A Guantanamo of the Intellect
Close on the heels of the axing by Calicut Uniersity of a poem from an English textbook, for the alleged ‘terrorist links’ of the poet, comes the news of cancellation of a scheduled lecture of Dr. Amina Wadud , a US based Islamic scholar by the authorities of the Madras University.
Calicut University succumbed to the demand of the ‘Shiksha Bachao Andolan’ , one of the many outfits of the RSS pariva,r that the poem ‘ Ode to the Sea’ be removed from the textbook ‘ Literature and Contemporary Issues’ as its author Ibrahim al- Rubaish was a ‘terrorist’. It was also demanded that the persons responsible for the selection of the poem be identified to ‘uncover’ the network of the ‘sympathizers’ of terrorists in the board of studies and academic council of the university.
The Vice Chancellor of Calicut University promptly ordered a probe by a senior dean who, after visiting the internet ( as is the academic practice these days) discovered to his horror that al-Rubaish did have terrorist affiliations. He recommended its removal saying that ‘students would not lose much if they do not read this poem’. One of textbook’s editors explained that, at the time of selection of the poem, there was not much material available online about the poet. He said that they would not have selected this poem if the poet’s background was known to them.
It is an irony of our times that the editors are being shamed for an intellectual act, which was in fact , a creative way to expose the young undergraduates to the emotional impact of the international ‘war on terror’ across continents . Who would dispute that war on terror is a contemporary issue? How does literature react to it? Why and how do the detainees of Guantanamo Bay, the international jail set up by the USA to isolate its prey from life itself, choose poetry as a site to convey their pain and trauma? Most of them were non-poets. Can something they inscribed on the coffee cups or floors of the prison cell, in their desperation to speak, be accorded the exalted status of poetry?
‘Ode to Sea’ is the favourite of Marc Falkoff, an attorney fighting for seventeen Yemeni detainees incarcerated at Guantanamo who has edited “Poems from Guantanamo : the detainees speak”. He selects it as it is “striking in terms of imagery, metaphor and thematic complexity.” It doubles up as a lament and a complaint. The poet’s complaint to the sea for its indifference to the suffering of the detainees is also an admonition to the American people for their acquiescence to the criminal act of their rulers. This poem, along with other poems of the collection put this uncomfortable question to the American people: is Guantanamo an exception to the democracy as it is practiced by them or is it its natural and inevitable product ? At the same time, should this poem’s publication, with the permission of the Pentagon authorities, be seen as a clever public relations ploy? Since poetry thrives in the jail and is disseminated widely through such publications, can it not be claimed that Guantanamo Bay is not a inhuman place after all and it is unjust to compare this ‘cage’ with the camps of the preceding century set up by the Nazis or the Communists. These are some of the questions raised in the reviews of and commentaries on this anthology.
Aesthetes have worried if ‘well intentioned’ publications like this would not encourage an instrumentalist approach to poetry. Scholars like Homi Bhabha may see the poem ‘Ode to Sea’ as an attempt of the suffering to find a new temporality away from the one he is imprisoned in. Are such poems sensory monuments humans keep building to preserve their agonies, to deny humanity a reprieve or catharsis? These are precisely the questions young minds in the universities need to grapple with. They do need to comprehend the enormous capacity of human beings to practice cruelty. They need to question the security their states claim to create for them by coming face to face with the eternal insecurities to which large populations are subjected to, through drone attacks or illegal capture of persons who are then invisibilised by caging them in places like Guantanamo.
These are difficult questions. Universities are meant to pursue the idea of excellence. Excellence is achieved only by training minds to be courageous to wade into difficult, turbulent, intellectual waters. This is why the University of Iowa, an American University decided to publish it. America is the fountainhead of the war on terror. Why does an American University have this courage and why do we lack it? Does this have something to do with what we want to become? Or, is this the difference between ‘average’ and ‘excellence’ ?
Even more disturbing than this sanitization drive of the Calicut University was the recent decision of Madras University to order its Department of Islamic studies to cancel a lecture by Amina Wadud, a US woman Islamic scholar of global repute. This was an attempt from within to expand the largely male discourse on Islam and could have been an occasion to foreground the concerns of gender, justice and equality in an Islamic vocabulary. The department was thwarted in its attempt to initiate such a discussion by its superiors. One recalls how the will of the history department of the University of Delhi was similarly trampled a few years ago by higher authorities when they decided that A.K.Ramanujam’s ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’ was not necessary reading for their undergraduate students.
The failure of the academic community in India to react to these ‘local’ assaults bodes ill for the task of intellection for which universities were created. This is what Amina Wadud asks in her tweet, “It is also a shame that Madras University went to so much trouble to be thwarted by factions of the ignorant. Where to intellectualism if that is so?”
Wadud exhorts us, “People of India, you have a chance to redeem yourselves for your own best interest. Do not be silent when the ignorant speak, claim your voice. And when one gives a service, one can just as easily stop giving. So that is my location, I am no longer willing to give to India.”
It may all sound harshly unpleasant coming from a foreign voice, but do not we, collaborators in these crimes against philology and academic thought by our silence, deserve it?
( A slightly shorter version of this article was carried by the Indian Express as an Op-Ed piece on 6 August,2013)