“My Discussion of Yoga Was Threatening to Its RSS-Linked Administration”: Patricia Sauthoff On the Cancellation of Her Course At Nalanda

Courtesy Patricia Sauthoff
20 September, 2017

Patricia Sauthoff is an American PhD scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and a former faculty member at Nalanda University in Bihar. From August 2016 to 28 July this year, Sauthoff was employed as a teaching fellow at the university’s School of Buddhist Studies, Philosophy and Comparative Religions. In her second term at Nalanda, which started in January this year, she taught two courses, including a course titled the “History and Politics of Yoga.” It explored the “history of Yoga in India as religious, social, and political practice.”

On 13 June, the university’s administration sent Sauthoff a letter informing her that her contract would soon expire and requesting her to communicate her “willingness for further continuance in the University.” Six days later, she received another letter, which informed her that the previous one “may be treated as cancelled and withdrawn.” Sauthoff’s employment contract was never renewed, and her course was subsequently discontinued—she later said that she was not given any official reason for this decision.

On 9 September, Ram Madhav, the national general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party and a director of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated think-tank India Foundation, criticised the course. He tweeted: “Stunned to hear dat Amartya Sen’s Nalanda Univ regime had a course on ‘Politics of Yoga’ taught by a foreigner. Now course abolished.” Madhav’s reference to Sen was odd—the economist resigned from his position as Nalanda’s chancellor over a year before Sauthoff’s course on yoga began.

Nalanda University has deep-rooted historical origins. From the fifth to the twelfth century, Nalanda was a renowned monastery and centre for learning in the ancient Indian kingdom of Magadha, situated in modern-day Bihar. In 2007, the decision to re-establish Nalanda was taken at the East Asia Summit—an annual forum held by the leaders of 18 countries of the Asia-Pacific region. In 2010, the university was established by a central legislation. The act mandates the constitution of a governing body, which is responsible for its policies, decisions, and the management of its affairs. In 2012, Sen was appointed as the chancellorof the university, and the ex officio chairperson of its governing body. The body comprises 14 members, which also includes five representatives of member states from the East Asia Summit and three renowned academics or educationists. In 2014, the university held its first academic session.

Within a year into the university’s revival, Sen demitted office. He noted in his resignation letter that that he was not appointed as a chancellor for a second term despite the support of the governing body. He wrote: “Non-action is a time-wasting way of reversing a board decision.” He also expressed concern that “academic governance in India remains so deeply vulnerable to the opinions of the ruling government.” Sen continued to be a member of the governing body until November 2016, when the then president Pranab Mukherjee, in his capacity as the visitor of the university, reconstituted the body. The economist was not included in the new list of members. Along with the reconstitution of the board, the president also denied Gopa Sabharwal, the vice chancellor at the time, an extension for another term—though the governing body had already approved it. Within days of Sen’s ouster, the then chancellor George Yeo resignedfrom the position. In a post on Facebook, Yeo said that he was not consulted before the reconstitution of the governing body. He wrote, “I was repeatedly assured that the University would have autonomy. This appears not to be the case now.”

As present, the university’s chancellor is Vijay Bhatkar, the president of Vijnana Bharati—an RSS-affiliated scientific body that, according to its website, aims to “spearhead the Movement for Swadeshi Sciences.” Sunaina Singh, who is also one of the directors of the India Foundation, was appointedvice chancellor in March this year. In 2014, Singh was summoned by the Andhra Pradesh Minorities Commission due to allegations of discrimination by a staffer at the English and Foreign Language University in Hyderabad, where she was the vice chancellor at the time. During her stint with EFLU, Dalit and Adivasi students had alleged that the administration, headed by Singh, discriminated against them. The day after Madhav’s tweet, a report in The Telegraphquoted Singh: “The very title of the course is problematic … Why are we allowing a foreigner to teach the politics of yoga?”

I contacted Sauthoff in mid September, to discuss the discontinuation of her course as well as her experience at Nalanda. Extracts from our subsequent email conversation, which took place over several days, are presented below. In her emails, Sauthoff described several aspects of the university’s functioning.

According to her, the course was discontinued because her “discussion of yoga was threatening to the RSS-linked administration.” She added that she was “never given a reason” for the withdrawal of the letter offering her an extension of her contract. Sauthoff further said the university had not released her last salary and had declined to issue her a no-dues certificate, without which she would not be able to work in India again.

In addition to such “academic censorship,” Sauthoff added, the university also faced other “very real problems” such as the lack of medical facilities, access to doctors, and hygienic cooking facilities. She said that the administration had deliberately overlooked instances of plagiarism that she pointed out to them. Sauthoff added that the RSS was making attempts to use the university to promote its own ideology.

On 18 September, I contacted the university’s spokesperson Saurabh Choudhary for a response regarding Sauthoff’s allegations. Upon his request, I emailed him my queries on the same day. At the time this article was published, Choudhary had not responded.


Sagar: In an email, you said that the government and the university might have found your course “inappropriate,” and described its cancellation as an “assault on academic freedom.”

