Their faculty is at the centre of a national debate, they themselves are the subject of headlines and censure. A ground report from the SVDV faculty at BHU talking to the protesting students
At the heart of the story is this question: what precisely was founder Madan Mohan Malviya’s vision for the SVDV faculty and what message does the present BHU administration needs to give out
Inside the striking cream-and-red building of Sanskrit Vidya Dharma Vijnan (SVDV) Sankaya – one of the eight faculties in Banaras Hindu University – pictures of Hindu deities and Vedic shlokas adorn the many pillars and walls. Teachers are referred to as gurujis - not only as a respectful gesture but for their accepted qualification to teach Vedic rituals – and they wear dhoti-kurtas.
Nearly all the students and teachers sport a shikha, a lock of hair on the back of the head that, traditionally, is mandated for anyone reciting Vedic mantras.
Some religious rituals are considered mandatory for all teachers and students in SVDV.
They are expected to daily perform the Sandhyavandanam -- the recitation of mantras accompanied by rituals in the morning and evening -- and the Shravani Upakarma, a ritual performed on the ghat of a sacred river.
It is expected of anyone performing these rituals that he has undergone a Yagnopavit ceremony (an initiation into Hindu religion through sacred thread or janeu, typically before the age of 15).
Instead of chairs and tables, the classrooms have wooden beds on which the students and the gurus sit.
Right at the entrance, a stone plaque built in a wall reads, ‘Rule: This building of Sanskrit Mahavidyalayam is meant only for Hindus (including Sanatanis, Arya Samajis, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs etc) to hold their religious festivals, kirtans, and discussions about history and Shastras (translated by this correspondent from image below)’.
The culture in this ‘faculty of theology’ is evidently and strongly seeped in traditional Hindu religion.
In this, enters Firoze Khan as assistant professor. Students erupt in protest, with ample support – both tacit and open – from teachers. ‘A Khan doesn’t belong here’ -- is the undercurrent of all objections against his recruitment.
Khan Has Not Joined As A Sanskrit Teacher
Contrary to many misleading reports, Khan has not been recruited as a Sanskrit teacher. He has been taken in the faculty’s Sahitya (literature) department.
Sahitya is one of the eight departments in the faculty, the others being Veda, Vyakaran, Jyotish, Vaidik Darshan, Dharmagam, Dharmashastra and Mimansa, and Jain-Bauddha Darshan.
For nearly all these departments, Sanskrit is the primary medium of education as the textbooks are written in that language.
Strictly speaking, Khan will teach ancient Sanskrit literary works that are part of or inspired by Hindu religious texts. These comprise works in Kavya, Alankar and Natya, such as Kādambari, Naisadhiyacaritam, Shishupala Vadha, Rasa Ganga Dhara and Abhigyan Shakuntalam.
Most texts are from New Delhi-based publisher Chaukhamba Sanskrit Pratishthan.
Students Are Not Against Khan Teaching Sanskrit
Students first raised objections against Khan in a letter to the centre’s Ministry of Human Resource Development on 9 November. The letter said that a recruitment in the SVDV faculty, finalised on 5 November, was wrong and discriminatory.
“Recruitment of a non-Sanatani in SVDV is an attempt not only to destroy BHU founder Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya’s dreams but also to spark religious enmity (as translated),” the unsigned letter, on behalf of “all students of SVDV’’, said.
“The recruitment process reeks of favouritism. The selected candidate has been a student of an external in the selection committee, which is against rules. This selection must be cancelled,” it further said.
Over a hundred students then sat on dharna outside the building that houses the office of the Vice-Chancellor Rakesh Bhatnagar, with posters saying ‘V-C murdabad’ and ‘Kulpati teri taanashahi nahi chalegi’ (Vice-Chancellor, your dictatorship won’t work). The building gates were closed, with several security guards nearby.
When this correspondent visited the campus on 21 and 22 November, many of the students were seen reciting Hanuman Chalisa on beats of dholak to show their protest.
