Maharashtra: Lumpen power

Mumbai’s intelligentsia and academics are up in arms against the speedy decision of University of Mumbai vice chancellor Dr. Rajan Welukar to drop Rohinton Mistry’s Booker-nominated novel Such a Long Journey (1991) from the second year BA English literature syllabus of its 670 affiliated colleges. Over 1,080 academics, civil society activists and intellectuals signed an online petition dated October 25, addressed to the Maharashtra governor and ex-officio chancellor of the university Kateekal  Sankaranarayan, demanding an inquiry into the procedure Welukar followed to withdraw this book which has been on the BA Eng lit syllabus for the past three years, following a threat by the Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena (BVS), the youth wing of Mumbai’s notorious right wing subnationalist political party, the Shiv Sena.

BVS and particularly Aditya Thackeray (20) — grandson of Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray and son of executive president Uddhav Thackeray — raised an objection to Such a Long Journey being included in the English syllabus on the ground that the novel contained derogatory references to the Shiv Sena, Mumbai’s dabbawalas, the Marathi manoos and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, utilising “extremely obscene and vulgar lang-uage in its text”. On September 14, BVS activists ritually burnt copies of the novel at the university’s Fort campus and asked Welukar to withdraw it from the syllabus within 24 hours. The very next day, Welukar obligingly re-convened the university’s Board of Studies (whose five-year term had lapsed on August 30) and with its concurrence under s.14 (7) of the Maharashtra Universities Act, 1994, which empowers the vice chancellor to take “immediate action if s/he deems the university is in any danger”, eliminated the novel from the varsity syllabus on September 15, just a fortnight prior to the scheduled second year BA exams.

Unsurprisingly, the abject capitulation of the vice chancellor of this 153-year-old university to the threats of a callow youth and the Sena has outraged the intelligentsia and academic opinion in Mumbai. Accusing the university’s resuscitated Board of Studies and vice chancellor Welukar of providing “deluxe service via express delivery, making the book disappear the very next day”, in a message from Canada, Mistry said that “Mumbai University has come perilously close to institutionalising the ugly notion of self-censorship”.

Aditya Thackeray, whose tender sensibilities were offended by some passages of Such a Long Journey, is unfazed. “We have no issues with the book being available in the market, but it is being forced upon us by being included in the syllabus,” he says.

Meanwhile with Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan justifying the book ban by the state government-funded Mumbai University, the spotlight has focused on vice chancellor Welukar, appointed to head this university in July this year. An obscure Nagpur-based statistician who has never attained the rank of professor or college principal —  prerequisites of a vice chancellor under the Maharashtra Universities Act, 1994  —  Welukar’s appointment has been challenged by a PIL (public interest litigation) writ filed in the Bombay high court on September 15. How was Welukar appointed vice chancellor, by whom and why, queries the petition.

Moreover other conundrums are being posed. Given the Shiv Sena’s aversion to English medium education, how did young Aditya Thackeray make the grade for admission into St. Xavier’s College where cut-off percentages are sky high?
Good questions all, but don’t expect any answers soon.