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Oxford University Members Demand that OUP-India Stand by Ramanujan Essay

December 5, 2011

Shahid Amin has earlier written about the role of the Oxford University Press (India) in the censorship of AK Ramanjuan’s essay on the Ramayana. This press release, signed by a group of Indian scholars at Oxford University, comes to us via Agrima Bhasin.

Press Statement
Oxford, England
Date: 30 November 2011

A petition by members of Oxford University has condemned Oxford University Press (OUP) India’s unflattering role and its deafening silence on the controversy surrounding Delhi University’s recent decision to drop A.K. Ramanujan’s essay (Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation). This petition has gained the abounding support of Oxford intelligentsia across 15 departments and 20 constituent colleges. Signatories include distinguished faculty members, senior academics and students.

In 2008 OUP India unceremoniously decided to stop publication of the only two books (Paula Richman’s Many Ramayanas and Vinay Dharwadker’s The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan) containing Ramanujan’s essay. This happened to coincide with legal proceedings instituted inter alia against OUP India by fringe religious and cultural groups. OUP India’s prolonged subsequent silence on this matter lent widespread credence to the contention that OUP India caved in to external pressure thereby compromising its stated goals of “…[furthering] excellence in research, scholarship… by publishing worldwide.”

In our correspondence with the CEO of OUP, Mr. Nigel Portwood, and the University Delegates (highly established, senior academics at Oxford University who oversee the functioning of the Press), we asked OUP to inquire whether OUP India had been guilty of abandoning these publications on grounds contrary to publication ethics. Additionally, to remedy the undeniable loss of reputation and integrity, regardless of the reasons for dropping these publications, we demanded that OUP and OUP India issue a statement that they stand by the continuing scholarly credibility and value of Ramanujan’s essay.

Mr. Portwood, on behalf of the University Delegates, has furnished an inadequate response foregrounding commercial factor as the sole reason for OUP India’s actions. He maintains that this has in no way blemished OUP India’s longstanding integrity. Since then OUP India has issued a statement in which it asserts that it “does not apologise and has never apologised for publishing the essay.” While we have reason to doubt the second half of this assertion on the basis of the 2008 statement to the court, we acknowledge OUP India’s reaffirmation of its original decision to publish the essay. However, we believe this statement falls short of attributing due recognition to the scholarship of A.K. Ramanujan and the academic value of the essay that OUP India once saw fit to publish.

The statement claims that the book, The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan, is available through OUP India’s short-run print programme. However, on inquiring, OUP India’s branch offices themselves have indicated that the book is unavailable, as confirmed by major bookstores in metropolitan cities in India. We are given to understand that OUP India is awaiting a minimum number of orders before it reprints the book. We insist that OUP India clarify its distribution strategy of this book. In the meantime, we strongly encourage everyone to place their orders for the book on the OUP India website in an effort to upholding academic freedom.

As it enters its centenary year, we believe that OUP India is facing a grave crisis, which has wrecked the reputation of a formerly venerated institution. We believe OUP India must redeem itself by ordering an immediate reprint of The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan. Towards this end, distinguished panelists- Dr. Ramachandra Guha, Dr. Nandini Gooptu and Dr. Faisal Devji- engaged in a stimulating debate on The Politics and Culture of Non-State Censorship in Contemporary India: Contextualising the Ramanujan Ramayana Essay Controversy, at University of Oxford on Wednesday, 30 November. The organisers of the panel discussion had also invited Mr. Portwood, who declined to attend or nominate a representative.

“OUP in India had an extra ordinary capacity to nurture young talents. It had always had that.” At the panel discussion, while acknowledging OUP’s efforts to promote academic excellence in the past, Dr. Ramachandra Guha raised serious concerns about “precipitously declining” editing standards and pecuniary goals overriding OUP India’s primary objective of furthering excellence in research and scholarship. He argued that in the last 15 years, we have witnessed an unfortunate “thatcherisation of publishing process” that has affected OUP and OUP India. “OUP today is run by people who do not know about books; who had never heard of AK Ramanujan,” declared Dr. Guha and maintained that the proscription of Ramanujan’s essay is a “gratuitous insult to his (Ramanujan’s) memory.”

The only way forward, Dr. Guha contended was for OUP India to immediately reprint the book as an “emphatic affirmation” of Ramanujan’s renowned oeuvre and against “bigotry.” “We must ensure that The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan are back because this is what we owe to the scholar, the academic community and to Indian democracy.” Additionally, he added that given how big institutions like OUP work, almost never admitting to mistakes, it is crucial to mount pressure on OUP in the given context.

Dr. Gooptu, agreeing with Dr. Guha on the need to mount pressure on OUP began her speech by contextualising the controversy within the peculiarities of liberalism in the Indian political culture. She argued that the way forward to this debate is to “politically animate and ignite precisely this debate about public censorship which may force publishing house to stick their necks out… Otherwise it will always be possible to hide behind the argument of commercial non viability.”

Finally, Dr. Devji in his speech emphasised the “rhetoric of the opposition” used in such controversies that invokes the “language of the intimacy, hurt and betrayal.” He opined that, “The precedent set by this is not about this essay or one of two essays but it’s about publishing in India, freedom of thought and expression in India… what is produced by publishing houses especially like OUP India has world historical importance.” He reiterated Dr. Guha and Dr. Gooptu’s concern about exerting pressure on OUP into publishing the essay.

