December 12, 2019 4:37:14 am
Following a month-long protest by students of the Faculty of Sanskrit in Banaras Hindu University, newly appointed professor Firoz Khan has had to step away to the Sanskrit programme at the Faculty of Arts.
This is despite the support of several colleagues at the university, including the teacher who had appointed him, who insist that he is perfectly qualified to teach Sanskrit literature, and that his religious affiliation is immaterial. Therefore, the blame for this breach of the fundamental right to freedom conferred by Article 19 of the Constitution, which includes the right to work as one wishes, must rest with the vice-chancellor’s office. Had the BHU administration put its weight resolutely behind Firoz Khan, he would not have been forced to seek alternative employment.
Khan’s case is ironic because the faculty whose students have forced him out was established in 1918 by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, shortly after he founded the BHU, with the purpose of purging society of misconceptions and fundamentalisms in matters of faith and spirit. It was a progressive project for promoting the study of the Sanskrit shastras and literature.
The case is doubly ironic because the study of Sanskrit texts crossed the religious divide centuries ago. Neither the Panchatantra nor ancient Indian mathematics would have reached the rest of the world without the energetic intervention of Central Asian and Middle Eastern translators.
And while Dara Shikoh is remembered for his interest in translating Sanskrit literature into Persian, it was a project patronised by the state repeatedly through the Mughal period. Firoz Khan himself comes from a Sanskrit-literate family. All his siblings are conversant in the language, though not enough to teach, and his father makes a living singing bhajans.
The history of Sanskrit stretches far beyond the footprint of Hinduism, to the Caucasus and the Hellenistic world. It is rich and layered, and cannot be reduced to the stiflingly narrow rubric of religion. If students deny a professor the right to teach Sanskrit literature only because he bears a Muslim name, they do not understand the subject they study.
And if their university bows to their pressure instead of sticking up for the teacher, it is in desperate need of a more broad-minded and courageous administration. Indeed, the administration must bear the brunt of the blame for this incident, since it is presumed — in this case, erroneously — to know better than the student body.
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