‘Get To Know Me First?’: Muslim Prof To BHU’s Protesting Students
Video Editor: Ashutosh Bharadwaj
“If you (BHU students) give me a chance, then it is possible that all your protests will not be necessary anymore.”
28-year-old Firoze Khan, hailing from Jaipur district in Rajasthan, was looking forward to his new job when he deplaned in Varanasi on 7 November. It had barely been a day since he was accepted as an assistant Sanskrit professor at UP’s Banaras Hindu University. But his anticipation of teaching at one of India’s most prestigious universities quickly plummeted to nervousness.
Just as he checked his email inbox to find the appointment letter, on the afternoon of 6 November, students at BHU – primarily those affiliated to the ABVP – began protesting against him teaching Sanskrit, insisting that ‘just as a Hindu can’t teach in a Madrasa, a Muslim has no place in a Gurukul’.
“I remember the students had gathered when I arrived at BHU on 7 November for my joining, but they did not say anything to me,” recalls Khan, who invited glares from protesting students .
The department has been shut. Khan has not taken one class yet. But that doesn’t keep Khan from believing that the situation will change and his students will come around soon.
In a freewheeling conversation with The Quint, from a location he wishes to keep undisclosed, Khan hopes the protests will fizzle out soon, “Ho sakta hai ki main BHU ke chatron ke sochne ka tareeke badal paaun. Ye nahi pata ki main ye kaise karoonga, par dekhte hai aage kya hota hai. Agar vo mujhe aur achi tarah jaanle, ho sakta hai vo mujhe pasand karne lage. (Maybe I will be able to change how the BHU students think. I don't know how I will do it, but let's see how this progresses. Maybe if the students get to know me better, they will begin to like me).”
Firoze is the third of four sons of his parents, based in a town called Bagru in Jaipur district of Rajasthan. He holds a B Ed and Masters in Sanskrit literature from Rashtriya Sanskrit Santhan, where he also taught as a guest faculty before being accepted at BHU.
At a young age, Firoze was admitted to a Sanskrit school. Talking about what his grandfather and father did, he says:
“My grandad used to sing Hindu devotional songs. He is no more now but whenever there was a programme close to our village, my granddad would be invited to sing. My father learnt from him. About 2.5-3 km away from our home there is a cowshed, called the Ramdev cowshed, where my dad goes everyday to sing Hindu devotional songs.”
Firoze’s father was proficient at Sanskrit and often helped him to study while he was in school. But the same father who encouraged his son to develop an expertise in Sanskrit is now eager for his son to return home.
“My brother keeps telling me how my father is not being able to sleep at night. My brother also keeps calling me back. They say there is no need to be away from home – that we will survive with the little we have. I don’t say much to them, but I believe I should stay.”
When asked if he has any intentions of talking to the students who are protesting his appointment directly, he says he is open to talking to the students if the administration asks for it. Right now, he does not know how long it will take for him to start teaching.
Another reason why he is not ready to give up on his plans of being a professor at BHU, is his first visit to the campus – one replete with happy memories. Looking back at that time, he says:
“In 2017, I was invited to BHU for their Sanskrit festival. I sang at the Omkarnath Thakur Apeksha house. Everything was so memorable. They made me stay comfortably at a guest house, took care of all my needs. They gave me immense respect.”
Looking back at all the years he invested in Sanskrit literature, he says he was never made to feel that the language was not his own tongue. “Whenever I had a problem with something, the teachers, who were Hindus, always went out of their way to help me. I was never made to feel like I was different by the teachers, my friends or my students. Why is this happening at all?,” he asks, rather honestly.
Firoze got to know about the job opening from a senior (bhaiya) at his college. “He asked me to apply and I did. There were no restrictions whatsoever on who could apply. This was sometime in May, I remember.”
Speaking of his proficiency in Sanskrit, Khan tells this reporter how he is a regular at Doordarshan News as well. “There is a programme called Sanskrit vartavali on DD News where one has to translate Bollywood songs to Sanskrit. They send the songs to me for translations and broadcast the songs I sing in Sanskrit,” he says proudly, adding that he recently received the Sanskrit Yuva Pratibha Puraskar from Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot in August 2019.
The BHU administration has repeatedly clarified that they do not distinguish on the basis of religion while making appointments and backed Firoze Khan. There are students across BHU who have come in support of Khan. Akanksha Azad, pursuing her masters in political science from BHU, said, “This protest is absolutely wrong. Students are not even thinking about what they are doing. They are unaware of the hatred sown in them against Muslims, and that is what is coming out in their protest.”
Shashwat Upadhyay, pursing his masters in Sociology says this protest is unwarranted. “The students are saying they will not study from a person of another religion. Not being able to understand the basis of such an issue.”
Priyesh Pandey who is doing his masters in Conflict Management and Development believes the students are politically motivated. “Nowhere has it been specified ever that people from a particular religion will not be professors of Sanskrit. This is politically motivated. These are students who are sitting there are clearly affiliated to ABVP and RSS.”
While the protests continue, Khan who landed at Varanasi airport with renewed vigour did not expect to be holed up in an undisclosed location, waiting to take his first class on a subject that he has grown respecting, practising and mastering over the years.
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