Many publications that got the trigger of the controversy wrong, also got the demands of the students wrong.
Students are not against Firoze Khan teaching Sanskrit in BHU. Instead, they have been demanding his transfer to another faculty s- either to the Arts faculty, which has a Sanskrit department or to some other faculty where Sanskrit is a medium.
In fact, as per a report, Khan has now applied for the post of assistant professor in Faculty of Ayurveda’s Samhita and Sanskrit department.
Students’ demand for inter-faculty transfer, however, has been made only verbally, through slogans and statements to the media. In their 21 November letters to the V-C and the Sahitya department head, Umakant Chaturvedi, students raised entirely different questions.
To the Vice-Chancellor:
- In this recruitment, what short-listing criteria of the University Grants Commission (UGC) has the university used?
- Has the university followed the faculty rules?
- Has the university followed the BHU Act?
To the Sahitya department head, two additional questions have been asked:
- In this recruitment, did the department short-list candidates using the same process as in other departments?
- Did the short-listing process consider the rules of the department concerning Sanatan Dharma?
As is evident, the protestors’ written objection to BHU is only on the selection process. BHU’s Chief Proctor, OP Rai, who is from the Faculty of Commerce, told this correspondent that the administration does not recognise any department’s internal traditions or rules, and is answerable only on fairness in recruitment.
The two-week-long dharna was called off on November 22 after the V-C asked for ten days to answer the students’ questions.
The protestors, however, maintain that only the dharna, and not the protest, has been halted. They continue to boycott all classes. Khan, they said, has not come to the university after his day of joining.
Why The Students Do Not Want Khan In SVDV
In the absence of a common written statement, those leading the protest are sharing their reasons with the media.
Besides suspicion of foul play in the selection, their reasons primarily include founder Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya’s stated aim to maintain the all-Hindu character of faculty, the suspicion that Khan will break the sacred traditions – “parampara” -- of SVDV, and Khan’s Islamic faith being inherently against Sanatan Dharma.
Chakrapani Ojha, a PhD student in Vedic Darshan department at the forefront of the protest, has cited several documents to substantiate the claim that Malaviya wanted the theology faculty only for Hindus.
One, the first proposal for BHU by Malaviya in 1904.
The document states that “a Hindu university will be established at Benaras under the name of Bharatiya Vishvavidyalaya", which will have many colleges including the Vedic college (today, it is SVDV).
The clauses say:
- That the Vedic college and all religious work of the university be under the control of Hindus who accept and follow the principles of the Santana Dharma as laid down in the Srutis, Smritis and Puranas
- That admission to this college be regulated with the rules of Varnasrama Dharma
- That all other colleges be open to students of all creeds; and the secular branches of Sanskrit learning be also taught without the restriction of caste and creed.
Students claim that the clauses reveal Malaviya’s purpose of keeping SVDV all-Hindu. However, some commentators differ.
A piece in Firstpost has argued that the proposal “seems to be on following the tenets of the caste system for admission to the college” and rules for recruitment of teachers do not exclude other religions.
The Firstpost piece says,
Malaviya says in the prospectus that “the services of the most competent teachers should be secured, whether they be foreigners or Indians, to impart instruction in the different branches of learning at the university”. This reference to foreigners should be read in the context that many Sanskrit scholars at the time were Europeans. Europeans who weren’t Hindu.
The Theological department of the Sanskrit College shall be under the control of the Faculty of Theology which shall be elected, under rules to be framed, by the Board of Trustees, by such members of the Society as accept the principles of the Hindu religion as inculcated by the Shastras.
Ojha says this proves that Malaviya wanted to keep the faculty all-Hindu.
Three, the un-amended BHU Act of 1915.
Section 23 says,
1. The University shall include the Faculties of (1) Oriental Learning, (2) Theology (3) Arts (4) Science, Pure and Applied, (5) Law, and, as soon as the Visitor is satisfied that sufficient funds are available for the purpose, of (6) Technology, (7) Commerce, (8) Medicine and Surgery, (9) Agriculture, and other Faculties.