Patricia Sauthoff: Both the university’s new chancellor, Vijay Bhatkar, and vice chancellor, Sunaina Singh, have close relationships with the RSS. I imagine they felt my course would threaten the RSS-approved narrative of the history of yoga. I also think that looking at their politics within the yoga sphere caused them to feel personally threatened. At my first and only meeting with Singh and the faculty, [in May 2017], she told us that she was “not political but a hardcore nationalist.” Clearly this is a contradiction. She also announced that she wanted to start courses on the “history of science,” which I read as coded for Vedic science, and month-long yoga and meditation intensives for members of the Nalanda student body, faculty, and others.

Publicly saying that the title of my course was “problematic” is itself an assault on academic freedom. By doing this, Singh has not only told the remaining members of the Nalanda faculty that she will speak publicly against them but also that she will determine what can and cannot be taught. Academic freedom relies on academics having the autonomy to teach and discuss ideas that may prove to be inconvenient to authorities and political organisations. Controversial subjects should be avoided only when they are unrelated to the subject at hand.

Singh would likely argue that yoga is not political, but that is false. If that were the case then why is a BJP operative attacking my course on Twitter? Academic freedom means that scholars must be able to teach their subjects without the fear of becoming targets for repression, job loss, or imprisonment. Government officials should not have a say in what is being taught in universities. That is the job of academics, not politicians. As soon as politicians start bragging about the abolishment of courses, they are telling everyone that their freedom to speak and learn is going to be limited to what they pre-approve as appropriate.

S: Do you recall any instances during your time at the univerity when you felt the government was interfering in its functioning?

PS: When the government dismissed Sabharwal and the board, the university was left to flounder. Professor Pankaj Mohan was appointed interim VC and immediately began to leave the faculty out of decisions. We had no idea what was going on except that administrators began to run the place. When Bhatkar was appointed, he came for a groundbreaking ceremony that featured a Hindu rite [Bhatkar held a puja.] This immediately demonstrated that the secular nature of the university was gone.

S: Could you describe other incidents that you thought were “academic censorship”?

PS: Instances of plagiarism were ignored [by the administration] and teachers were gently pressured to pass students who were not up to the academic challenges of the MA [Master of Arts] programme. After the end of my contract, I was asked to mark two papers for my first term class that a student turned in at the end of term two. I protested stating that the papers were due at the end of the first term and that my syllabus clearly stated all papers would lose points for late submission. These were not turned in on time, and therefore the student should not pass. I am still being asked to mark them. This means my final grades and the policies of the university are being ignored.

S: How do you assess Singh and Madhav’s objection to a “foreigner” teaching yoga at the university?

PS: I think it’s absurd. It’s none of Madhav’s business what is being taught at a university. The students of Nalanda are smart adults and have the right to learn whatever interests them. As for the university officials, I think it’s unprofessional and inappropriate for them to speak out in the press against a member of their own faculty—former or current. It undermines the faculty that is still there, surely demotivates them, and makes the university an unpleasant place for anyone who thinks for themselves who might consider applying.

S: Singh also challenged your course itself—she noted, “Why do you inject politics into it?” Was it being taught without the knowledge or approval of the university management?

PS: The course was taught with the knowledge of the university administration. I submitted my syllabus to Dr Ambika Pani [the university’s point-of-contact between the faculty and the administration] on 3 December 2016, nearly a full month before I began to teach the course. Further, the librarian ordered books for the course and needed approval from the administration for purchasing the course materials. A guest lecturer was scheduled to come to Nalanda to speak about the Yoga Sutras in Indonesia and the administration also knew that this lecture would be considered mandatory for my course. Never did anyone raise any issues with the title or content of the course, which was posted on the websiteand included in all schedules [timetables], which were approved of by the administration.

As the acting VC [after Sabharwal’s ouster], Pankaj Mohan was the de facto acting dean of the School of Buddhist Studies, as we did not have a dean. He never held a meeting with us and paid us very little attention. However, as the acting dean and vice chancellor, it was his duty to oversee the curriculum. Had the administration told me I could not teach the course, I would have resigned at the time, but no one said a thing.

As an academic it is not my job to inject politics into anything. It is my job to offer my students the tools to think critically about the world. That world includes people in India and overseas discussing the Modi government's connection to yoga and how that impacts not only Indian, but world politics.

S: Was there anything in particular in your course that could have irked the university administration or the BJP government?

PS: I think my discussion of yoga is threatening to the RSS-linked administration. Nalanda has very strict rules regarding the celebration of religious ceremonies on campus. Students are free to do so, but the university was to remain secular in the spirit of inclusion. This is not conducive to the beliefs of the RSS. In my course, I attempted to present all views equally. I included discussions of cultural appropriation, what it meant for a white woman to teach the course, and had readings that argued for the view that yoga is a Hindu practice and should remain such. Had the administration discussed the course with me, I think they would have found that I did not speak against anyone’s view, was not attempting to change anyone’s practice, but merely started a discussion about the various ways in which people approach yoga in the historical modern world.

This interview has been edited and condensed.