In 2017, the churn in Banaras Hindu University (BHU) mirrored the conflicts between students and university authorities in institutions of higher education across the country. The protests then were sparked by an alleged incident of eve teasing but soon became about the larger issue of discrimination based on gender, caste and class. Like elsewhere, BHU’s students were demanding that the university become a more equal and open space. The BHU was at the forefront of the anti-colonial struggle and the early efforts to build a modern India, and the students were keeping that legacy alive. Over the last week, however, a section of students from the Sanskrit literature department have displayed an attitude that goes against the grain of all BHU has stood for.
Students of the Sanskrit literature department have been protesting the appointment on November 6 of Firoz Khan as an assistant professor. Khan holds a BA, BEd, MA and PhD from Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan in Jaipur and was appointed to the post in line with the University Grant Commission’s guidelines. But he cannot teach at the department, according to the protestors, because he is a Muslim. The vice chancellor and other university authorities have said that Khan’s appointment cannot be rescinded on the grounds the students are demanding. But what of the students themselves? Sanskrit is not, as they appear to believe, the province of “Aryans”, but rather, the means to a rich store of historical and philosophical knowledge that belongs to no single community or religion, but to all. The fact that Sanskrit scholarship in India has widened to a point where people from every community are involved in its study and growth ought to be a matter of pride.
In various periods in India’s history, the university has been a contested space. There are now, in India’s public universities, a plethora of voices from hitherto marginalised groups that often make the powers-that-be uncomfortable. Students have, by and large, demanded that the university become a more egalitarian space — in terms of representation, access and protocols and practices in hostels. To insist that people from a particular religion not be allowed into a department of one of India’s most prestigious universities is a demand to make it a space more regressive than society at large, not less. Hopefully, the students and scholars at the Sanskrit department will soon course correct.