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Epistemic Battles in Academia: The Semiotics of Knowledge Production

Epistemic Battles in Academia: The Semiotics of Knowledge Production

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Dr. N. Sukumar

The ancient world considered land as the paramount resource and wars were waged to capture more territories. For the industrialized societies, capital was the source of sustenance but in the modern era, privilege and power based on knowledge is the magic mantra, the currency of socio-economic relations. As Churchill once observed, “The empires of the future are going to be the empires of the mind”1. Ernest Gellner further emphasized the point that at the base of the modern social order stands not the executioner but the professor. The monopoly of legitimate education that is the monopoly of legitimate violence is now central to the process of the integration and reproduction of social order2.

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However, what constitutes legitimate education is highly contested as revealed by the recent fracas in Delhi University. The wise ‘intellectuals’ of the Standing Committee of Academic Affairs in their wisdom decided to chop off certain ‘offensive’ words and readings from courses offered by the Department of Political Science. The university is no stranger to such shenanigans as even earlier also many texts/authors were targeted and concerned departments were arm twisted into removing these readings. There were no public debates, no academic rationale was provided apart from pandering to hurt sentiments. The course on Social Exclusion is being taught for almost a decade with the same reading list and there was no objection. Similarly, for the past four years Dalit Bahujan Political Thought was being taught without much hullaballoo. The academic space is under surveillance as many lectures and talks are abruptly cancelled, seminars are inspected to weed out ‘undesirable elements’ and instead Sri Sri Ravishanker and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev are invited to deliver lectures.

Panchagavya: Valorizing Indian Science

The score card of the RSS BJP regime is not very flattering when it comes to upholding democratic ethos. During their previous stint in power, Murali Manohar Joshi sought to introduce astrology as a course of study in Indian universities. The ideologues of the RSS intend to ‘mainstream’ Indian tradition. This explains why Indian Institute of Technology Delhi has received around 50 proposals from top research institutions to explore the benefits of panchagavya—a mixture of cow products such as urine, dung, milk, ghee and curd. As part of the effort, the government and the IIT aim to set up a working group to study the “uniqueness of indigenous cows… and their products over exotic cows”, as per a background note of the workshop now available on the IIT Delhi website3.

How does the grand Indian tradition answer for Eklavya, Mahishasur, Soorpanakha or even Vali? These characters have simply been invisibilised while they also possess histories and agencies. During the refresher/orientation courses offered by Delhi University Centre for Professional Development in Higher Education (CPDHE), the links to a specific religio-political ideology are evident. For a programme called “Bharat Bodh” that claimed to further knowledge about India, the country’s diverse histories, cultures, and eclectic range of thinkers were completely obfuscated. The focus was on Hinduism while ignoring Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Further, Islam was vilified, and Christianity exclusively equated with British rule. In spite of the overwhelming focus of the programme on India’s ancient past, no ancient historian from the well-known faculty of history at the University of Delhi (which is just down the road from CPDHE) was invited; leave alone from JNU or Jamia Millia Islamia.

The two particular casualties in this programme were science, and not surprisingly, history. Resource persons affiliated to Vijnana Bharati, the science wing of the RSS, insisted that ancient Indian scriptures are the repository of all scientific knowledge and that western scientists plagiarised these accomplishments, which are being falsely feted today as western in origin. As an example, one speaker claimed that Aryabhatta was the original proponent of the theory of gravity. The insight came to him apparently when a litchi fell on his head – Newton stole these ideas much later, adroitly substituting an apple for the litchi4. It’s an undeclared policy intervention by UGC/MHRD. IIT Kanpur has started a service on Hindu sacred texts Srimad Bhagwadgita, Ramcharitmanas, Brahma Sutra, Yoga Sutra, Shri Ram Mangal Dasji and the Narada Bhakti Sutra. The website was launched recently and has seen a massive surge in traffic. T V Prabhakar, professor, Resource Centre for Indian Language Technology Solutions, department of computer science and engineering, and director Mahendra Aggarwal, IIT Kanpur has rejected the move as an attempt to push Hindutva5.

