New Delhi: Nalanda University has disbanded a course on the “history and politics of yoga” that a top BJP leader wrongly blamed on former varsity chancellor Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s team, sparking worries about academic censorship at India’s marquee education diplomacy Institute.
BJP general secretary Ram Madhav on Saturday morning said on Twitter he was “stunned to hear” that “Amartya Sen’s” Nalanda regime “had a course on ‘politics of yoga’ taught by a foreigner”. He added that the course had now been “abolished”.
But Nalanda officials and faculty told The Telegraph that the course, on the broader subject of “history and politics” of yoga, was taught only once, from January to May this year, more than a year after Sen’s term as chairman of the varsity board had ended.
In November 2016, former Singapore foreign minister George Yeo, who took over as chancellor of the university after Sen, also quit accusing the Narendra Modi government of interfering in the varsity’s work.
A new governing board appointed by the Modi government – without any of Sen’s team – was in office by the time the course Madhav criticised was introduced in the university’s classes.
Madhav, an influential foreign policy expert, did not respond to a text message. A close aide of Madhav’s told this newspaper he would now be available only on September 12.
But his criticism of a “foreigner” – Patricia Sauthoff, an American doctoral scholar pursuing her Ph.D. at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London – as the teacher of the course was dismissed as wrong by some among India’s best-known yoga experts.
And his accusations against the course only reinforced the need for such a programme, to correctly understand the themes of cultural appropriation – including of yoga by some in the West – while highlighting deeper concerns about academic freedom, Sauthoff said.
“I think this is an example of how the academic atmosphere at Nalanda is dissipating,” Sauthoff told The Telegraph over the telephone from Denver, Colorado, where she woke up to a Twitter debate and abusive comments online after Madhav’s post. “It’s worrying.”
Both Sen and then later Yeo had during their tenures publicly articulated concerns about the depleting academic freedom at Nalanda University, an institution India has for the past 11 years pursued as a key pillar of its cultural diplomacy. Aimed as the revival of the ancient Buddhist seat of learning, the Nalanda project was conceived in the second half of the 2000s as a collaborative effort between India and the countries of East Asia, South East Asia and later the broader Pacific region.
Though India overwhelmingly funds the university, its board includes five representatives from foreign countries that have contributed the most in aid to the project.
But in recent months, Nalanda’s reputation for academic independence has taken a beating, multiple officials, teachers and former staff conceded – the exit of Sen and Yeo were only the biggest symbols of that challenge.
Nalanda begins its academic year in August. This year, in just over a month, at least two faculty members at the university have quit and the varsity is abuzz with speculation that more may follow.
The university’s current vice-chancellor, Sunaina Singh, said the varsity’s concerns with Sauthoff’s course stem with its very idea – of linking yoga to politics.
“The very title of the course is problematic,” Singh said. “Why do you inject politics in it? Why are we allowing a foreigner to teach the politics of yoga?”
But the politics of yoga – in terms of attempts at cultural or political appropriation of the practice to define it narrowly – is a widely accepted and regular subject of scholarship among yoga researchers, said Andrea Jain, professor in the department of religious studies at Indiana University.
In her 15-week syllabus, Sauthoff included discussions on the implications of a white woman teaching Asians about yoga, as part of the class debate on cultural appropriation. When a yogi, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath, took office, the class of under 10 students discussed the significance of his rise. In the final week of her course, Sauthoff discussed the political use of yoga by the Modi government, including through the International Day of Yoga.
“The instructor was right in this case, and it’s a really sad thing that the course has been struck down,” Jain, who has seen the syllabus, told this newspaper over the phone from Indianapolis. “The BJP and the RSS – and Modi is a part of that — have used yoga as a political tool to further their idea of Hinduism, which is narrow. That’s what this is about.”
H.R. Nagendra, Modi’s yoga guru and chancellor of S-Vyasa, a Bangalore-based yoga institute, suggested universities should allow regulators to determine their courses – even on yoga. He added that an organisation of Indian yoga gurus, called the Indian Yoga Association, could decide on yoga courses at universities.
Mumbai-based Hansaji Yogendra, who shared the dais with Modi at the 2015 International Day of Yoga celebrations in New Delhi, argued that yoga courses should focus more on practical training than on history and politics. She too questioned any linking of yoga and politics.
But she disagreed with Madhav’s contention that a foreigner was less qualified than an Indian to teach any element of yoga.
“Yoga is for everyone,” Yogendra said. “I get many foreign students, who go back to their countries and teach. And let me tell you, many are better yogis than Indians.”
Courtesy: The Telegraph