Prof Sheldon Pollock and Rohan Murty. (Photo: The Quint)
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DeQoded: What the Sheldon Pollock Row Is Really About

Are you afraid of being branded ‘anti-national’?

This has been the atmosphere in the nation of late. As debates on ‘sedition’ dominated Parliament, ‘anti-national ’ has become the buzzword occupying the public space in the wake of the JNU controversy. Amidst this pandemonium is the growing chorus for the removal of Professor Sheldon Pollock as the chief editor of the Murty Classical Library.

But what exactly is Professor Pollock’s crime?

Well, he signed a petition supporting the Jawaharlal Nehru students who were arrested on charges of sedition, and criticised the government.

In return, a counter-petition filed by 132 people sought his removal alleging “his deep antipathy towards ideals and values cherished and practised in Indian civilization.”

The Controversy

JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar raises slogans after reaching the JNU campus in New Delhi upon his release on bail in on Thursday. (Photo: PTI)
JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar raises slogans after reaching the JNU campus in New Delhi upon his release on bail in on Thursday. (Photo: PTI)

Sheldon Pollock is Professor of Sanskrit and South Asian Studies at Columbia University. He has authored and edited numerous Sanskrit books, including a series of translated volumes of classical Indian literature.

The petition, signed by professors and administrators, accuses Prof Pollock of “misrepresenting India’s cultural heritage” and showing disrespect to India’s “unity and integrity.” Citing a 1985 paper written by him, the petition claims that “ Prof Pollock sees all shastras as flawed because he finds them frozen in Vedic metaphysics, which he considers irrational and a source of social oppression.”

Rohan Murty, son of Infosys founder Narayana Murthy, and founder of Murty Classical Library, has come out in strong defense of Prof Pollock. In an interview to CNN-IBN, Rohan says Prof Pollock’s detractors are trying to defame him.

If there are people out there who are resorting to this just to defame Professor Pollock, then that is worrying. They are free to disagree with me or Pollock, but if they become disagreeable, then it becomes difficult.
Rohan Murty, founder of Murty Classical Library to CNN-IBN

Noted playwright and actor Girish Karnad too has voiced his support for Prof Pollock.

The man has spent decades of his life on studying and translating Indian texts, and the quality of his scholarship cannot be doubted. Academicians not giving a fellow academician his right to voice an opinion is a clear sign of intolerance. 
Girish Karnad, noted playwright, The Economic Times

In fact, referring to Pollock’s book ‘The Language of Gods in the World of Men’, Karnad in his column argues, “It is the kind of scholarship that Indian scholars need to be doing. But who is capable of doing that kind of work today?”

Right to Dissent

 Activists participate in ‘March for Bharat’ with the national flag to stop anti-national activities, in Kolkata on Thursday. (Photo: PTI)
Activists participate in ‘March for Bharat’ with the national flag to stop anti-national activities, in Kolkata on Thursday. (Photo: PTI)

Critics argue that the petition makes outlandish claims by distorting and misrepresenting Pollock’s writings. Nandini Majumdar in her column argues the move seeking Professor’s removal reflects an “alarming intolerance towards the very spirit of intellectual inquiry.”

Referring to the said quotes from Pollock’s 1985 paper, Dheeraj Sanghi, an IIT Professor, noted that the quoted didn’t conclude that the shastras were “ flawed.” Karnad too argues, “They are bringing up a paper Pollock had written in 1985. If he wrote that paper in 1985, what were they doing all these years? They are out against him simply because of his stand on the JNU controversy.”

Pollock himself defined Sanskrit as a “maker of bridges, not a divider. It built bridges to Buddhists, to Jains, to every vernacular language in South Asia.”

Indeed, the JNU row has brought the issues of nationalism, patriotism, and sedition to the fore.

But does loyalty to the nation mean no dissent, no debate, no different ideas of India? We, as Indians, must decide.