During an Orientation Program for university teachers in JNU under UGC-HRDC, an expert claimed that India never had a foreign policy before Mr. Modi, who has a 56 inch chest and has been instrumental in improving relations with our neighbours. Those who dared to ask questions were ridiculed and 30 out of 50 participants gave a written complaint but the authorities turned a deaf ear6. A strange connection is being forged between human anatomy and foreign policy.

The deliberate mythmaking by silencing all dissent is being assiduously encouraged through Refresher/Orientation courses in many universities. If the teachers protest, they are threatened by withholding their certificates for such courses are required for promotions. When I attended a Refresher Course in Political Science in BHU, an expert claimed that a single peepal life contains 33 crore deities. Most of the lectures would commence with a sloka unrelated to the topic being lectured7.

Brahmanical Mythmaking

If a glorified one-dimensional vision of the past is unabashedly peddled and disseminated widely, why should it be a problem if this version is challenged or critiqued by other ideologies? This myth of the golden age has continued to manufacture consent and justify the prevailing social hierarchies. Throughout Indian history, this reproduction of symbolic power was questioned and deconstructed by radical anti-caste intellectuals. The pace of epistemic dismantling of the status-quo quickened in the last two centuries. As noted by Phule “Critical education is the third eye that can see through slavery, leading to liberation.” When Phule spoke about the golden age of the Baliraja, the first salvo was fired against the mythmaking of Brahmanism. The liberation theology based on social justice, inspired by stalwarts like Phule, Iyothee Thass, Laxmi Narasu, Narayana Guru, Pandita Ramabai, Tarabai Shinde, Ambedkar, Periyar to name a few widened the social vision to challenge brahmanical ideas. Gradually, it laid the foundation for the politics of emancipation.

These ideas were further crystallized in the constitution of independent India which enabled scores of oppressed dalits and women to dream and aspire for a dignified life. Affirmative action initiated the entry of the first such generation into academia. The dominant pedagogy rarely reflected the lived experiences of many marginalized communities as it was considered worthless. To illustrate, literature departments will teach and research on post-colonial, Black, American literary genres but hardly reflect on Dalit literature and aesthetics.

Pedagogic Interventions

I joined the Department of Political Science, (Delhi University) in 2001 and was asked to teach Gandhian Thought and Action (subsequently the paper was dropped). Along with this, I also taught Themes in Indian Political Thought. In the process, I realized that a teacher can cherry pick the thinkers/themes he/she chooses and exclude the rest. To exemplify, one can teach only Ram Mohan Roy as part of Indian Reformation and ignore any critique or new ideas proposed by Phule or Pandita Ramabai. I insisted that there should be a paper revolving only around thinkers and included Ambedkar, Iqbal and M.N.Roy etc as part of Modern Indian Political Thinkers. Additionally, in 2008-9 I had offered a paper on Dalit Politics in India for MPhil Program.

In subsequent syllabus revisions, other teachers never took the initiative to introduce courses which challenged the dominant epistemic discourses. Gender studies were not considered important enough to merit a separate course till the CBCS (Choice Based Credit System) came up. Similarly, the anti-caste intellectuals always remained marginal in any discussion on political theories. Their world view also needs critical engagement. There are papers on Religion, Culture and Politics in India, Religious Nationalism, and Social Conservatism in India etc. A new course is being proposed on Interpreting Indian Classical Texts. The new syllabi prepared for CBCS contains the following readings. a) Culture and Politics in India; Frawley, David, ‘Textual Evidences in Vedas: Cultural and Historical Implications’, Indian Historical Research foundation, Ministry of HRD, Govt of India, Foundation Day lecture, March 27, 2015 b) Social Conservatism in India: Kalpatru Maharaj, Ramrajya aur Marxbad. Gita Press: Gorakhpur, 2016 c) In the course on Indian Strategic Thought-majority of the readings are on the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Gita and Kautilya. d) Discourses on Hindu Nationalism, M.S. Golwalkar, Bunch of Thoughts, Bangalore: Jagaran Prakashan & Suruchi Prakashan, Delhi. 1980. e) In the entire CBCS syllabi- the word Dalit is used 25 times8.

