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Sanskritist dubbed anti-Hindu for authoring books with Romila Thapar, RS Sharma

By Aviral Anand* 

When a Sanskrit scholar, a Pune-kar to boot, is constrained to leave a list (a google group, actually) dedicated to Indian intellectual traditions, by his fellow countrymen, also supposedly interested in such traditions, one gets an inkling of the extent to which such people will go to purge public spaces of anyone who does not think like them.
In some ways this an "internal matter," between mostly upper-caste actors, so one might be hard-pressed to understand its import for other sections of Indian society. After all, the hubris of the upper-caste Sanskrit fraternity is well-known. It has sought to preserve the access to Sanskrit learning for a very long time now, shielding it from the so-called lower castes -- and women.
Such hubris, however, when combined with the strident nationalism in recent times, can target even one of their own, so to say; what to speak of an outsider, of another caste. This goes to show the toxic power that religious nationalism wields and the paranoia it operates under.
Madhav Deshpande is a renowned Sanskrit scholar, trained formally during his initial years in Pune and then later taking up an academic position at the University of Michigan in the USA. His speciality is Paninian linguistics and grammar, and he has also authored a popular book for Sanskrit beginners, among several others.
Deshpande, who is retired, converses with as much authority and ease with Western scholars of Sanskrit and Indology, as with traditional Indian scholars. He is widely respected for his scholarship and also for his generosity in sharing his expertise and knowledge.
The Bharatiya Vidvat Parishad (BVP; भारतीयविद्वत्परिषत्) is an online google group which ostensibly "aims to understand, preserve and enrich Indian intellectual heritage." Its mission statement goes on to add that, "It is open to all scholars who value India's intellectual heritage and who study it in its various manifestations through primary sources."
It is supposed to be a meeting place for serious Sanskrit scholars who discuss and debate issues related to Indian knowledge traditions (Sanskritic), and to an extent that is true. It does boast of several eminent Sanskrit scholars as its members, Deshpande being one till he left.
However, whatever the stated aims of the list, it has over the years also become a place for airing a lot of grievances over issues that those on the right of Hindu politics commonly and endlessly complain about.
But, chiefly, all such grievances centre on one sore point: the perceived historical and present-day oppression of Hindus throughout the world.
The BVP today harbours among its ranks a motley crew of those in India and the diaspora, chiefly the USA, who lick wounds received in many confrontations with those who do not agree with their carping about Hindu victimization.
The diaspora Indians complain bitterly about the injustices meted out during what is called the California textbook controversy, for instance, an event whose origins could be traced back to at least a decade ago.
As part of that incident, several Indian groups in the USA, representing the historically marginalized, and minorities, like Dalits, Sikhs and Muslims, countered an airbrushed narrative about India in California textbooks that was up for review. These groups were ranged against those who identified with mainstream Hinduism and sought to expunge from the textbooks what they considered inaccurate and negative representations of Hinduism, such as the practice of caste.
Both sides solicited the inputs of several US-based academics with expertise in Hinduism. Those who lent their voice against a sanitised version of Hinduism came to be seen as villains. Diatribes and tirades against them continue to this day - and, often, by extension towards anyone in American academia thought to have been sympathetic to that issue, or in some way unsympathetic to Hindu sensitivities, whatever they might be.
It was not surprising then, that in a recent thread on BVP titled "American Academia -- from Hinduphobia to Hindumisia," (both suffixes 'phobia' and 'misia' being Greek for fear and hatred, respectively), a participant took aim at Deshpande. As per his comment, Deshpande has been in cahoots with some other western Indologists in denigrating Hinduism, in part for having sided with them in the California issue, operating as one of "their Indian origin Gungadin enablers...," an obviously derogatory reference to a native informant.
Not many people probably picked up on this direct attack, though there were a few protests by other members, but quite obviously Prof Deshpande got wind of the comment and he decided to withdraw from the list.
His leaving the list came to be known by several other Sanskrit scholars on the list and one of them addressed the issue in a new discussion thread which announced and questioned the disrespectful circumstances of Prof Deshpande's departure.
RS Sharma, Romila Thapar
While many on the list expressed their outrage at this unfortunate situation, there were some who sided with the sentiments of the person who had hurled the abuse at Prof Deshpande. Their reading of the situation was couched in the usual terms, that anyone who was seen as being anti-Hindu did not deserve to be on the list - and was equivalent to being a traitor to the Hindu cause.
One such person even suggested that Prof Despande should have been expelled from the list long back. "Our history and heritage has long been witness to acts of saboteurs as moles and sepoys," he observed, comparing the role of an academic to a saboteur of the "cause," on the lines of the original accuser who likened Deshpande to Gungadin.
There were others who went even further than the supporters of the "Gungadin" or "saboteur" theory. One of them wanted the BVP list to clearly declare itself a list for Hindus. "BVP goal should state clearly it is Hindu centric group...Clearly identifying the group goal will help focus on revival of Hindu society."
How a supposedly scholarly group gets commandeered for narrower, "Hindu centric" goals is a story that is becoming commoner by the day.
Recently, the Delhi University's English department dropped texts by writers such as Bama, Mahashweta Devi and Sukirtharini from their undergraduate syllabus of 2021. Such exclusion of texts by DU, seens as hurting majority sentiments, has been a recurring feature over the years. Vague ideas of what marks something as being politically correct are seeping into almost all institutions in India.
In Deshpande's case, besides being accused as anti-Hindu in the California textbooks incident, there were worn-out charges of authoring books alongside much-vilified historians such as Romila Thapar and RS Sharma. Guilt by association, and for the most tenuous reasons, is often enough for a lynch-mob mentality to be set in motion.
We just marked the killing of Gauri Lankesh by Hindu zealots. A similar attitude of intolerance -- and accusations of harming the Hindu faith -- felled the likes of MN Kalburgi and Narendra Dabholkar.
What happened on a rather specialized list catering to Sanskrit scholars and some with general interest in Indian traditions could be seen as a fringe incident belonging within a closed circle. But what such incidents point to cannot be ignored. The disappearing line between impartial scholarship which attempts to deal with facts and is open to explore different interpretations of the past, and an ideology that wishes to stick to a narrow reading of the past, is a troubling development. But not just that: the aggression and self-righteousness which accompany such narrow ideologies which hold on to single, sanitized versions of the past often translates to actual violence, be it physical or intellectual.
---
*Writer based in Delhi NCR

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