Oxford University Press has come under fire this week, as a petition sent around the Oxford Indian Society this week criticised the OUP’s branch in India as having “a dark history of crumbling in the face of unreasonable demands by easily offended groups”. The petition claimed the actions of OUP India reflect “very poorly on its parent body – the Oxford University Press here in Oxford – as well as the University of Oxford itself, of which the Press is a department.”
OUP India published a book in 1992 containing an essay by the historian A.K. Ramanujan. The essay looked at different versions of the ‘Ramayana’, a Sanskrit epic poem which is also a sacred Hindu text. In 2008, members of the University of New Delhi complained to OUP India that they found some of the different versions of the story offensive to Hindu religious views, and looked into a court case, with OUP India as one of the potential respondents.
Before any legal proceedings had begun, OUP India replied to the complaint with a letter apologizing for offending the sentiments of Hindus, adding that “neither are we selling the book nor there are any plans to reissue it.” This also suggested that OUP was not planning on re-publishing any of the other essays in the book. The Oxford petition described it as “extremely disappointing that an organisation which prides itself on furthering ‘excellence in research, scholarship and education’ (in its own words) is unable to stand by its own publishing decision”.
OUP responded by claiming that by 2008, sales of the book “had reduced to negligible levels. The fact that there were at that point no plans to re-issue the book was based on standard commercial factors and was not as a direct consequence of any external letters of complaint or threats of legal proceedings.”
They also said, “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.”
One of the main grievances of the complainants was that Ramanujan’s essay includes a tale where the hero and heroine, Rama (the avatar of the god Vishnu) and Sita, are siblings, whereas they are husband and wife in the Hindu tradition. The narrative is celebrated in the Hindu festival Diwali, and is part of Buddhist tradition.
One of the Oxford petitioners, Sarath Kannambra, a graduate lawyer at Corpus Christi, said,“Academic freedom has once again fallen a victim in this unfortunate saga. What surprises me is the fact that OUP simply does not seem to have the scruples to take a hard stand on issues such as these. Regrettable to say the least.”