Sheldon Pollock
Sheldon Pollock (right) has been criticised for signing a petition relating to the JNU row that has been ongoing for weeks in India Sathyavrath/Wikimedia Commons

On 3 March a petition calling for American scholar Sheldon Pollock to be removed from a Harvard University project had gathered nearly 14,000 signatures. Started by an Indian academic in Mumbai, the petition questions Pollock's role as chief editor of a Harvard University Press book series on Indian languages.

Pollock has been appointed to head the Murty Classical Library of India project, which will see ancient Indian language works translated into English. While the petition against Pollock notes that this is a "landmark project", thousands have taken to social media to oppose his participation in the scheme.

IBTimes UK rounds up everything you need to know about Sheldon Pollock and the momentum gaining against him in India.

Who is Sheldon Pollock?

Sheldon Pollock is currently a professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University. He is well known in the academic circles as a scholar of the ancient Sanskrit language and the history of India. He is the founding editor of the Murty Classical Library of India and was editor of the Clay Sanskrit Library, a series of books published by New York University Press and the JJC Foundation that saw Sanskrit texts translated into English. Pollock has also worked on a number of other projects relating to the Sanskrit language and Indian history.

The scholar has been awarded with the Andrew W Mellon Distinguished Achievement Award, as well as one of the most prestigious awards granted by the Government of India, the Padma Shri Award.

Why are Indians petitioning against his involvement with the Murty Classical Library of India?

According to the petition against Pollock, some Indians say that a historical project such as this one should be carried out by scholars who have a "sense of respect and empathy" for Indian civilisation. The petition disregards Pollock as being able to fill this description, saying that he has "deep antipathy towards many of the ideals and values cherished and practiced" in Indian culture.

The petition states that Pollock should be removed from the programme due to not being "politically neutral". Professor Ganesh Ramakrishnan, professor at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering the Indian Institute of Technology, started the petition and claims that "Pollock has been a prominent signatory of several statements which are of a purely political nature and devoid of any academic merit".

In reference to this, Professor Ramakrishnan cites "statements [that] have condemned various policies and actions of the government of India". One of the main concerns appears to be Pollock's signature on a recent statement released by US academics condemning the arrest of a student leader at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in February.

India has been divided over the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, who was accused on charges of sedition due to alleged involvement in "anti-national slogans" chanted at a university event. The arrest sparked an intense debate over nationalism versus freedom of expression, with academics from around the world raising concern over a crackdown on freedom of speech in India.

The petition against Pollock stated: "We find that Pollock is a prominent signatory of two recent statements released by US academicians condemning the actions of the JNU authorities and the government of India... He has shown utter indifference and disrespect for the democratic values and even the international norms of non-interference in the internal functioning of constitutional representative institutions in other countries."

The petition also raises concerns that Pollock has removed the sacred meaning behind the Sanskrit texts by allegedly believing that they "serve no contemporary purpose except for the study of how Indians express themselves".

What are the demands of the petition against Pollock?

While calling on Pollock to "petition against his own USA government's authoritative policies", Professor Ramakrishnan and the petition's signatories are also calling on project founder Rohan Murty to implement a number of changes to the project. They call for:

  • A "fair representation" of the lineages and people that teach and practice the traditions described in the texts that are being translated as part of the project.
  • Abandon the project as entirely being produced by "American Ivy Leagues". Instead, they ask for the project to be included as a part of the "Make In India" project, a scheme started by the Indian government to promote Indian culture. The petition states: "This would entail developing an entire ecosystem of India-based research, translations, journals and conferences. These would be run by leading Indian academics as well as traditional practitioners."
  • Implement a set of written "standards and policies" for the translation project.

How did the founder of the project, Rohan Murty, respond?

Shortly after the petition began to go viral, Murty responded in overwhelming support for the American scholar.

According to the Economic Times, Murty confirmed that Pollock would stay on the project and said: "It is quite rich to sit in the peanut gallery, pass comments and throw empty shells at those who are actually rolling their sleeves up and working on the ground."