languages, literature, history or the humanities.’ The stand chosen by her is not surprising given that she defends Professor Pollock because she was his doctoral student. Therefore, anyone who criticises an eminent personality is deficient in understanding and therefore, determined to further ‘right-wing propaganda’.
It is possible that Professor Pollock’s public support for the students of JNU could be his personal view. In an otherwise scholarly essay, ‘The Theory of Practice and the Practice of Theory in Indian Intellectual History,’ Professor Pollock discredits the entire Shastra-tradition by choosing to label it as ‘authoritarian’. The basis for such generalisation is a gross misreading of the Vedas and its corpus. According to Professor Pollock, the Vedic corpus confines itself not only to a fixed and a transcendental signifier but is also an authoriser of the caste system, which is highlighted as the key impediment for the systemic blocking of critical thinking in the Indian civilisation, which is in striking contrast to the opinions propagated in the Rigveda. 
Anybody with a fair understanding of India and its diversity will reject such a damnation that is influenced by a monotheistic view which does not accommodate diverse viewpoints. While this can be dismissed as a personal belief, it raises doubts about the sincerity and commitment of Professor Pollock to the project as these are essentially translations. It is well-known that translations when not done by a practitioner of the language, invites itself to misinterpretation.
Next, she informs us that Professor Pollock translated two books, ‘Ayodhya’ and ‘Forest’ from Valmiki’s Ramayana, where he argued that Rama’s appeal cannot be understood unless it is taken to be both human and divine. Yet, Professor Pollock’s personal views on the Ramayana are disturbing when he says that the Ramayana is a literary work composed to oppress the masses.
She argues that the role Professor Pollock plays at the MCLI should not be given to an Indian. In a counter opinion, Professor Paranjape sharply observes that the mandate of the MCLI does not serve its purpose economically as labour in India is cheaper. Professor Paranjape remarks that the annual income of Professor Pollock from the endowment is a significant $2,80,000 per year at the ‘modest’ rate of 5 percent return. This is equivalent to almost Rs. 2 crores when calculated in Indian rupees. The modes of production to ensure the translated versions are released in a lower price band will alone escalate the total cost to Rs. 40 lakhs roughly. In her rush to defend her mentor, Ananya Vajpeyi cannot simply dismiss the intellectual capacities of Indians and their alleged ‘lack of knowledge’ simply because the views of the signatories of the petition do not necessarily align with hers.
Further on, she draws our attention to the fact that Professor Pollock ‘also launched and ran the Clay Sanskrit Library for several years prior to his current undertaking, the even more ambitious, complex and multilingual Murty Classical Library of India.’ The Clay Sanskrit Library was established by John Clay and met an abrupt end in 2008 when Mr. Clay diverted his attention to other philanthropic activities until his demise in 2013. Professor Pollock’s association with the project began in late 2007 which ended with the Library’s end in 2008 and hence, it was a short stint. Hence, the claim that he ran the library for ‘several years’ can be contested. 
Ananya Vajpeyi's intentions may be well-meaning but as it descends to the level of almost defending her mentor, it is a cause for concern. Her article, ‘Why Sheldon Pollock Matters’ may be stylistically well-written, however, it cannot be used as a launchpad to denounce and deny the intelligence of Indian scholars due to mere ideological differences.