In a Different India, BHU Sanskrit Professor Firoz Khan Would Have Been Celebrated, Not Insulted

Social Commentary

In a Different India, BHU Sanskrit Professor Firoz Khan Would Have Been Celebrated, Not Insulted

Illustration: Siddhakanksha Mishra

Mughal emperor Akbar is said to have spent time studying the Upanishads under the tutelage of Brahmin pandits from Banaras. This was centuries ago, during Akbar’s reign from 1556 to 1605, but nobody at the time seemed to have a problem with a Muslim ruler being instructed in Sanskrit, the language of the Hindu holy texts. 

Yet, somehow, hundreds of years later in a supposedly modern world, the story has changed. Students at Benaras Hindu University are not pleased with being instructed in Sanskrit because their professor, Firoz Khan, is a Muslim. These are the confusing circumstances that are surrounding the second-most talked about student protest in the country at the moment (the first obviously being the protest at JNU, also known as Republic TV’s favourite bogeyman).

At JNU, the protests are being carried out for the underprivileged, by the underprivileged, against hostel fee hikes. Meanwhile, at BHU the dynamic is slightly different – by which I mean the protestors’ grievances are completely invalid, not to mention unconstitutional. Professor Firoz Khan is a citizen of India, BHU is a central university; all appointments made therein should be free of prejudice against a person’s gender, caste, colour, orientation, or religion. And yet prejudice seems to be the only basis for those protesting against Khan’s appointment as assistant professor in BHU’s Sanskrit department. “To teach Sanskrit you have to be a Hindu,” a student protestor said. “We will only give exams when our religion is protected. Our religion and culture are in trouble,” added another.

BHU itself has officially backed Khan’s appointment to the professorial position, soon after the protests first broke out at the university on November 5. Even after being advised by BHU authorities to stand down, the students refused to budge. No classes have been held since Khan joined the faculty on November 7. The premise of their argument is that Khan, as a “non-Hindu”, is not qualified to teach Sanskrit to the university’s students, and that his appointment went against the “soul and spirit” of the institution. “Non-Hindu” is a convenient dog-whistle; an evasive way to say that Khan should be denied the job for being Muslim, according to these protestors, whose leaders include members of BJP-affiliated student political body ABVP. Historian and author Rajesh Kochhar stated in a column that if the “non-Hindu” professor were European instead of Muslim, the same protestors would have been indifferent, if not approving, of his outsider status.

The greatest tragedy is that most readers will probably remember a time when Khan – a Muslim professor from Rajasthan teaching Sanskrit to a largely Hindu student body at a central government university in Uttar Pradesh – would have been celebrated as the living embodiment of India’s diversity and tolerance, something this country prides itself on. Or used to, at least. It’s right there in the Preamble to the Constitution. “Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; equality of status and opportunity”. So why should Khan have to face a protest from a student body just because he is not a Hindu?

In the world’s largest democracy, a fully qualified professor has had to go into hiding, just because his faith system didn’t align with his job title.

A couple of years ago, a Muslim girl was applauded for topping the Ramayana exam. Only last year, a Muslim woman translated Ramayana in Urdu to raise awarness among her community about the goodness of Hindu dieties.

India’s religious minorities have historically punched above their weight as far as contributions to politics, arts, sciences, and sports are concerned, and the nation’s social and cultural fabric is richer for it. Even right-wing sympathiser Paresh Rawal agrees. But somehow today, in the world’s largest democracy, a fully qualified professor has had to go into hiding as per news reports, just because his faith system didn’t align with his job title.

It’s a travesty, as Khan is highly qualified to do his job well. Reports mentioned that BHU interviewed 10 candidates before choosing Khan, and also that he received the Rajasthan government’s Sanskrit Yuva Prathiba Samman award. No wonder BHU Vice-Chancellor Rakesh Bhatnagar and Khan’s fellow faculty members have spoken out in support of his appointment. But oddly, despite the protests having lasted 11 days at this point, the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development, which oversees BHU, has remained silent. And BHU lies within PM Modi’s constituency of Varanasi, which makes it doubly odd.

I know precious little of classic Sanskrit literature to offer a fitting quote for this scenario. What I do know is gangsta rap, so allow me to paraphrase a line from 2Pac to describe it – maybe if Khan’s detractors took the time to hear him, they could learn to cheer him. In an interview with Indian Express, Khan said, “I started learning Sanskrit since Class 2… In fact, I don’t know as much Quran as I know Sanskrit literature. Prominent Hindus in my area praised me for my knowledge of Sanskrit and its literature despite being a Muslim.” If it weren’t so disturbing, it would be funny how India’s right-wingers constantly complain about how Hindu culture is under threat from minorities, only to protest when a member of a minority expresses a keen interest in and displays expert knowledge of Hindu culture.

Perhaps Khan, with his lifelong fascination with ancient Sanskrit texts, spent too much time buried in the past. This is a new, different India now. There was undoubtedly a time when a Muslim professor of Sanskrit would have been celebrated as the intellectual he very obviously is. But sadly, like the texts that Khan had hoped to be reading with students at BHU, that time is now history.