For just under a fornight, a Muslim assistant professor of Sanskrit in the Banaras Hindu University has been facing protests from students who want their bigotry to be validated by the authorities.
Firoz Khan, who earlier this year joined the university to teach Sanskrit literature, has been prevented from doing his job by students claiming that a Muslim is not capable of teaching them about Hindu theology, which is a part of the curriculum.
The students, who range from the graduate to the doctorate level, have refused to stop the agitation despite the university backing the teacher. Officials have stated in clear terms that all the rules were followed when Khan was appointed to the department. False narratives have also been spread. For example, Khan has been appointed to teach was Sanskrit literature and not Hindu theology – though it shouldn’t matter even if he had been engaged to teach theology. The students have also alleged, without providing any evidence, that his appointment violated the rules and hinted that corruption had been involved.
The protests are obviously illegal and trample on Khan’s fundamental rights. As a state-funded institution, Benaras Hindu University is bound by Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees equality before law and prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, religion or gender.
But it is not just the illegality of the protestors’ demand that is worrying. The morally repugnant protests are a reflection of the vitriolic political climate that is intent on marginalising members of minority communities.
Khan’s resume sparkles with academic excellence. He was the recipient of the Rajasthan government’s Sanskrit Yuva Prathiba Samman. Banaras Hindu University interviewed at least 10 candidates before picking Khan, clearly showing that he was the most qualified for the job. Despite this, a bunch of students who imagine themselves to be zealous protectors of the Hindu ethos have held the teacher and the university for ransom for about two weeks.
Though the university has backed Khan, mere statements are not going to be enough. The university should make it clear to the students that their demand is unconstitutional.
Just as shocking is the silence of the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development, under whose purview Banaras Hindu University operates. By not coming out explicitly in support of Khan and criticising the protests, the government is only emboldening the students. Its actions stand in contrast to its enthusiasm demonstrated by Central ministries about commenting at matters at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University over the past few years.
Benaras Hindu University is located in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency of Varanasi. Only a week earlier, following the judgement by the Supreme Court in the Ayodhya-Babri Masjid case, Modi addressed the nation and called for communal unity and mutual respect. But the silence of his government to what is transpiring at the Banaras Hindu University does not inspire confidence that it believes in what it preaches.