Now there are similar efforts in many Indian universities to acquaint the students with alternate epistemologies and readings/texts. Just to provide an overview-courses on Dalit–Bahujan ideology, Subaltern studies and the Literature of the oppressed, Ambedkar Studies, dalit literature of various regions etc are taught in different institutions-departments of Literature, Political Science, Sociology, History and Ambedkar Chairs of various universities like BHU, Allahabad, Goa, Tezpur, Himachal Pradesh, Shivaji, Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University, Mysore, and Pune universities, Central Universities of Kashmir, Haryana and Gujarat, JMI and HCU. Needless to say, Kancha Illaiah’s books are part of the reading list and the word Dalit appears frequently. In Mysore University syllabi, Dalit word is mentioned in the course titles, sub titles and readings, a total of 122 times. Likewise in JMI, it appears 37 times, Marathwada University 24 times and Pune University 14 times. Even Columbia University has made Why I Am Not a Hindu part of the course on Modern South Asia. The English Dept in Delhi University has a Centre for Dalit Studies. JMI has a Centre for Dalit and Minority Studies. Unfortunately, the Centre for Ambedkar Studies is no more active in Hyderabad Central University. Maybe the powers that be considered it to be too socially revolutionary. Hence, it is surprising that only the Delhi University Standing Committee experts felt that to use the word ‘dalit’ is against the court’s judgment and reading Kancha Ilaiah’s works will transform students into being anti-Hindu. For these ‘experts’ courses on China, Black Radicalism and Feminism are ‘anti-national’ topics and no academic rationale are provided for the same. Ironically, the RSS BJP wishes to incorporate Dalits by dining with them but has a problem with their identity. The BJP SC Morcha President, Dr. Sanjay Paswan9 has published the Encyclopedia of Dalits in India (11 vols). Many scholars affiliated to the RSS-BJP have published books titled with the word ‘dalit’. Even PM Modi has used the word ‘dalit’ in his Independence Day address on August 15, 201810. This is clearly a case of doublespeak.

Many students who opted for the courses on Dalit-Bahujan Political Thought and Social Exclusion: Theory and Praxis (Political Science Dept. Delhi University) gave the feedback that such courses democratized the academic space. They got curious about the alternate epistemologies and their contemporary relevance. While transacting the course, training students about their writing skills, sensitizing them on gender and caste issues is very challenging. One needs to keep in mind that the majority of the students who opt for Political Science in Delhi University are from the Hindi medium, financially weak and socially backward. Interestingly, more girls, dalit and OBC students opt for these courses. As Social Darwinism is being confronted, Hindutva groups in the university are deeply rattled.

In this context, it is essential to foreground the Mandal-Kamandal debate which witnessed many marginalized groups attain political maturity and social justice. The dalit bahujans in the academia have been nurtured ideologically through the works of Buddha, Phule, Ambedkar, Periyar and Kanshi Ram. The aftershocks of these developments are reflected in many ideological battles on various campuses- Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle in IIT Chennai, Ambedkar Students Association in many Indian universities, BAPSA in JNU, Dalit Students Association and Bahujan Students Union to name a few.

The Ideological Coterie

The formulation of the syllabus in any institution is a pedagogical exercise tinted with ideology. Unless the knowledge-power nexus is deconstructed, the hierarchy of power will persist in the struggle for cultural capital. Any discipline in this respect, is like an enclosed space with its own set of ascriptive norms and hierarchies. Such academic politics are made invisible by communicating ideas and researches in a specialist language that serve the dual function of warding off the non-specialists and concealing the hierarchical power politics of its practitioners11. Thus it is essential to democratize the pedagogy and social relationships in the university spaces.

