Who is Firoz Khan? What is his identity in the terrain of Indian Society? How did he develop an interest in learning the Sanskrit language? Did it have something to do beyond the narrow peripheries of ‘religion’ and was it deeply rooted in the culture of India?
Firoz Khan, the newly appointed assistant professor in the Banaras Hindu University, belongs to the Dhadhi, Hindu-Islamic community of Rajasthan. Dhadhis are traditional bards, musicians and genealogists, living in northern parts of India, like Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat, who are patronised by agricultural Hindu castes and tribes, such as, Jasts, Rayaka-Rabari, Bishnoi, Khatri and Chhippas.
According to the Marwar Census Report of Rajasthan in 1891, Dadhis are followers of both Islam and Hinduism, who trace their origin to Rajput families from the time of Lord Rama. The Report records a popular couplet or doha which is still evoked by the community, “Dasrath ke ghar ram janamiya has dadhan mukh boli Athara kiror le chawk meliya kaam karan ko chhori.” (2) (Rama was born in the house of Dashratha, said a dhadhi woman leaving all works aside, she started singing songs of birth at the place of Lord Rama).
From the popular origin narrative, tracing lineage in the times of Lord Rama, to present time, dominated by singular atomic religious identity, Dadhis have preserved the centuries-long tradition of the composite, syncretic culture of India; with their liminal identity, where Hinduism and Islam are not antagonistic or hostile to each other, in fact, they are at peace, and complete the identity of the Dadhi ethnic group.
From deriving authority of Firoz Khan over Sanskrit, both as a language, and as a part of Hindu religion, to the question of appointment of Firoz Khan, at Banaras Hindu University; it is imperative to answer questions posed by the protesting students of the University, and supporters of the protests at large, and see how rational and logical the protest really is against Dr. Firoz Khan.
The first concern about Dr. Firoz Khan’s appointment, in the Faculty of Sanskrit Vidya Dharma Vijnan, was that, a Hindu cannot attain the education of becoming Maulavi, Imam or even a Christian Father, thus, in the same manner, a Muslim or ‘non-Hindu’ has no right to become Professor of Sanskrit; especially at a place where Sanskrit is taught to produce future Shastris and perform rituals.
The question lacked in basic reasoning, consistency, and syllogism, drawn between a Maulavi, Imam or a Christian Father to the Professor of Sanskrit in the University. The university is devoted to the preservation and development of the ancient and traditional treasures of knowledge, by keeping pace with modern patterns of learning, rather than producing mere machines of rituals and traditions, considered under the paradigm of Hinduism. Besides, Firoz Khan was appointed in the department of Literature which has no direct bearing over ritual practices of Hindus in India.
The second major concern raised by the protesters is that the Faculty of Vidya Dharma Vijnan, publish Vishwa Hindu Pnachangam, which is the Hindu Calendar, based on Vedic Astrology. They feared that the appointment of the Dr Firoz Khan in the department would lead to distrust over the authenticity of the calendar. The major concern raised here is that it would set precedence for the appointment of more non-Hindu faculty members, in the department of Sanskrit, who in the future, might also accumulate power, to make derogatory statements about the Hindu religion.
The ‘fear’ expressed is that many more Muslims would find a way to the Sanskrit Department and would gather strength to raise qualms on the incredibility of the Hindu Calendar; stating a-historical mythological character, of whose impact is not confined to the University, but affects ‘sentiments’ and ‘faith’ of the larger Hindu population across the world.
The right-wing politics of ‘sentiments’ develops upon the field of ‘fear’ of losing the integrity of ‘faith’ with the inclusion of non-Hindus in the teaching-learning practices of Sanskrit; which in itself is not a religion but one of the mediums of languages in which Hindu religious scriptures are written.
Teaching Sanskrit literature and the making of the Hindu Calendar are two different aspects, and most importantly, the Hindu Calendar is not made by the divine insight of the Brahmins, instead, it is designed on the basis of the lunar month and weathers of India. Thus, in my opinion, the ‘politics of sentiment’ and the ‘politics of hurt’ is a right-wing narrative, imposed on BHU, to polarise students of the campus on communal lines, establish political paramountcy of the ‘Hindu’ faith, over any other religion living in India. The agenda is to distract the concomitant protest of the students on fee hike for more affordable education in the University.
Can it be believed that the future of Hindu ancient religious practices depends upon the appointment of teachers in the modern University space, for the learning of one of the ancient languages of the world? And can Brahmanism be the saviour of the ‘cultural attack’ by Muslims on the BHU Sanskrit department?
Periyar once said that between a snake and Brahmanism, Brahmanism is more poisonous. And, in my opinion, it is the saffron-clad Brahmanism, which is spreading venom in the country, against the appointment of a non-Muslim into Sanskrit department. It is not a ‘cultural attack’ in the way it is propagated, but it is Brahmanical attack, on the integrity of Indian tradition of peaceful coexistence of religions, from centuries, where Sanskrit was patronised by rulers of India, even in medieval times.
Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjahan gave special attention to the development of the language, and it would be unjust not to include Aurangzeb in the list who were in love with this language. Shayasta Khan, the maternal uncle of Aurangzeb, was a noted poet of the Sanskrit language, who even wrote a treatise called ‘Rasakalpadruma’. Other noted Sanskrit poets of the time, like Devdatta author of ‘Gurjarishakatam’, acknowledged Aurangzeb and his son Azam Shah, in the opening lines of the treatise.
Mohammed Hanif Khan Shastri is the most recent precedence of the Muslim Sanskrit scholar who was awarded with fourth highest civilian award of the country, Padma Shri (literature and education) in 2019, by the President, Ramnath Kovind, for his immeasurable service to the nation, as Professor of Sanskrit, in Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan, with the degrees of Shastri, Acharya and a doctorate in Sanskrit. He was also graced with the National Communal Harmony Award in 2009.
The idea of cultural attack is the weapon of right wing politics to aid the rhetoric of ‘Hinduism in Danger’. The politics of language use religion to create anxiety over fragile identity politics, driven by ‘politics of hurt’.
The invented ‘precariousness’ of the Hindu religion, projected by the custodians of the faith, in Banaras Hindu University, demanding the reversal of the appointment of Dr. Firoz Khan, exhibits the direct communal link of the ‘cultural Hinduism’ and political ideology of ‘Hindutva’ nurtured by VHP and RSS.
It is this soft communalism or ‘cultural Hindutva’ which reaches a wider section of the society and sows the seeds for spreading stronger communal hatred. The narrative constructed by the protestors of BHU, though based on soft Hindutva ideology, it is essentially based on the popular communal ideas according to which, Islam is ‘a religion of violence’ and Hinduism is a religion of peace, and thus, they can never share the same place, as argued by leaders of the protest.
Besides, the appointment of a non-Hindu would dismantle predominance of the Brahmins over the working of the Sanskrit department; they fear losing predominance in the so called ‘Hindu’ space of learning.
To further understand the issue, it is also important to delve into the historical making of the Banaras Hindu University, where ‘H’ doesn’t represent a politically driven perspective of Hinduism. BHU stands on the southern outskirts of Banaras, at the banks of the Ganges.
Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, with the vision of spreading scientific education, and rationality, left his legal practice and focussed upon the development of the University, which he formally announced at the 21st session of Indian National Congress, in December 1905, held under the presidentship of Gopal Krishna Gokhale.
In 1911, on 22nd November, the Hindu University Society was registered by Malaviya with the support of Annie Besant, and after registration, he spent few years raising funds for the actual foundation of the University space.
With his persistence, he could wield the support of few princely states and nobles of India, such as Kashi Naresh Prabhu Narayan, who gave land at the southern outskirts of the present day Banaras; Raja of Darbhanga state, Maharaja Sir Rameshwar Singh Thakur; and the last Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan, who donated 1 lakh rupees for the construction of the university.
Though the foundation stone of the University was already laid by the devout Sikh saint of the time, Baba Attar Singh ji of Punjab, in 1914, who was invited by Malaviya himself, a formal foundation ceremony of the main campus was initiated by Lord Hardinge.
I now come back to the original matter of discussion. A university which was constructed with a vision and contribution of various personalities of the time, comes to a point where religion is evoked, for the appointment of assistant professor at the University. It again stirred the age-long debate over the identity of language and language of identity by communal forces of the country.
If religion is the deciding factor of the country’s education system, and language becomes the battleground of the communal battle against identities, I believe even Gods can’t save the dooming fate of the people of this country.
Looking at the increasing saffronisation of the educational institutes in the concomitant times, the repercussions are not just limited to the destruction of the liberal structures of the societies; but it is the threat to the centuries-old composite traditions of India or South Asia at large, where variegated religious, ethnic and linguistic identities have lived with each other and have developed distinct cultural field of shared heritage.
Several syncretic identity groups, like Dadhis, Mirasis, Manganiyars and Langas, who have carried this tradition from generations, are now under constant attack from dominant political narratives of the religions from both sides of the communal forces, i.e.; Hinduism and Islam.
An anonymous poet, from the same community, expressed the dilemma and plight of his liminal identity, where he is more Muslim for Hindus and More Hindu for the Muslims; “Vahid tang nazar ne mujhe kafir mana, Kafir samajhte hain ki musalman hu mai” (The narrow sight of the world called me Muslim And the Muslims treated me as Hindu).
Retrospectively, the Indian education system and philosophy are based on the secular notions of learning, and therefore, the development of institutions of learning, are based on inclusivity of various castes, creeds, religions, genders or classes.
Protest against the appointment of the Dr. Firoz Khan in Banaras Hindu University not only exhibits right-wing political propaganda for further polarisation but it is also an attack over the centuries-long tradition of composite culture, by the custodians of Hinduism, which should be condemned by the people of India.
It is the high time we start looking at the plurality of the rich South Asian cultures and save them for the coming generations to be able to experience the legacy of our ancestors and great visionaries of India.