Gopalika Antharjanam: ‘It is our right to learn or teach any language’

Interview with retired Arabic teacher Gopalika Antharjanam.

Published : Dec 05, 2019 07:00 IST

Gopalika Antharjanam taught Arabic in a Kerala school from 1986 until her retirement in 2017. In the pluralist society of Kerala, a Brahmin woman hailing from a family of priests, teaching Arabic was not considered blasphemous. But her career did not start on a smooth note. In 1982, when she first joined a school as a teacher of Arabic for five months, a section of students protested, and the school asked her to leave. She went to court and won back her right to teach Arabic. She feels Prof Feroz Khan, whose appointment to the Sanskrit Department of Banaras Hindu University (BHU) has sparked a students’ protest, must take this route. “What language we learn or teach is our personal matter. No language belongs to any one religion,” she said.

Excerpts from a telephonic interview she gave Frontline :


I took it up because it was a new language and I thought it would lead to more employment opportunities. It is a beautiful language, I discovered. But how come everyone is asking me this now? I suppose it is because of the BHU issue.

Anyway, studying Arabic was not such a big deal for me. There were a couple of other Brahmin girls in my class. I had classmates from all religions. When I told my parents about my wish to learn Arabic, they were fine with it. There were people from all religious communities there and everyone studied together. My house is in Kunnamkulam in Thrissur district. After my marriage I moved to Malappuram district. There was a vacancy in a school and I joined.

I started teaching in 1986.

I believe there was initially some objection to your teaching Arabic?

I went to the school all of six days. Then the manager asked me to stop coming. There was nothing much I could say or do. Then we approached an advocate .He said that I could not lose my job on religious grounds. We pursued the case in the court, and I won. It took four years though. My husband and in-laws supported me all the way. After that it was a smooth sailing.

How did the staff react to a Brahmin woman in their midst?

As I said, in my first job, I was there for six days and they didn’t have an issue. They were all nice people.

After winning the case you received a new appointment?

After I won the case, I joined a Government Higher Secondary school [Edappatta] near my house in Malappuram. I was welcomed. The students were nice and open. The teachers were cordial too.

Did you also study the Quran?

We had Hadith and Dinacharyas as part of the syllabus, in addition to the Quran.

Did you ever feel it was a wrong decision to pursue Arabic?

Where I grew up there were no distinction between communities. After I got married, my husband found out about this vacancy. He told me not to ever think that I was a Brahmin and learning Arabic. He

stressed that the place I am came from [Thrissur district], everyone studied together and there were no divisions or biases along religious lines. It made my task much easier.

Did the students show any aversion to learning Arabic from you?

They were nice and welcoming. I taught for around 30 years. They respected me as a teacher. The question of religion did not arise. All my students were Muslims. They were happy to attend my Arabic classes. Their parents always gave me respect.

Were there any students from a madrassa background?

Not that I can specially recall. There were students from diverse background. They treated me as their own as my first language too was Malayalam, although I studied Sanskrit until Class X. The fact that I could speak to them in Malayalam would have helped.

You got an award on the World Arabic Day.

I am not such a great person to get awards. But I’ve been felicitated by the Arabic College in Santhapuram and I was felicitated in Kozhikode. That’s all. But it feels nice to be felicitated for teaching Arabic.

What is your reaction to the protest against the appointment of Feroz Khan in BHU?

I read about it. Anyone can choose to learn any language. There are no set rules that dictate that a particular language belongs to a particular community. India is a secular country.

On Whatsapp my picture was circulated along with that of the BHU professor. I was shocked. I hope, there won’t be any trouble because of that.

As far as the BHU issue is concerned, I do not know the legalities of it. However, as an Indian it is our right to learn or teach any language, whatever our religion.

Considering that you overcame opposition by going to court, would you advise the BHU professor to do likewise?

The times were different then. Today, the word circulates quickly, but I would say it is his right to learn or teach whatever subject or language he chooses. He must take it to court. I am sure justice will be done.

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