By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
23 November 2019
Support is pouring in from unexpected sources, including the BHU Chancellor, for Feroz Khan facing protests by ABVP against his appointment in the Sanskrit department
The appointment of Firoz Khan in the department of Sanskrit, Banaras Hindu University, should have been welcomed by one and all. After all, in an age where less and less students are opting for Sanskrit, here is a man, from a different religion, who had not just studied the language but also excelled in it. He was duly selected through a selection panel chaired by the vice chancellor of the university and amongst all the candidates who appeared for the interview, he was found the most suitable. Unlike many other appointments in universities these days where networks of religion, caste and political patronage play an important part, here was a candidate who was selected purely because of his merit. While he must be congratulated for his success, those who selected him also must be congratulated for their sheer defiance of the religiously compartmentalised world in which we live today. Before turning to why there is so much ruckus over his appointment, let us first remember what good has come out of this controversy.
First things first. It is heartening to note that the selection committee including the administration of the Banaras Hindu University has come out openly in support of Firoz. It is also good to hear that leading lights of Sanskrit have come on record to say that the language is not bound by the confines of religion and birth. It is also very good to know that students of the university have marched in favour of Firoz and have come down heavily against what they have called as the ‘communalisation of appointment’. All of this must gladden the heart of Firoz and reassure him that if and when he decides to join the university, there will always be people who will support him. Last but not the least, it is heartening to see that important Hindu organizations like the VHP and the RSS have not opposed his selection. Similarly, right wing ideologues have also slammed the protestors condemning them for targeting Firoz because of his religion. They have argued that teaching of Sanskrit should not be linked to any religion and that a Muslim has excelled in that language should be a cause of celebration rather than an occasion to play politics. All this is certainly heartening amidst the gloominess of our political polarization.
But what are the students objecting to? Their argument is that since Firoz is a Muslim, he cannot teach Hindu religion, which they argue is part of the Sanskrit program. If one checks the website of the department, then certainly one does not get that feeling. The department of Sanskrit teaches courses which are mostly in literature and grammar. However, this is not denying the claims that students are making. It is entirely possible that there are some specialized centres within that department which may be teaching Hinduism, especially Vedic rituals which might not reflect on the website of the department.
However, the moot question is why a Muslim cannot teach such a course. Is it necessary that the concerned person has to be a Hindu necessarily to teach Hinduism? There are certainly many departments of religious studies and comparative religions which teach basics of religion as part of their program. But nowhere in the world is there any requirement that the teacher concerned has to be from a particular religion. All that the authorities look for is the required competency. I think students are making a fundamental mistake here: Teaching a subject is not akin to practicing it. Even within social sciences, the teacher is bound to tell the students all the perspectives, some of which the teacher may actively detest personally. Firoz will only teach the subject or aspects of a ritual, he is certainly not engaging in conducting religious rituals in the house of Hindus. Students and full time television Hindu right wing commentators who are asking whether Aligarh Muslim University will allow this in its Theology department need to furnish proof that any Hindu (or a person of any other religion) applied for any post there and that he/she was denied the post because of his/her religion.
In India, all faculty appointments happen through a selection committee which is comprised of important members of the university administration as well as experts in the discipline. The list of the selected candidates is then sent to the executive council of the university where members can flag off issues in case there is any problem. At no stage in the appointment of Firoz, there was any dissent from those who selected him or from the university authorities. Certainly the selectors must have pondered over this question but they eventually cleared his name and appointed him. Are the students suggesting that each and every member of the selection panel and the university administration were in error? Are these students suggesting that only they can decide who can be appointed as professors in their department? Student politics is certainly important and it should be encouraged, but this is for the first time that we see that students are putting a veto over the appointment of a teacher!
The students are citing a charter drafted by the founder of BHU, Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, to claim that only Hindus should be appointed for the said post. The problem with this argument is that the times of Pandit Malviya are over. The BHU is today run as per the norms of modern universities drafted by the University Grants Commission. As a central university, BHU today is bound by government of India rules. Whatever Malviya may have written applied during the pre-Independence period but if it runs contrary to contemporary ethos, then is should be discarded. These students must realise that times have changed and with it religions have also been forced to change. There was a time when low castes and women were not allowed to get educated. But today these sections access education and some even become professors. Is it the case of these students that the appointments of lower castes and women as faculty members should be opposed too? Hinduism has been enriched by various influences. The myopia which defines the Hinduism of these students does no help either to their intellect or to their religion.
It cannot be ruled out that there must be some internal departmental politics which must be pushing these students in this direction. In times where teaching positions are becoming scarce, the appointment of a person belonging to a different caste or religion might have displeased some vested interests in the department. They must have egged on these students to make this into a political issue. Considering that there has been a creation of an ‘anti-Muslim public sphere’ in this country, those vested interests must have thought that they would get a sympathetic ear by raising this issue. If this is true, then it is indeed sad that teachers of the department are using their own students for their nefarious ends. This must be condemned in no uncertain terms.
Like I said before, it is heartening that Firoz has got support from the university and even a large number of students from other departments. He has also got a sympathetic hearing from the media. However, there is no need for the ‘liberal media’ to point out that Firoz’s father sings Sanskrit Bhajans and maintains a cow shelter. This almost seems like the media’s support is dependent on his father being not a very ‘strict Muslim’. Certainly Firoz did not get this job because his father knows Sanskrit and composes Hindu devotional songs. We need to support Firoz irrespective of the social location of his family.
Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com