Oxford University Press under pressure

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Members of Oxford University plan to flood Oxford University Press with requests for one of its books ‘The Collected Essays of A.J. Ramanujan’. The petitioners hope to test the publishing house’s claim that they stopped publication of Ramanujan’s potentially controversial essay ‘300 Ramayanas’ solely due to commercial factors, and not because of pressure or possible litigation from right-wing pressure groups.

In 2008, OUP India decided to discontinue publication of the only two books containing this essay. This coincided with certain groups in India looking into legal proceedings based on the claim that the essay was offensive to Hindu sentiments, with OUP India as one of the potential respondents. The University members claim that OUP “have done a fair amount of damage to their reputation,” and that its actions appear to be apologizing for publishing the essay.

In addition to requesting the book, there is also an online petition making further demands of OUP. Anish Vanaik, a graduate History student at Balliol and one of the organisers of the petition, outlined what they were hoping to achieve, saying, “We want OUP to publically clarify a few things: Firstly, have they apologized for publishing the essay? Secondly, we want them to publically state their support of the author, about which there is some doubt. And thirdly, they should reprint the book.”.

The essay in question looks at different versions of the ‘Ramayana,’ a Sanskrit epic poem which is also a sacred Hindu text. One issue for the complainants is that one version has the protagonists Rama and Sita as siblings, whereas they are husband and wife in Hindu tradition. The narrative is celebrated in the Hindu festival Diwali, and is part of Buddhist tradition.

Mr Vanaik called Mr Ramanujan “a scholar of very high repute.” He also expressed the opinion that, “the essay is not controversial work; the controversy has been made up.”

Although the number of petitioners is small, Mr Vanaik claims that the fact that support is from many disciplines and from leading academics adds credence to their claims.

A spokeswoman for OUP stated “I am aware that a group of local students is planning to order the book ‘The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan’ in large quantities. I can confirm that the book is available and we will be fulfilling any orders we receive.”

She continued, “OUP India has for many decades successfully fulfilled its role as a disseminator of the best scholarship in India, and it continues to maintain the highest levels of integrity.”

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