2. The Senate shall annually assign its members to the different Faculties.
3. The method of assignment of members to the Faculties, the meetings of the Faculties, and their power of co-opting additional members shall be provided for by Regulations;
Provided that the members assigned to the Faculty of Theology shall all be Hindus
Ojha, and other commentators such as Hariprasad N writing for Indiafacts, say that this stipulation made it mandatory for the faculty of the Theology department to belong to the Hindu religion.
The University, however, has maintained that the current BHU Act, after several amendments made in 1951, 1958, 1966 and 1969, contains no such exclusion and Khan’s recruitment cannot be challenged under the Act.
As Hariprasad N points out,
“The amendment introduced in 1966 (The Banaras Hindu University (Amendment) Act, 1966) reworked the entire Section 23 of the Schedule of the Act and omitted the clause which mandated the reservation of the posts of faculty in the Theology department to just Hindus. As the BHU Act stands today, there is no provision for restricting the faculty posts to Hindus.”
Students do realise that their legal argument may not stand scrutiny. They say that it is the duty of the administration to follow the Act in spirit if not in letter. “Why do we even have a separate theology department if it is to be treated like a regular Sanskrit department?” they ask.
They say their agitation is to preserve long-held traditions.
Ojha told this correspondent, “Will Firoze follow our traditions? We see no reason why he will. Our traditions are rooted in Sanatan Dharma. His faith will not allow him to.”
“We can’t force it on him either. Article 21 of the Constitution allows personal liberty,” he said.
Ojha says if Firoze agrees to follow all the sacred traditions, students will accept him as a guru.
Asked why they assume that Firoze would not follow the traditions, Ojha said, “His father recently gave a statement to the media that he wished he had made his son not teach Sanskrit but open a chicken shop. You see, after claiming to study Sanskrit for generations, they still have meat on their mind.”
When mentioned that Khan’s younger brother and father Ramjan Khan also studied Sanskrit and Ramjan is reported to have sung bhajans to raise money for gaushalas, a student said, “That does not prove that the family believes in our Sanatan sanskriti. Why did Ramjan give an Arabic name to his son and not a Sanskrit name?”
Ojha added, “Firoze knows our objections very well, but he has not given a statement in the media that he will follow our traditions. Instead, he has said that the texts in our Sahitya syllabus have nothing to do with religion.”
Asked what if a Hindu teacher refuses to follow their traditions, Ojha said, “You people are not understanding. This is a faculty dedicated to teaching and learning of Sanatan Dharma. Why will such a Hindu bother to come here? If he does, we will show him the door too.”
“This vyaaparikaran [commercialisation] of our dharma will not be allowed.”
Rammohan Shukla, another student, asked, “Do we have a dearth of Hindu gurus to teach us dharma that we have to import them from other religions?”
Shukla said the students will accept Khan if he formally converts to the Hindu religion.
“We insist on learning our religion from gurus who follow our religion,” he said.
Ojha agreed. “Hamari vichardhara Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam ki hai na ki Hindu Muslim bair ki. Ban jaye wo Sanatani [We believe in the principle of world is one family’ and not Hindu-Muslim division. He can become a Sanatani],” he said.
“If he can’t, then there are plenty of other Sanskrit departments in BHU,” he said.
Shashikant Mishra, another student leading the protests, said that the Faculty produces purohits, acharyas and religious leaders of the stature of Shankaracharyas and so its culture must be preserved.
“We bathe early morning and worship even our shikha. We apply Chandan and tilak. We chant Gayatri mantra twice in the day. We sit on chowki and study in the guru-shishya tradition. Why should be learn from someone who follows none of this,” he said.
An undergraduate student, who did not wish to be named, commented, “We will be chanting Gayatri Mantra and our teacher will be reading Quran. Does it make any sense in a Hindu theology department?”
Mishra reiterated that no student is against Khan learning or teaching Sanskrit. “How can we? We ourselves teach Sanskrit to foreigners who follow other religions,” he said.
