Communalising the BHU campus

Students at Banaras Hindu University, who are targeting a Muslim professor appointed to teach Sanskrit and a university official who performed her duty, get away with their communal agenda.

Published : Dec 05, 2019 07:00 IST

The protest against the appointment of Firoze Khan in front of the Vice Chancellor’s residence.

The protest against the appointment of Firoze Khan in front of the Vice Chancellor’s residence.

While students in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), who are running a campaign demanding the rollback of a huge hostel fee hike and the withdrawal of a ludicrous hostel manual, get beaten up and arrested, students of Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, are getting away with a communal agenda targeting professors and university officials.

Since November 7, students of the Sanskrit department at BHU have been on a dharna protesting against the appointment of a Muslim professor. The appointment, duly approved by a selection committee as per the University Grants Commission (UGC) rules and guidelines, is being opposed by the students simply on religious grounds. While the students continue to protest, singing bhajans and kirtans and performing yagna in front of the Vice Chancellor’s house, the police and the administration look on benignly, a far cry from Delhi where JNU students are beaten up for demanding a rollback of their hostel fees.

The students of the Sanskrit department at BHU laid siege to the Vice Chancellor’s residence for 14 days, demanding that the appointment of Firoze Khan be annulled because he is a Muslim. The students squatted on the road in front of the Vice Chancellor’s residence, holding him hostage. The policemen on duty there simply stand by, like mute bystanders, benignly nodding their heads in rhythm with the bhajans sung by the students and occasionally shooing people off if they started looking like part of a crowd. Contrast this with the scene on Delhi’s roads at the same time, when the Delhi Police lathi-charged students of JNU who wanted to march to Parliament demanding that the fee hike announced by the university be rolled back and the hostel manual released a few days previously be withdrawn.

Students of BHU’s south campus, located in Mirzapur nearby, have also been running a communal campaign against a senior university official, a woman, who removed a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) flag from the playground on November 12, advising students to desist from such activities since “these are sensitive times”. The officer, Kiran Damle, a Deputy Chief Proctor and Assistant Director, Sports, in the Physical Education department, has since resigned from her post. A first information report (FIR) has been lodged against her for promoting enmity between groups on grounds of religion or caste and hurting religious feelings.

The case of the Muslim professor is the more outrageous of the two. Firoze Khan was appointed professor in the Sanskrit Vidya Dharma Vigyan (SVDV) department after he cleared a rigorous selection process and took an interview conducted by the best experts in the field. Senior BHU officials told this correspondent that of the 10 candidates shortlisted, he was simply “the best” and that he scored 10/10 in his interview. His selection was announced on November 5.

Protests by the students started immediately, and from November 7, a motley group of students sat on a dharna in front of the Vice Chancellor’s residence, staging their unique protest. They would boo the Vice Chancellor as he went out or came in, throw bottles at his car and shout slogans. Through the night, they would light a fire and perform yagna, chanting shlokas. As the protest progressed, outsiders started gathering on the campus, offering their support. Swami Avimukteshwarananda, a disciple of the Shankaracharya of Dwarkapeeth, and Swami Swaroopananda Saraswati visited the campus to extend their support.

Outside the campus, the protest was beginning to generate heat, and tension in the city was palpable. But even though these are sensitive times, considering that the Ayodhya judgment had generated a lot of heart-burning among Muslims, and Varanasi has a substantial Muslim population, the civil administration did nothing to remove the protesting students.

The university, on its part, played it safe. “Suppose we used force to remove them, imagine the situation even if there are only a few hundred students. Once it is a crowd, the situation tends to get out of control. We did not have the support of the civil administration either to the extent that we wanted,” said a senior university official. “We had to tread with caution and adopt tactics to gradually pull the students out of this agitation,” said the official.

Varanasi is the Prime Minister’s constituency. Frontline has reliable information that the Prime Minister’s Office has sent a message that no force should be used and the students need to be “persuaded gently with love”.

