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‘Gruesome sexual content, Army in poor light’ — why DU removed 3 English texts from syllabus

DU Oversight Committee has removed texts by Mahasweta Devi, and Dalit writers Bama Faustina Soosairaj and Sukirtharani from its English literature syllabus.

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New Delhi: The Delhi University (DU) has defended its controversial move to remove texts by renowned author Mahasweta Devi, and Dalit writers Bama Faustina Soosairaj and Sukirtharani from the English literature syllabus, saying the decision had nothing to do with representation.

According to DU sources, the three texts have been removed due to their gruesome sexual content, and portrayal of the Indian military in poor light.

The issue came to light late Wednesday when some DU Academic Council members dissented with the Oversight Committee, which is currently revising the university syllabus, over the decision to drop the three texts, alleging “a prejudice against the representation of Dalits, tribals, women and sexual minorities”.

However, DU sources pointed out that Padma Vibhushan recipient and upper-caste writer Mahasweta Devi’s short story Draupadi has been removed from the syllabus due to its gruesome sexual content.

The sources shared an instance of the “problematic content” in Draupadi, which the panel found objectionable. It read: “Trying to move, she feels her arms and legs still tied to four posts. Something sticky under her ass and waist. Her own blood. Only the gag has been removed. Incredible thirst. In case she says ‘water’ she catches her lower lip in her teeth. She senses her vagina is bleeding. How many came to make her?”

Draupadi, translated from Bengali by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, is about a tribal woman who is raped by Army officers. It was part of ‘women’s writings’ papers in the English literature syllabus for the fifth semester, and had been taught since 1999.

Bama’s Sangati and Sukirtharini’s My Body — the other two texts — also talk about caste and gender discrimination faced by Dalit women.

“We want to show Dalit women as members of the society who have agency and voice. What is the whole uproar about?” a member of the panel, who didn’t wish to be named, told ThePrint.

“We have no qualms with Dalit literature and wish to teach our student stories that are empowering and speak of how Dalit women broke the shackles to overcome caste discrimination. The scenes of rape have been described in gruesome detail which can make grown adults uncomfortable, I don’t know how professors are teaching the text,” the member said.

“The oversight committee is powered by the executive council and the decision was taken after speaking with several stakeholders. It is a democratic process and I prefer to let the committee have its final say,” DU Vice Chancellor P.C. Joshi told ThePrint.

“I don’t know if the name and context regarding the perpetrators got lost in translation but this (Draupadi) shows the Indian military in a very poor light. We don’t want our students to hate them based on fictional stories,” DU Registrar Vikas Gupta said.

Also read: DU decides to implement NEP from 2022-23 amid opposition by teachers’ body

What is the issue and controversy?

On Wednesday, the six-member Oversight Committee removed the three texts from the university’s English literature syllabus. According to members of the committee ThePrint spoke to, the meeting to review the syllabus lasted for three days, after which it was decided that the “objectionable” texts be removed. 

This review was a part of UGC-mandated LOCF (Learning Outcomes-based Curriculum Framework), which is said to be an annual process.

After the decision, 15 members of the DU Academic Council gave a dissent note stating that there had been “maximum vandalism” in LOCF English literature syllabus for the fifth semester.

In the note, they said the committee first took a decision to remove two Dalit authors — Bama and Sukhartharini — and replaced them with “upper-caste writer Ramabai”. Social media criticism followed.

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What the faculty says

Debraj Mookerjee, Associate Professor at DU’s Ramjas College, told ThePrint that such decisions relating to reviewing any text ought to be made “only on objective grounds such as the overall recognition of the writer and the body of her work and critical acclaim, and on the overall academic merit of these texts”.

“Higher education means grappling with discomfort and the grim realities of actual lines of fracture in society (especially for students of the social sciences), and students gain critical insights by doing so. Reading texts with graphic descriptions of troubling truths might be difficult, but engaging with such difficulty, and understanding what the author has to say about such stress points, is a part of understanding complex ideas,” he added.

Sanjay Kumar, Associate Professor at Hansraj College, said the argument that Draupadi is a sexually violent text is not enough.

“English literature (study) is in its nature a liberational exercise and to hold back something because it is sexual in nature is horrendous. Students have access to all kinds of sexual information on the internet, what are we hiding? And if sexual content is such an issue then we should review teaching Shakespeare… every second page has a sexual innuendo in his writing,” he said.

“The committee needs to give a better explanation for removing this story,” added Kumar.

Also read: Student-centric NEP will change society, Karnataka education minister says as state unveils policy


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