Nandini Sundar is the author of The Burning Forest: The Indian Government has repeatedly described Maoist guerrillas as ‘the biggest security threat to the country’ and Bastar as their headquarters. This book chronicles how the armed conflict between the government and the Maoists has devastated the lives of some of India’s poorest citizens.
At my first meeting of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Delhi University, some colleagues objected to a heading in our Sociology of India introductory course, ‘India as an object of study’. “India cannot be an object”, they said, “she is our motherland”. Subsequent meetings of the Academic Council only confirmed my belief that there is something deeply wrong with this procedure especially the higher up the academic food chain it goes– at best it offers an opportunity for non-social-scientists to show off, for how could anyone from sociology dare to comment on a mathematics course and be taken seriously? At worst, in an illiberal regime it acts as a form of censorship.
It also means that courses are delayed irretrievably – it took three years from the time we designed a Sociology of Law course for the MA program for it to be taught, while the environmental sociology course has mysteriously disappeared altogether somewhere between the Faculty of Social Sciences and the Academic Council. Exhortations to cutting edge knowledge can be only be met with cutting laughter, given the hoops through which any course has to pass. Any new course or even new set of readings for an existing course (formally known as either a minor or major modification) is discussed at least twice within a department, which is a very useful exercise, before being formally approved by a Committee of Courses. It then goes to the relevant Faculty (for instance, the Faculty of Humanities or Social Sciences), where again anyone may object or suggest new readings. This again can be helpful, especially in our increasingly interdisciplinary times, but is definitely less useful than at the departmental level. It then goes to the Academic Council, which meets a couple of times a year, where courses are passed in bulk, in sessions that range over several hours and are marked by grandstanding over a variety of issues, academic and non-academic. (And yet, when the Vice Chancellor wants to introduce sweeping changes like the semester system or the choice based credit course, none of these regulations appear to matter. In the last few years we have been going through some kind of permanent revolution, reinventing our courses practically overnight, to make it for the university’s deadlines).
Some years ago, the Faculty of Social Sciences agreed that a teacher could change about 30% of the readings every year, provided she or he handed out a reading list at the beginning of the semester. But till then, whatever we actually taught, we had to ensure that exam questions were framed on the printed syllabus – never mind if we were still examining our students on socialist planning versus capitalist markets. Students, of course, have out-read all of us – and are on top of the latest literature, and certainly don’t rely for their knowledge on what they are taught in class or even photocopied course packs. Those who want to, will read The Burning Forest, regardless of whether it is on their syllabus or not.
When reporters called to ask for my reaction to questions being raised at the Academic Council on the inclusion of The Burning Forest in the MA Political Sociology course, I was not surprised. I had been waiting for them to attack the book. In the last year, thanks to our litigation in the Supreme Court which got the Salwa Judum banned (2011), and the CBI’s 2016 chargesheet against SPOs for burning villages, the Chhattisgarh government has ramped up its efforts to harass me, emboldened by a sympathetic Centre. They have burnt our effigies; put up huge flexiplex posters of us in Jagdalpur and run signature campaigns; written letters to our universities forwarding false accusations, and accused me (along with other colleagues) of murder. In the last month, they detained and tortured a close friend, Podiyam Panda, to make him ‘confess’ to taking me to meet Maoist leaders; wrote to Rajdeep Sardesai threatening legal action for hosting me on his show; and circulated a fake whatsapp exchange through fakenews sites, purportedly between ‘Nandini Madam’ and an unnamed Maoist.
The NDTF members who objected to The Burning Forest admitted they had not read the book, but didn’t like the sub-title: India’s War in Bastar. But their pet channels routinely use headlines like “War against Maoists”, or “Will apologists take a bullet for the nation?” It certainly looks like a war to the jawans who are ‘martyred’, part of the 116 battalions of Central Armed Police Forces who are posted there.
Fortunately, sociologists are not easily scared. The book has been referred back to a departmental committee for consideration and no doubt the department will respond appropriately. Ultimately, this is not about me, or Bastar, or The Burning Forest, but the collective right of our department to its own judgment. No doubt, too, this will not be the last of the attacks on the book we will see from the RSS and its fronts, but I hope that readers will make up their own mind.