The inclusion of topics such as the mythical queen Padmavati, triple talaq and the Goods and Services Tax in question papers for post-graduate students of political science and history at Banaras Hindu University may have raised eyebrows, but not among the institution’s students and teachers. They say this is merely the latest in a series of attempts to make them adopt the Hindu Right’s views on history and politics.

“This has been the cultural ethos of BHU for years,” said a professor in the history department. “After the [Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance] formed government, those who pushed that [Hindutva] ideology have become bolder. It is that simple.” He added, “I am just glad it is finally being exposed and discussed.”

In semester-end examinations last week, the question paper on medieval history asked students to describe “Rani Padmavati’s johar in the period of Allauddin Khalji”. Jauhar is the ancient Hindu practice by which women immolated themselves to avoid capture and enslavement. Padmavati, the heroine of an epic poem, has been the subject of controversy in recent months with a Bollywood film about her facing violent protests and allegations of distorting history, though historians insist the tale is fictitious.

Another question asked students to discuss “teen talaq and halala as a social evil in Islam”. The reference was to the practice of triple talaq by which Muslim men divorce their wives by uttering the word talaq three times. The BJP-led government had moved the Supreme Court against this practice and the court had banned it in August. Under halala, a Muslim woman who wishes to remarry her first husband must first marry someone else, consummate that marriage and then get a divorce.

In the paper on “social and political thought of ancient and medieval India”, students of political science were given the option of writing “an essay on nature of GST [Goods and Services Tax] in Kautilya Arthashastra” or discussing “Manu is the first Indian thinker of globalisation”. The Arthashastra is an ancient treatise on statecraft, economic policy and military strategy while the Manusmriti is one of the many Dharmaśāstras in Hinduism that codify conduct.

A PhD scholar in the history department, who did not want to be identified, said, “The Hindutva groups have been trying to impose their ideas upon us for years.”

The history professor said that apart from the question papers, seminars, guest lectures and other programmes on campus were also “testimony to what is going”.

No counterview

According to the teacher, Banaras Hindu University has “not encouraged critical, rational thinking for years” and that those who raise questions are “branded Communist or anti-national”. He said he would not have objected to the linking of the government’s new tax reform with Kautilya’s Arthashastra if the university also allowed criticism of Sanskrit classics and modern policies, which it does not. “No one will link demonetisation [the government policy of withdrawing high-value banknotes] with Mohammad Bin Tughlaq’s attempts at reform,” he said.

A student of education agreed. “In philosophy of education, we are taught the [Bhagavad Gita] and the views of Madan Mohan Malviya, Annie Besant and Vivekananda but not [Bhimrao] Ambedkar or Paulo Freire,” he said. “The counterview is not represented.”

A first-year post-graduate student of political science said that close to 10 days before the exam, the teacher of that paper had held a class on Kautilya and the Goods and Services Tax, and on Manusmriti and globalisation. While both texts are part of the syllabus and teachers are free to decide what to cover within the broad framework of the syllabus, the student said, “We had doubts about this and even discussed it among ourselves. But we do not question teachers because 30 marks out of the total 100 are for internal assessment.”

The student also alleged they were asked to write an essay on the BJP as part of their study of India’s party system, while the study of Islam, Buddhism and Jainism – all part of the syllabus – was dropped for lack of time.

The teacher, Kaushal Kishor Mishra, denied this charge. “The entire course is taught but there may not be questions on every topic in the exam,” he explained.

Political science question paper for first-year post-graduate students.

Seminars, lectures, research themes

According to students, Right-wing attempts to dominate academic discussion at the university have become increasingly unsubtle in the BJP’s rule. They recalled that a slide for a seminar on “changing politics and the challenges of governance” a few months ago had the BJP’s party symbol, the lotus, prominently displayed.

“Over the past two years, we have had over a dozen seminars and events on [Sangh Parivar leader] Deendayal Upadhyay and celebrations of his birth anniversary, which was never a practice in BHU,” said a PhD scholar of political science. He said his department had conducted two seminars on Upadhyay’s book Ekatm Manav Darshan (Integral Humanism) in the past two years and had proposed a third one in January. The department had also organised a three-day seminar on “the role of the Sangh in nation-building” and invited one of its leaders, Indresh Kumar, for a lecture, he added.

Other students of political science spoke of being asked questions about the “impact of demonetisation on the political system”, attending lectures on the unique identification number Aadhaar that the government has linked to most basic services, and receiving research topics on government policies. “One student is doing a PhD on Jayapur, the village [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi adopted [in 2014],” said the PhD scholar.

The BJP's lotus symbol on a slide for a seminar on "changing politics and the challenges of governance" at Banaras Hindu University.

‘Counter with research’

Kaushal Kishor Mishra, who headed the political science department till recently and framed the question paper for last week’s exam, denied having “invited anyone from Muslim Rashtriya Manch [of which Indresh Kumar is convener]”. He also said he did not know if anyone in the department had Jayapur as a research theme. But he conceded that the department had organised 17 seminars on Upadhyay.

Mishra also defended the questions he had set, saying he truly believed “Kautilya was the first propounder of the GST and Manu the first propounder of globalisation”.

He added that it was not his students who were critical of the questions he had set but people who disregard texts of ancient political thought. “I have been teaching for 40 years and have written much on these themes, long before Narendra Modi [became prime minister],” he said. “Why are they raising questions? Let them counter my theses with their own research.”

Rajeev Kumar Srivastava, who teaches the history course, denied having set the questions but defended their inclusion in the paper.