NEW DELHI – A prestigious Indian university has dropped a scholarly text from its history syllabus under pressure from Hindu hardliners, in the latest sign of the growing impact of Hindu conservatives in the country.
"It's not a religious essay at all,” said Delhi University professor Bharati Jagannathan, Reuters reported.
“It's not about which version are you supposed to read."
In October, Delhi University removed the essay by eminent academic A.K. Ramanujan from the reading list after Hindu nationalist students vandalized the history department and lodged a complaint that the text's bawdy references offended beliefs about the life of hero-god Rama.
Ramanujan's "Three Hundred Ramayanas," is considered by Indologists to be a classic study of Hindu diversity and a discussion of the hundreds of different tellings of the epic story of Rama and Sita.
But Hindus argue that the text distorts the Hindu beliefs.
"There's no need to distort our Hindu texts, which we hold in great reverence, to this degree. Why?” said student leader Rohit Chahal.
“If this is the case, then why not do multiple interpretations of Islamic and Christian texts?"
Revered in academic circles as a critic, poet and playwright, Ramanujan was a MacArthur Fellow and taught at Chicago University for decades. He died in 1993.
The furor bears some resemblance to US tussles over the teaching of evolutionary theory.
This was not the first case of radical Hindu pressure over India's culture.
It has ranged from state governments banning books seen as offensive to raids on bars by Hindu groups in the IT hub of Bangalore to protest Western culture corrupting Indian values.
Last year, Mumbai University removed Rohinton Mistry's Booker Prize shortlisted novel Such A Long Journey from its literature syllabus after threats and book burnings by radical Hindu political party Shiv Sena.
India's best-known artist, painter Maqbool Fida Husain, fled the country in 2006 and died in exile in London this year after his depictions of a Hindu goddesses enraged zealots who attacked his house and vandalized shows.
Beleaguered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's coalition led by the Congress party has not spoken on the issue.
"None of the so-called secular Congress leaders have spoken a word, not the prime minister, nor the home minister nor the education minister,” said political analyst Amulya Ganguli.
“They have maintained a deafening silence."
The furor highlights the resurgence of India's religious right at a time when voters are turning away from a center-left Congress government weakened by corruption scandals.
The angry protests by Hindu groups also highlight a pervasive current of conservative Indians who are still an important political voice, despite the rapid modernization of Asia's third largest economy.
Opinion polls show growing support for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that represents the moderate face of a movement seeking to define India as a Hindu nation.
When it governed from 1998 to 2004 the BJP focused on good economic management rather than religious supremacy, but agitation by Hindu nationalists or Hindutva movement that backs the party has not gone away.
The country's most popular opposition politician, Narendra Modi, is a BJP governor respected for presiding over a long economic boom in Gujarat state but is also associated with religious riots that killed hundreds of Muslims.