Muslim induction has BHU stretching ‘secular’ charter to limits

Anyone with the slightest misgiving on the oft heard vociferation that Hindus are the worst enemies of Hindus need to updates themselves on the latest farce being enacted within the august precincts of the Banaras Hindu University.

Students of the varsity’s Sanskrit Vidya Dharma Vigyan (SVDV) faculty have for the last fortnight been holding a round-the-clock dharna in protest against the appointment of a Muslim assistant professor (Feroze Khan) to its Sahitya (literature) wing. Classes have been suspended. Their grouse: How can a man living off Islamic fundamentals instruct and illuminate them on matters integral to Sanatana Dharma? Charges of bigotry against the protesting students have been flying thick and fast on the plea that since BHU has a secular charter, the religion of the appointee has no bearing on his innate capacity to impart instruction.

That a number of Muslims, admittedly, have served the cause of Sanskrit in the past, and continue to cannot be denied. On easy recall is the name of the octogenarian Mumbai-based Sanskrit savant, Pandit Ghulam Dastgir Birajdar, whose command over the Vedas and Puranas held the Shankaracharyas in awe. It brought him to the notice of Indira Gandhi, and promptly got him a position. The Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) too holds him in respect. The pandit has a son and daughter, both Sanskrit scholars.

Naheed Abidi, who was conferred the Padma Shri in 2014, has the distinction of the being the first Muslim woman to become a Sanskrit scholar. Hailing from a family of zamindars in Mirzapur, she teaches at the Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth. Abdi has translated a number of Persian classics in Sanskrit. Not to be forgotten is Pandit Syed Hussain Shastri of Malihabad (near Lucknow) to whom Sanskrit is the most beautiful language in the world. Their worldview on Sanskrit, however, is varied. While Birajdar thinks that the learning of Sanskrit cannot be confined to Brahmins, Hussain opined Sanskrit sans its Brahminic roots held little worth.

SVDV insiders told this writer on condition of anonymity that they had no problems with a Muslim teaching Sanskrit per se. Mr Khan could jolly well have been appointed in the Sanskrit department of the Arts faculty where the teaching of the language was more universal. Students there are taught a little bit of everything from Sanskrit grammar to philosophy to literature.

Forcing him down their throats at the SVDV, however, violated the foundational principles of the institution where all six auxiliary disciplines under the umbrella of Hindu Dharma are taught in exhaustive detail. The SVDV is to the sanatana tradition what Dar-ul-uloom Deoband is to Sunni Muslims. The course and method of teaching is intertwined with everyday dharmic practices. That is how it was conceived by BHU founder Madan Mohan Malviya in 1918. He wanted the pedagogical orientation to be a close approximation to the ideals of our ancient rishis.

A plaque outside the faculty building makes it crystal clear that right of entry into the bhavan is restricted to Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs. And that its facilities were to be exclusively used for their religious and cultural meets, debates and discussions. Degree hunters don’t just seek a passport to a job. Sanskrit to them is the road to a more grounded life rooted in ancient values and well beyond the confines of material pursuits.

The course comprises papers in Vaidic darshan, Veda Vyakaran, Sahitya, Jyotish, Jain-Baudha darshan, Mimansa dharmshastra, Sahitya, and Dharmangama. Teaching is detailed with each dharmic text being studied in entirety. The discipline and dedication required from both teacher and taught can only be expected from those born into Indic culture, those living and breathing its conventions. In short a sanatana dharmi. Not students of comparative religion or the much touted ganga-jamuni tehzeeb which came much later. Birajdar, for instance, espouses the decoupling of language with religion. He says the Vedas and the Quran have much in common, and that language should not be used as a political tool, something easier said than done.

SVDV currently has around 400 students. A good many come to classes wearing a dhoti-kurta with a tilak adorning their forehead. Exactly as a brahmin would. The more conservative among them keeps a choti (pony tail). Their garb and bearing denote the karmshetra they have chosen in life just as the attire of a Deobandi is indicative of his calling. Will Mr. Khan slip into saffron or do a sun-salutation (surya namaskar), much less participate or perform in Vedic rituals? Teaching at the SVDV is just a job for him, not his existence.

Student leaders say Khan may have ticked all the requirements (save his religious background) for the post. But his selection smacks of irregularity. Why he was preferred over nine others is inexplicable given his poor understanding of Vedangas. The suspicion is that he was pushed to favour a former VC of the Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan. Khan was his factotum. He acted in the plays directed by the VC.

Be that as it may. What the bust-up has done is to bring out the fault lines in Hindu consolidation. Community leaders are either blissfully unaware of the long-term harm being caused to their dharmic interests or are all too willing to play into the hands of their conspirators. BHU VC Rakesh Bhatnagar, a former JNU dean, has still to see reason. His secular credentials may come in the way. Should the students protest fail, it is bound to set a bad precedent.


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About the Author

Sudhir K Singh
Sudhir K Singh is an independent journalist who has worked in senior editorial positions in the Times Of India, Asian Age, Pioneer, and the Statesman. Also a sometime stage and film actor who has worked with iconic directors like Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha. He will be writing regularly for the Hindu Post as consulting editor.