Amidst the incessant hum of Sanskrit shlokas on the sprawling campus of Rajakiya Varishth Upadhyay Sanskrit Vidyalaya in Bagru, around 30 km from Jaipur, there is perceptible unease. One of its most well-known alumni, Firoze Khan, has not been able to take up his post as Assistant Professor, Sanskrit, at Banaras Hindu University, on account of his religion.
At this government Sanskrit school, where around 20-30 per cent students are Muslims and which is regarded as one of the best institutions in these parts, teachers and parents are dismayed at what the controversy means for their wards.
“Karam ka dharma se koi lena-dena nahin hota (Work has nothing to do with religion),” says Abdul Qayum, a daily wager, whose two children, Bilal, 10, and Muskaan Bano, 13, study at the school. “Bilal can recite the Quran Sharif by heart and is equally proficient in Sanskrit,” he adds.
But now, he is worried: “We thought that after getting a good education, they can lead a better life, maybe become teachers. But seeing what happened to Firoze, we are not sure… What’s the use of studying Sanskrit? My children can’t pursue it as a career.”
The school has around 300 students from classes 1 to 12, with its middle school and senior secondary buildings located adjacent to the village’s Jama Masjid. With students drawn from the alleys around the mosque, as well as from nearby villages, the school imparts two formal levels of Sanskrit education, Praveshika and Varishth Upadhyay, says Principal Yogendra Kumar Sharma.
“People trust the school to give their children a good education along with cultural
values,” he says, talking about its history and alumni who have gone on to become judicial officers, professors and Sanskrit scholars.
The municipality of Bagru has two other senior secondary schools, one for boys and another for girls, apart from around 10 private schools. There are Sanskrit schools too, but those are around 18 km away. But the 60-year-old Rajakiya Varishth Upadhyay Sanskrit Vidyalaya is one of the oldest, and among the most reputed.
Says Ashok Yogi, Assistant Director, Sanskrit Education Department, “Many students from minority communities study at these schools and a large number of them apply to be teachers at the Rajakiya school as it is a government job and is in high demand.”
The walls of the single-storey building are painted with names of famous Sanskrit poets Kalidasa, Magha and Banabhatta. The students study Sanskrit literature as well as grammar.
“When I was a child, people used to talk about how both Hindus and Muslims had helped get land for the school,” says Babu Qureshi, a resident.
Abdul Majid, whose 13-year-old son Abdul studies here, is worried the controversy will affect him. “I am illiterate. We send our children to school so that they can make a better life for themselves. But if Muslims can’t study Sanskrit, we will have to think twice before sending our children here,” says Majid.
Dinesh Kumar Sharma, 55, a teacher at the school, says Firoze was his student. “On each of his trips home, Firoze makes it a point to visit the school, and touches my feet. Education and religion should not be allowed to mix,” says Sharma. “We don’t understand why a Muslim teaching Sanskrit is seen as strange. We have had Muslim teachers, it’s a language anybody can learn.”
Ramswaroop Kumawat, 60, also a former student of the school, says Firoze’s father Ramzan was his classmate. “Ramzan used to be a very good bhajan singer. These days, he spends most of his time singing at local temples or programmes.”
In school, on occasions to mark August 15 and Sanskrit Diwas, Firoze is often held up as the “ideal student”. Having just finished reciting the Deep Jyoti, an ode to light that is a favourite among students, Mohammad Salman, who is in Class 8, says he has decided what he wants to be when he grows up: “I want to become the school principal.”