Scholarly 'Self-Abasement'

Hundreds of professors who study India condemn Oxford University Press for response to controversy over an essay -- a response scholars call part of a pattern of "shocking acts" that hurt research.

November 29, 2011

More than 450 scholars from around the world on Monday sent a joint letter to Oxford University Press blasting it for failing to defend an essay it had published, when some right-wing Indian nationalists were offended by the work.

The essay -- "Three Hundred Ramayanas" -- was written by the late A.K. Ramanujan, who during a career largely spent at the University of Chicago was considered one of the most influential scholars of Indian cultures and literatures. The Ramayana is a Sanskrit epic revered by many Hindus. Fights about sacred texts in India (with academics among the combatants) are nothing new. But the fight over this essay -- which offended with some references to Rama, a Hindu god, in ways that were not consistent with right-wing Hindu beliefs -- has become intense in India and beyond.

Last month, Delhi University agreed to stop teaching the essay -- a move that Salman Rushdie said amounted to "academic censorship."

That decision, in turn, led to scrutiny of Oxford University Press, which has distributed the essay in books in India. (The Oxford press has a large operation in India, just as it does in the United States and in other countries.) To many scholars, the actions of the press, which publishes their work and sells them texts, was far more distressing than the criticism of the essay by some in India.

The press was sued in India over distribution of the essay and -- according to court documents cited in the letter sent to the press Monday and to Indian press reports -- apologized for having distributed the essay. Oxford press officials were quoted as telling the court hearing the suit: "Our client further wish to assure your client that as publishers of long standing and repute, it has been their conscious endeavour to respect the plurality of Indian culture in all publishing activities which they undertake and very much regret that the essay in question has inadvertently caused your client distress and concern."

Further, two books containing the essay -- previously available through Oxford in India -- appear to have been withdrawn, and no longer turn up in web searches of the press's offerings.

This morning, Oxford released a letter from the chief executive of the press, Nigel Portwood, to the scholars who organized the joint letter. In the letter, Portwood denied that the press has taken any books off of its list due to political pressure. "The two Ramanujan books at the centre of the current debate ... have not been removed from the market in India through acts of censorship. Prior to 2008 both works had been showing minimal sales triggering the decision not to reprint either title. As I am sure you appreciate, commercial considerations are one of several factors in publishing decisions," Portwood wrote. He said that the determination not to reprint was made prior to the controversy breaking out over the essay.

"We at the press take matters of scholarly freedom and integrity extremely seriously and welcome communications from anyone who fears that these important principles are being undermined," he added. The letter from Portwood does not reference the court apology for having published the essay in the first place.

Those scholars involved in the letter to Oxford (or signing it) include many prominent scholars worldwide who study India. Among them are Sheldon Pollock, Ransford Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Columbia University; Vinay Dharwadker, a professor of languages and cultures of Asia at the University of Wisconsin at Madison; Paula Richman, William H. Danforth Professor of South Asian Religions at Oberlin College; Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago; and David Shulman, the Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The letter, provided by organizers to Inside Higher Ed, says that the signatories "learned with shock and dismay that Oxford University Press India has formally apologized to the individual who brought suit against OUP for publishing A. K. Ramanujan's 'Three Hundred Ramayanas.' "

Oxford's handling of the situation, the letter says, played into the hands of those trying to prevent the work from being taught at Delhi University by making it more difficult to obtain copies of it.

In language that is unusually harsh for communication with one of the world's most prominent scholarly publishers, the letter says: "The 453 scholars who have signed this letter to you, many of us former colleagues or students of Ramanujan, but also authors who have published with OUP Oxford, New York, or Delhi, want to express our deep consternation at OUP India’s self-abasement in court. We are also fully aware that the Ramanujan case is only the most recent in a series of shocking acts on the part of OUP India -- including the suppressing or pre-censoring of scholarly books -- that are inimical to the open exchange of ideas, the lifeblood of scholarship. This situation cannot go unchallenged."

The scholars ask Oxford to withdraw its court apology and to reprint Ramanujan's Collected Essays (one of the books apparently no longer being published in India). The letter goes on to say: "If you are unwilling to do these things, and thereby effectively attempt to bury Ramanujan's book, we demand that you publicly relinquish all rights to his work and return them to the original copyright holders, so that this scholarship can be published by another press that understands the importance of freedom of expression, to say nothing of courage in the face of fanaticism."

The protest has also spread to the University of Oxford itself, where members of the Oxford Indian Society are circulating a petition stating that the university's publishing arm in India has "a dark history of crumbling in the face of unreasonable demands by easily offended groups."


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