In order to persuade the students gently with love, the university has taken no action so far, hoping that with time the students will get bored of the agitation and go back to their classrooms. One tactic was the use of the good offices of Justice (retd) Girdhar Malviya, the grandson of Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, who founded the university. Justice Malviya, who is also the Chancellor of the university, issued a statement denouncing the protest and advising students to get back to their studies because “a good teacher is hard to come by and the students have been blessed with a good teacher and they should make use of his gyaan [knowledge].” Justice Malviya also said that he suspected some teachers had a hand in provoking the students and advised the teachers of BHU to guide the students in the right direction instead of misleading them.

Many senior faculty members seconded what Justice Malviya said about teachers inciting students. “Previously, a lot of bhai-bhatijawaad [nepotism] was prevalent for appointments, but the new Vice Chancellor has changed that and appointments are now happening in a transparent and professional manner. Perhaps this is not liked by those with vested interests,” said a senior professor.

Even after talking to scores of protesting students, this correspondent found it difficult to understand the logic of their protest. “This is against our parampara [tradition]. The founder of the university had especially prohibited entry of non-Hindus in this department,” said Durgesh Pathak, a former PhD scholar of the department.

Chakrapani Ojha, a research student and one of those leading the protest, said the appointment was invalid because the founder had said that a non-Hindu, someone who did not practise the Hindu way of life as prescribed in the Vedas, cannot teach Sanskrit to students. “We will continue our protest till the university gives an assurance about resolving the matter sensitively,” Ojha said. At the time of writing this report, while the dharna has been called off, the students have been boycotting classes and adopting other means such as holding rudrabhishek (a ritual to appease Siva) at the Siva temple on the BHU campus to press for their demands.

Even though the university has not adopted a high-handed approach, it has not buckled under pressure either. “There is no question of withdrawing the appointment of Firoze Khan. He has joined his post and will work here. The classes are over, exams are scheduled and he will participate in the conduct of examinations like everybody else,” said Dr Rakesh Bhatnagar, the Vice Chancellor. He denied that he was under political pressure to act in a particular way in the case. “I go by rules and do not deviate. My sole objective is to get good teachers and good students so that you get a good institution. This [BHU] could have been a role model for other institutions, but, unfortunately, we suffer from a locational disadvantage and I am trying to change that. I am taking efforts to get good teachers and I don’t compromise on that. This may not suit some and they create trouble, but its OK,” he said. He has a long list of things to do and removal of Firoze Khan is not one of them.

Dr O.P. Rai, Chief Proctor, said the students had their own point of view and efforts were being made to make them understand. “They have a right to disagree. We are hopeful that ultimately we will succeed in making them see our point,” he said.

The case of Kiran Damle is slightly different though. She is posted at the BHU’s south campus in Mirzapur. On the morning of November 12, she saw students hoisting a saffron flag on the playground in the stadium. The students were preparing for an RSS shakha there, a custom which they claim has been going on for years. She advised the students to continue with their activity but not to hoist the flag there. When the students refused, she removed it herself.

This led to protests by the students and soon local RSS workers joined in and started shouting slogans. When things took an ugly turn, she apologised to the students. But they refused to relent and demanded her resignation. She resigned the next day, but even that did not assuage the students. On November 14, Chandramohan, a local RSS leader, complained to the police and an FIR was registered against her for causing enmity between groups on the grounds of religion or caste and assaulting religious feelings. “But I did no such thing. I did not insult the flag and I did not insult the students or hurt their religious feelings. I only told them that since these were sensitive times in view of the Ayodhya judgment, they should not hoist the flag. I told them that they could continue their activities without the flag and that they could take the flag from my office after their programme was over. I was simply doing my duty,” Kiran Damle told Frontline .

All through the controversy, the university did nothing to help or protect her. “The university has done nothing to aid me or boost my morale. The FIR still remains and my resignation is still pending consideration.”

On being asked whether she has been prevented from going to the university, she answered in the negative. “I am still going to my department. The same students greet me with respect, some even touch my feet. It is the outsiders who mingle with the students and create trouble,” she said.

But what is unfortunate in her case is that she was made the target of attack by the saffron brigade while performing her duties and the university simply looked on, doing nothing. Senior university officials refused to comment on the case.

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