Even after seven decades of affirmative action, there is hardly fair representation of Dalit-Bahujan teachers in many university departments. Delhi University, one of the largest in the country boasts of only seven Dalit Professors across various departments. Out of these, five are in Humanities and Social Sciences. This reflects the skewed nature of the prevailing knowledge system. The germination of an idea, the drafting of a course, seeking approval by the department council and committee of courses, to the larger university bodies is a journey fraught with contestations. To illustrate, when the course- Understanding Ambedkar was proposed in Delhi University for under-graduates, the counter questions were- why devote a course only on Ambedkar? Why not Gandhi and Ambedkar and why not Ambedkar with other social thinkers? For the established academia, the idea of Ambedkar is indelibly associated with caste and his ideas on nationhood, gender, economy etc are of no consequence. Though this course is very popular amongst undergraduate students, many colleges do not encourage students to opt for this elective course. The irony is that very few teachers are familiar with Ambedkar’s work to deliver the course. The Ministry of Social Justice issued a circular to all the universities to introduce similar such courses to make the pedagogy more inclusive. This begs the question as to why only dalit-bahujan scholars will study, research and teach on questions of caste and exclusion. Both Gopal Guru12 and Vivek Kumar13 have argued about knowledge production in India being a rarified domain. The larger brahmanical academia is cocooned against any threats to their epistemological entitlements. Like the oracles of the ancient world, scholarship is selectively endowed and celebrated. Identities are crucial in academia and despite a lifetime spent in writing and research, Kancha Ilaiah is considered an OBC scholar14. Many intellectuals from the Dalit communities are only identified as Dalit scholars. Such labels are not associated with the ‘mainstream’ scholars.

The Dalit Bahujan and Brahmanism world views are polar opposites. The latter promotes the integral humanism of D.D. Upadhyaya with its focus on caste relations as ‘dharma’. This endorses a feudal eco-system where the socio-cultural subordinate is always humiliated. The former is more egalitarian, rational and secular. Once again the Eklavyas and Dronacharyas are locked in a battle and the former are no longer interested in being sacrificial goats. Phule in the first modern Marathi Play, ‘Trutiya Ratna’ draws complex linkages between religious-cultural and educational authority and reimagines education therefore as the Trutiya Ratna (third eye) that has the possibilities to enable the oppressed to understand and transform the relation between power and knowledge15.



1. Churchill Winston, Speech at Harvard University, 6th Sept 1943, quoted in Braj Ranjan Mani, Knowledge and Power: A Discourse for Transformation, Manohar Publishers, 2014
2. Gellner Ernest, Nations and Nationalism, Basil Blackwell Publisher Limited, England, 1983, p 34
3. Thu, Aug 03 2017. 05 03 AM IST
4. 19th Feb 2018
5., accessed 2nd November 2018 10.43 pm
6. JNU Event Organizers Accused of Bias, The Hindu, Saturday Nov 10th 2018
7. Refresher Course in Political Science, BHU, December 2009
8. For details refer
9. accessed 9th November 2018, 10.45 pm
11. Bourdieu Pierre, Homo Academicus, tr. Peter Collier, Cambridge, Polity, 1988
12. Guru Gopal, How Egalitarian Are the Social Sciences in India?, Economic and Political Weekly December 14, 2002, pp 5003-5009
13. Kumar Vivek, How Egalitarian Is Indian Sociology?, Economic & Political Weekly, June 18, 2016 vol lI No 25 pp 33-39
14. Aranya Shankar, ‘DU Political Science dept to continue with Kancha Ilaiah’s books, Academic Council to take final call’, Indian Express, Delhi, November 2, 2018
15. Rege Sharmila, Education as Trutiya Ratna: Towards Phule-Ambedkarite Feminist Pedagogical Practice, Economic & Political Weekly, October 30, 2010 Vol xlv No 44, pp 88-98



 N. Sukumar is Professor of Political Science at Delhi University (

Image courtesy: the internet.

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