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Above: The introduction of Hindu religious texts in Anna University’s syllabus led to outrage

In the face of massive protests, the Anna University has backtracked on its plans to introduce courses in philosophy and ancient Indian texts in its curriculum for the B.Tech (Information Technology) course

By R Ramasubramanian in Chennai

Not many universities would offer lessons in the Bhagwad Gita and Upanishads in its curriculum for the B.Tech Information Technology course, but when the Anna University in Chennai did precisely that, the backlash was predictable as was the response of the university, which swiftly backtracked.

A report that appeared in a section of the mainstream media, which hinted at the university’s plans recently, created a furore among almost all the major political parties (except the BJP). A large section of educationists and students, too, started expressing their anger against such a move. The principal opposition party in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) even warned of serious consequences. “This is nothing but an attempt to impose Sanskrit in Tamil Nadu. Being a secular state, the government cannot indulge in such activities. It is condemnable to attempt the imposition of Sanskrit by incorporating philosophy in the syllabus for engineering students. We will take up this issue with Governor Banwarilal Purohit, who is also the vice-chancellor of the university,” said DMK President and Leader of the Opposition MK Stalin whose allies, the Left parties, too, joined the protests.

Academicians in the Anna University said that the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) had introduced a completely fresh and new syllabi structure for technical, especially engineering, education in India, in 2018 itself. Anna University, being the nodal technical university in Tamil Nadu, controls all engineering colleges in the state and is now attempting to introduce the new syllabus structure in its campus. “The newly-created syllabus wants undergraduate engineering students to get 12 credits from Humanities, Social Science Management Courses subjects. The AICTE’s model curriculum further mentions a list of around 32 subjects from which universities and colleges can choose and these are to be offered in their institutions. The Anna University’s Regulation 2019 (a newly introduced regulation for students) follows the revamped course structure for B.Tech courses. Among the 32 subjects, the five major subjects are Technical English, Professional Communication, Film Appreciation, Philosophy and Ethics, and Holistic Life. The students will necessarily have to pick three and earn at least 12 credits. It is here that in the garb of Philosophy and Ethics, the University is introducing Bhagwad Gita and Upanishads,” said a senior academic at the University.

The massive protests, both in the political arena and social media, forced the University to undertake what one can call a temporary retreat. “We assure that Anna University will not impose anything on students. The students can take the paper (Bhagwad Gita and Upanishads) as an elective among the 32 subjects. No course is compulsory,” said Dr MK Surappa, vice-chancellor, Anna University, in a statement.

Politicians well-versed in social sciences and politics have vehemently opposed the University’s attempts to introduce Bhagwad Gita and Upanishads in the curriculum. “Philosophy and Upanishads are absolutely irrelevant for today’s engineering students. There is also a fundamental problem that arises with this decision as the government is committed to developing a scientific temper for its citizens, especially the younger lot and students,” said D Ravikumar, a Lok Sabha MP from Tamil Nadu and a senior leader of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), a Dalit political party of the state.

He contended that by introducing Bhagwad Gita and Upanishads in the curriculum, the authorities were creating a fundamental contradiction with basic science which will lead to dilution of scientific temper. “When our Constitution treats every citizen as equal, how can you teach Bhagwad Gita and Upanishads in your universities? So, teaching them is not only unscientific but also illegal,” added Ravikumar.

Then there are those like a former vice-chancellor of the university, who said that the decision to teach Bhagwad Gita was ridiculous. He noted that inter-disciplinary courses were common in higher education in foreign universities and even a great academician and Nobel laureate like Dr Amartya Sen taught not only economics but also philosophy at foreign universities.

“But there is a difference. By teaching Bhagwad Gita, you are not introducing philosophy but introducing theology. There is a basic difference between theology and philosophy. I have no problem in introducing philosophy in the higher education syllabi. But what’s happening is that in the name of philosophy, you are attempting to introduce theology because fundamentally Bhagwad Gita is a religious text and not a philosophical work.”

Another academic at the University said that introducing Bhagwad Gita in the higher education syllabi was a cunning move by the government to saffronise higher education. “Philosophy is the mother of all sciences. But what the government is attempting to do is to surreptitiously insert Hindu religious texts in the garb of philosophy. Theology is one of the subjects coming under the broader framework of philosophy. Philosophy is an ocean and you can easily hoodwink the people by saying that the introduction of Bhagwad Gita is nothing but teaching philosophy, which in turn, will help the students to perform their professional duties after their graduation in a more productive way.

“The proponents of this view will argue that the lessons learnt in philosophy especially the ‘doctrine of detachment’ will help them to perform and achieve more in today’s most competitive and cruel world in their respective fields. This is one of the age-old arguments which is fundamentally wrong and completely wide off the mark from a scientific and psychological point of view,” he said.

A section of independent political and social analysts feel that Anna University, one of the premium universities imparting higher education in Tamil Nadu, is indulging in completely unwarranted issues, instead of addressing other major problems like lack of funds. “The government is undertaking this exercise not out of ignorance but with some ulterior motives which are completely against the welfare of higher education in India,” said Azhi Senthilnathan, a writer and political analyst.

But the move to introduce the Bhagwad Gita also saw its share of supporters. “Introduction of Bhagwad Gita and  Upanishads will inculcate certain human values among students. It strengthens the guru-shishya traditions, family relationships and even inter-personal relationships between friends. But the government should not confine itself only to Hindu religious texts but also teach the best of all religions,” said GM Gandhi, an educationist. But, the decision to introduce the courses followed by swift withdrawal show that only a minuscule minority supports this view.

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