Sanchita Bakshi (QEH); Agrima Bhasin (Social and Cultural Anthropology); Malak Bhatt (Law); Shashank Kumar (Sociology); Sumeet Mhaskar (Sociology); Karan Nagpal (Economics); Simin Patel (Oriental Institute); Anisha Sharma (Economics); Anup Surendranath (Law); Anish Vanaik (History)

Contact Information:

Anup Surendranath [anup.surendranath at law.ox.ac.uk]
Anish Vanaik [anish.vanaik at history.ox.ac.uk]

Dr. Ramachandra Guha at the panel discussion

Dr. Guha began the discussion by speaking of his long-standing association with OUP India. “OUP is the oldest and arguably the most prestigious publisher in the world and next year it will mark its centenary year in India. I stand here as an academic author, someone how has been made by the OUP. I was not a student of a prestigious university like Delhi University or JNU in India…and if it had not been for a brilliant young editor in OUP, I would not have been standing before you here today.” “OUP in India had an extra ordinary capacity to nurture young talents. It had always had that.”

At some length, he spoke of the contribution made by Mr Ravi Dyal, a former general manager of OUP in stewarding the publishing house to great heights. Amongst other things, he spoke of Mr Dyal’s role in extending social science scholarship and nurturing subaltern studies. “Had it not been for Ravi Dyal the works of Gyan Pandey, Ranajit Guha, Tanika Sarkar would not have been published.” Even outside history, OUP nurtured the “brilliant original minds’ and the works of Andre Beteille, Ashish Nady…” The great modern playwrights like Vijay Tendulkar, Badal Sarkar, Girish Karnad were also nurtured by OUP. “Even A.K. Ramanujan who is at the centre of the controversy today, his translation of U.R. Anantmurthy’s Samskara was commissioned and published by the OUP. Ramanujan’s poetry was published by Oxford and Ramanujan incidentally is the only Indian poet published in the Oxford Poetry Series. That is the tradition of OUP India nurtured by Ravi Dyal and other various such general managers who followed Ravi Dyal including Neal O’ Brien, Santosh Mukherjee.”

He called them the “publishers who read books and understood the importance of books.” He argued that in the last 15 years, we have witnessed an unfortunate ‘thatcherisation of publishing process that has affected OUP here and OUP India, so the bottom line is that profit became paramount, even though OUP is an arm of the University committed to promoting high standards in academic scholarship.” “Making profits became the overriding motive and editing standards precipitously declined.” “OUP today is run by people who do not know about books. Who had never heard of AK Ramanujan. That Ramanujan is arguably the most influential, most creative writer and thinker in the humanities ever produced by India escapes them. If the Manging Director, Editing Director, The Literary Editor had known of AK Ramanujan, we would not have been here today.” With the present essay controversy he said that “OUP has behaved in a rather short sighted way.”

Regards the latest statement, “OUP is essentially resorting to legal equivocation.” Dr. Guha pointed out that when it comes to tax matters, OUP in the past have appointed “the most expensive lawyer, Fali Nariman to fight it but when it comes to this case of a lunatic filing a case in Dera Bassi, Punjab in 2008, the OUP wrote saying we are terribly sorry if we have offended anyone and we don’t want to offend anyone advertently or inadvertently and therefore we are going to withdraw the essay. And now the OUP press release says that we haven’t really apologised and legal scholars can say more about this legal equivocation.”

“Withdrawing the essay gave Delhi University an excuse to withdraw it from the BA History Curriculum. I met the CEO of OUP today and essentially we disagreed on the interpretation of the apology, also disagreed of whether the book has been withdrawn.” The CEO maintains that Ramanujan’s essay “is not out of print, we don’t have enough orders, we have 50 orders and if we get 100 orders then we will print it but if you go to any bookshop you cant find the book.” Although the CEO agreed that there is a “problem of perception.” Dr. Guha spoke of the signature campaign initiated by the academics, which gathered 453 signatures within a day due to the “extra ordinary stature of Ramanujan.”

Dr. Guha also pointed the declining academic standards of the OUP because of which scholars like Partha Chatterjee and Romila Thapar have already chosen other publishing houses over OUP. He asserted that the way to restore OUP’s “perception problem” is to “immediately print the essay which would be a vindication of your respect for Ramanujan, vindication of the principle of free speech and vindication of your bottom line too.” That said, Dr. Guha argued that he “doesn’t know how seriously Mr. Portwood (CEO OUP) would take that suggestion.”

“A successful resolution on the controversy which will be a face saver for the OUP which does due respect to the memory of the great AK Ramanujan which is in consonance of the principles of free speech. And which will be an emphatic affirmation of the value of scholarship and against the bigotry of fanatics would be to bring the essay back in print.”

Dr. Guha concluded his speech by saying that such a reaction is emblematic of ancient venerable and powerful institutions like the Catholic Church which took years and years to admit that pope was abusing young children, like United States of America which took time to admit the torture of detainees in Abu Gharib and Congress Party back in India which took years to admit the corruption within its ranks. He urged students to keep the pressure so that the collected essays of A.K. Ramanujan are back.

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