India

The Muslim Sanskrit professor boycotted over his religion

Firoz Khan Image copyright Firoz Khan
Image caption The university has defended Firoz Khan's appointment

Students in the northern Indian city of Varanasi are up in arms over a Muslim professor hired to teach Sanskrit. They say that a person of Islamic faith cannot teach a language often associated with ancient Hinduism. BBC Hindi's Rajnish Kumar reports.

When Firoz Khan was offered his first job to teach Sanskrit literature at the prestigious Banaras Hindu University (BHU), he couldn't contain his excitement.

But it has been more than three weeks since and he is yet to conduct a single class.

As news of his appointment made the rounds across the campus on 6 November, a group of some 30 students staged a sit-in outside the vice-chancellor's office in protest.

Their issue? That it wasn't "right" for a Muslim professor to be teaching them Sanskrit.

But Prof Khan's relationship with the classical language, which belongs to the Indo-Aryan group and is the root of many Indian languages, is quite personal.

"When my father decided to send me to school, he chose one that taught Sanskrit because he also studied it and loved the language. My love for it and my association with Sanskrit began when I was a young boy in school," he said.

In ancient India, Sanskrit was the main language used by scholars and was sometimes referred to as devabhasha - the language of gods. Today, it is spoken by less than 1% of Indians and is mostly used by Hindu priests during religious ceremonies.

Image caption Students have staged a sit-in to protest against Prof Khan's appointment

Reviving the language, which is closely linked to Hinduism and Hindu religious texts, has been a pet project for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Chakrapani Ojha, one of the students leading the protest, belongs to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the BJP. He says Prof Khan's appointment violates university laws.

But officials from the university disagree, saying that Mr Khan's appointment does not violate any rules.

"The university has unanimously selected the best candidate for the job," an official said.

However, for some of the students in opposition, this doesn't matter as much as Prof Khan's religion.

"If a Muslim professor teaches in the Sanskrit faculty, then the greatness of Hinduism is affected," Anand Mohan Jha said.

Amid the calls for his dismissal, there have also been teachers who have come out in support of Prof Khan.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sanskrit is the root of many Indian languages

"For almost 30 years, a Hindu man headed a department which covered the Urdu, Farsi and Arabic languages. In fact, he even had a degree which allowed him to teach the Koran," Aftab Ahmad Afaqi, head of the Urdu department, said.

"The Urdu department also has Hindu professors. Religion and language are two totally different things," he added.

Students have stopped protesting on campus - but they say that they will continue to boycott classes until the professor has been dismissed.

But Prof Khan says he doesn't understand what his religion has to do with his expertise on a language.

"Why is it a problem if a person of a particular religion learns and teaches a language associated with another religion? I studied Sanskrit because I wanted to understand the literature of this language. It is said that India's prestige has two facets to it - one is Sanskrit and the other is Sanskriti (which translates to culture). If you want to understand India, you cannot do so in entirety without reading Sanskrit."

Many students have also come out in favour of the professor. At a recent march held in his support, students carried banners that read "We are with you Dr Firoz Khan".

"The protest against him is stupid and arbitrary," said student Rashmi Singh. "India is a democratic and secular country - the selection of a professor can't be based on religion or caste."

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Media captionPM Narendra Modi hopes to boost interest in the ancient language

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