Some students of Benares Hindu University (BHU) have been protesting since 7 November against the appointment of post-doctoral scholar Feroze Khan in Sanskrit Vidya Dharm Vijnan.
According to the protesters, a Muslim should not be a teacher in this faculty.
As one of the leaders of the protests, Chakrapani Ojha, put it, “The stone inscription installed in BHU clearly states that no non-Hindu can either study or teach in our department. Then why was a Muslim professor appointed in the faculty?”
Another student who is part of the sit-ins, Shubham Tiwari, went a step farther, “In this department, there are no teachers, all are our gurus. Everyone keeps a choti (tuft of hair on the head), we touch their feet and participate in havan (a ritual). If a Muslim professor is accorded a place in the department, then it will be open discrimination against the students. A Muslim can’t teach us our dharma.”
Furthermore, some Hindu activists see Khan’s appointment from a conspiracy theory lens. Appointing a Muslim lecturer in a Sanskrit department devoted to Hindu studies, according to them, is only the first step. With a typical hop-step-and-jump illogic, they warn that eventually the Muslims will infiltrate and control Hinduism.
As if to clinch their point, they ask why the person concerned hasn’t converted to Hinduism if he is so devoted to Sanskrit and Vedic dharma.
In addition to objections to Khan’s religion, there is also the added accusation that the appointment was rigged. This must be taken up separately.
Before examining each of these claims and arguments, it is important to understand what Sanskrit Vidya Dharm Vijnan (SVDV) is and does.
SVDV, one of the oldest faculties of the university, was started in 1918 by BHU founder and visionary, Madan Mohan Malviya. This faculty is unique in India in that it was set up precisely with the objective of trying to understand Indian knowledge systems from an Indian, shastric, rather than modern Western perspective.
It consists of eight departments — Veda, Vyakaran (grammar), Sahitya (literature), Jyotish (astrology), Vedic Darshan (philosophy), Dharmagam (Dharma-Agama), Dharmashastra and Mimamsa, and Jaina-Bauddha Darshan (Jain-Buddhist philosophy). Each with its own faculty and curricula. Degrees ranging from Bachelor’s to PhD are offered.
Although the faculty was set up to be true to indigenous traditions of scholarship and pedagogy, including the guru-sishya parampara, or the teacher-disciple methodology, Malviya was very keen that it stay abreast with modern knowledge, especially science and technology. As their website says, one of its aims is to “bring about a fruitful dialogue between the East and the West” as well as “remove the pervading misconceptions about religion, spirituality, astrology and Tantras.”
In other words, Malviya envisaged parampara tradition as evolving and capable of change, and not in opposition to modern, scientific knowledge.
Now let us examine the arguments advanced against the appointment of Feroze Khan.
First of all, BHU vice-chancellor Rakesh Bhatnagar, formerly dean of biotechnology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, categorically denies that there is a stone inscription that prohibits non-Hindus from studying or teaching at SVDV. Nor is there any evidence that Malviya did not want non-Hindus to study or teach in SVDV.
Vice-chancellor Bhatnagar clarified that BHU, being a central university, follows the same set of rules as other such institutions: “The [Sanskrit] department had issued an advertisement seeking the appointment of a professor. In that advertisement, it wasn’t mentioned that a person from any specific religion will not be acceptable. One candidate among the final shortlisted applicants was finally appointed with a unanimous decision.”
In fact, Khan was not only selected unanimously, but received the highest rating of those called for the interview. If an appointment is made by a duly constituted selection committee following the laid-down procedures, then the charge of rigging must also be dismissed as lacking substantial basis.
All that now remains to be rebutted is prejudice.
Here, too, facts come to the rescue. Those who argue that Khan as a Muslim must not teach Hindu dharma are doubly mistaken. Because he has not been appointed to teach in the Veda, Darshan or Mimamsa departments, but in Sahitya or literature.
So what if he does not wear a choti (tuft) or vajnopavit (sacred thread)? If Khan is knowledgeable, sincere, and inspiring, why should students hesitate to touch his feet? If that is how they wish to express their reverence or respect?
Should Khan convert to Hinduism if he is to teach Sanskrit? That is up to him, but it cannot be a demand or precondition. His faith is his own; he is free to practise it. That is guaranteed by our Constitution.
Now to the counter-question, can Hindus teach the Quran or Islam? The answer is yes. That is how it ought to be. At least in India. No Muslim should oppose it if a similar appointment were made, say, in Arabic or Islamic Studies at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).
However, the above question is irrelevant. Khan’s appointment is not conditional upon something similar or reciprocal at another Indian university.
Finally, the conspiracy theory that this is part of some larger design to destabilise or take over Hinduism.
To such zealots, scare-mongers, or insecure activists, there is little to say really. Except to point out that Khan’s father sings bhajans to protect cows and Khan himself quotes Sanskrit shlokas to show that Sanatana Dharma is for everyone, not just Hindus.
The protestors should not only give up their protest, but welcome Khan with open arms—or should I say folded hands—to the SVDV faculty.
The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His views are personal. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe.