A few weeks ago, headlines went viral about protests at BHU against a newly appointed professor of Sanskrit who happened to be Muslim. This was of course immediately sucked into the “intolerance” narrative against BJP ruled India. The global liberal media did not lag behind. After all, these days anything perceived to be wrong with India is big news, even if it is vegetable prices.
And why not? After all, how can students in a learning environment possibly dictate that their professors should belong to a specific religion? What has the religion of the professor got to do with teaching a language?
So much of the left and the right weighed in on this story, most sensible people inclined to condemn the protesting students for their “bigotry.” Some celebrity journalists went a step further, putting the students on the kangaroo court of cable news though not letting them speak and hammering them on air.
Slowly, but surely, a second narrative began to emerge. The students insisted that they had absolutely nothing against a Muslim teaching Sanskrit or any other language. It just so turns out that the Sanskrit Vidya Dharma Vigyan (SVDV) department to which Feroz Khan had been appointed, is a rather unique institution at BHU, which teaches Hindu Shastras and Hindu rituals.
This obviously has to do with the special history of BHU, conceived by Mahamana Madan Mohan Malviya as a centre for both secular and religious education. The appointment of a Muslim to teach Hindu Shastras in the Vedic tradition may, therefore, be seen as roughly equivalent to appointing a Muslim to work as a priest at a Hindu temple. It is not unreasonable to protest against this and doing so can hardly be considered a form of bigotry.
But few wanted to listen. The initial burst of viral headlines were simply too powerful.
However, the events of the last few days leave no doubt that the students had a legitimate point, which had nothing to do with religious fundamentalism.
Feroz Khan will continue to teach Sanskrit at BHU. He will just be teaching it in the Sanskrit department at the Faculty of Arts, where Sanskrit is taught in a secular fashion like any other language.
And the reaction of the protesting students?
Even the NDTV reporter gets it now.
No student ever protested against a Muslim teaching Sanskrit at BHU. All they ever demanded was that a non-Hindu should not be teaching Hindu religion.
And yet, the impression was created (deliberately?) across India and across the world that these students were bigots, opposing a professor simply because he happened to be a Muslim.
The protesting BHU students deserve credit for making their point resolutely. For being unfazed before bullies from all over the world. The media elite, sometimes taking advantage of their relatively weak English speaking skills, tried to bury their narrative. But it was not to be.
It can now be safely concluded that the BHU story should be a lesson in how not to cover news and why we should not jump to conclusions based on viral headlines. The whole thing was an internal matter of the university, relating to the unique history of the institution. Outsiders getting involved and shooting their mouths off without knowing the full story, did not help anybody.
A liberal may ask here: what about JNU? How come I want BHU protests to be an internal matter, but I had no qualms commenting on JNU? Well, it’s quite simple: JNU protests were about hostel fees, mess charges, etc. Common concerns that we can all understand and relate to. Concerns that are universal in nature. The BHU case simply wasn’t about any such thing. Most universities don’t have the unique history and traditions of BHU. The matter was far too specific to one department at one university.
And now the protesting BHU students and the administration have reconciled all their differences in a manner that is fair to all. Prof. Feroz Khan will continue to teach Sanskrit at BHU and absolutely nobody questions his academic expertise. The students have happily called off their protest and will continue with their Hindu religious education at their department.
Seems everyone is a winner here. Except those of us who rushed to judge without making certain of the facts first.