Some students said that Khan’s faith is in direct contradiction to the core beliefs of the Sahitya based on Hindu theology that Khan will be teaching. “For Muslims, Allah is the only god and Mohammad the only true messenger. Their faith makes them anti-Sanatan that believes in idol worship, nature worship and karm-kaand. These are fundamental differences. Let Khan give up his anti-Sanatan ideology first.”
Are Students Exhibiting Religious Intolerance?
There are no clear answers to this. Exclusion is in-built in religions. Tenets and traditions of a religion are meant for followers of that religion. Outsiders can learn the tenets or traditions as students, but do we see them replace religious heads and teachers?
Several students said that a Khan can join SVDV as a shishya, but will not be accepted as a guru.
Asked about allegations of discrimination and religious intolerance, a student protested and argued that religious intolerance is when “they” stop non-Muslims from even entering “their” holiest shrine.
“On the other hand, all we are demanding is that our right to learn our religion from people of our religion should be kept intact,” he said.
It remains to be seen how these arguments hold up against the V-C’s, of the BHU Act amendments as well as the constitutional status of the University as a centrally-funded secular institution.
A closer look reveals that all that these arguments show is that Hindus do not enjoy the same ‘discriminatory rights’ as other communities do.
It’s pertinent to look at the language, traditional medicine and theology departments of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), also a centrally funded institute.
- All 17 teachers in AMU’s Shia and Sunni theology departments are Muslims.
- All 13 teachers in AMU’s department of Islamic studies are Muslims.
- While Firoze Khan has applied in BHU’s Ayurveda department, all teachers in 12 departments of AMU’s college of Unani medicine, numbering over 50, are Muslims.
- All 23 teachers in AMU’s department of Urdu are Muslims.
- All 14 teachers in AMU’s department of Arabic are Muslims.
- Four out of six teachers in AMU’s department of Sanskrit are Muslims.
As per AMU’s prospectus, student applicants must specify their religion, and the university reserves the right to refuse admission to any individual without assigning any reason.
New Delhi’s St Stephen’s College receives 95 per cent of its funds from the government of India but reserves 50 per cent of the seats for Christians. The Christian Medical College of Vellore reserves 85 per cent of its seats for Christians in the Nursing course.
These are just two of hundreds of examples from “minority” institutions across ‘secular’ India. These institutions are not only allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion but are even exempted from implementing the constitutionally mandated quota for Scheduled Castes/Tribes/Other Backward Classes (OBCs).
On the other hand, documents suggest that the makers of BHU that initially wanted intake of students based on Varnashram in orthodox Hinduism, perhaps wanted Hindus from only certain castes to be students.
But today, SVDV has both students and teachers from Dalit castes even though the Faculty remains overwhelmingly Brahmin.
Rahul Mishra, publication superintendent in SVDV, told this correspondent that out of 39 teachers, three are Dalits and two are from OBC. “Only 1 per cent of all students are Dalits, OBC and women; rest are Brahmins.
“But this is because we don’t get applicants. Reserved seats are vacant,” he said. Most women, he informed, are PhD scholars. A graduate is called a Shashtri, which is equivalent to a BA degree. A post-graduate becomes an Acharya.
The constitution of St Stephen’s College states that the Supreme Council of the college, which is in control of moral and religious education, will have its members only from the Church.
A recent piece in Swarajya argues,
“Looking at the angry reactions and admonitions that they have heaped on the protesting BHU students, one might be mistaken into thinking that these public figures are genuinely worried about the communalisation of university spaces. Certainly not.”
“...Why does the same ilk. which is agitated over BHU students for demanding that their religious education be in control of practicising Hindus, stay silent on the bigotry of institutions like St Stephen's College?”
Khan’s phone was switched off when this correspondent called. The V-C office declined requests for an interview.
Many television anchors conducting shrill debates on the issue have decried the protest and criticised the students. The Sanskrit wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has sided with Khan.
It appears that even if Khan wins as per rules, he wouldn't win acceptance. A Khan can be their teacher but not their dharma guru, students say.