Analysis: BHU protests

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The students protest against the appointment of a Muslim professor in the Sanskrit Vidya Dharma Vigyan (SVDV) in the Banaras Hindu University has sparked the debate of liberty, equality, minority’s right and the scope of protest in a liberal democratic set up.

The controversy emanates from the appointment of Dr. Firoz Khan as an Assistant Professor in the Sahitya (Literature) Department of the SVDV. The claim of the agitated students is that a Muslim professor cannot teach Sanskrit in the said department as it violates the religious sanctity of the department and may set a precedence for the appointment of more non-Hindu faculty members.

This article is going to analyse this controversial issue from intercepting the individual rights and societal interest based on doctrinal method of research.

Equality debate and Professor’s right:

Article 16(1) and Article 16(2) of the Constitution of India guarantees to all citizens the equality of opportunity in matters of public employment or appointment to any office under the state, irrespective of any discrimination on the grounds of ‘religion, race, caste, sex, descent, place of birth or residence’.

A conjunction of these two clauses derives a vision of equality that mandates State indifference to ascriptive characteristics in public employment. The constitutional scheme makes it clear that the State would not discriminate merely on the basis of affiliation of any person to a particular religion.

Thus, it is important to note that the stand of the BHU administration was within the constitutional regime and praiseworthy in terms of complying with the constitutional norms.

The author humbly submits the opinion that the mere granting of equality as a fundamental right hasn’t served the actual purpose of equality. The vision of equality demands its constitutionalisation in terms of shaping ideas, thoughts, and life processes.

Hence, the time has come to transform the Constitution of India from a mere political document to a Social document which can serve the purpose of the society and contribute positively so that the fundamental right of qualified and deserving academicians like Dr. Firoz Khan doesn’t become the subject of public scrutiny.

Is minority rights vulnerable or is it a liberal cry?

In the concurring judgment, Ahmedabad Saint Xavier’s College v. State of Gujarat and others, delivered four decades ago, the Hon’ble Justice H.R. Khanna adjudicated and I quote here that-

“ the idea of giving some special rights to the minorities is not to have a kind of privileged or pampered section of the population but to give the minorities a sense of security and a feeling of confidence.”           

The Constitution and the  judiciary being the vanguard of the constitutional rights gives the minorities special rights with the objective of including them in the mainstream society. The history of Indian culture reveals its composite nature, which is the harbinger of the message of religious tolerance and co-existence echoed by the Constitutional principles.

If we visualize the incident from the status of Sanskrit as a language, it only asserts the irony in an institution of national importance. The 2011 Census report reveals that merely 0.00198 out of 121 crore people in India comprise of Sanskrit speaking population and thus, we must as a society appreciate the fact that people like Professor Firoz Khan are breaking the shackles of religion and teaching the ancient language.

Right to protest and religious autonomy of Sanskrit department:

Right to protest is recognized as a fundamental right under the Constitution. This right is crucial in a democracy which rests on participation of an informed citizenry in governance and it strengthens representative democracy. The protesting students were righteous in their approach as they were exercising their own democratic right to express dissent in a peaceful manner, barring a few incidents of throwing bottle and stones at the VC’s car.

The ignition of the protest emanates from a baseless claim that a non- Hindu can’t teach Sanskrit in the department as it imparts education of ‘Sanatan Dharma’. The protesting students, who are supported by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) wing of the university make an irrelevant association to the incident by pointing out that even a plaque installed by the founder of the University, Madan Mohan Malviya says that non-Aryans aren’t allowed inside the campus.

The University Administration rejected the claims of the students and gave a statement that the selection committee had unanimously appointed the Professor by following guidelines set by the UGC and the Government of India.

The protest which lasted for a period of 15 days from 7th-22nd November has restarted again on December 4th by some students in retaliation of the unsatisfactory inquiry made by the university into the appointment of the Professor. The administration still backs the appointment and advises the students to resume classes and prepare for the examinations.

Religion is a social fact and the relationship of an individual with society is inseparable. It is significant to remember the remarks of Alladi Krishnaswami Iyer who said and I quote -” You cannot separate social life from religious life”.

Article 26(b) of the Constitution provides freedom to regulate their own affairs in matters of religion, but the question is that can the Sanskrit department claim religious autonomy being part of a National Institution? Banaras Hindu University is not a religious minority institution, but a Central University and the appointment of Professors do not mention any pre requisite condition relating to religion.

Conclusion and the road ahead:

The fundamental rights chapter of Indian Constitution comprises of diverse, and possibly conflicting sets of rights-holders, duty bearers, and juridical relationships. It is to be noted that right guaranteed under the constitution and implemented in pragmatic sense are two different things. The BHU protest reveals the delicate nature of our society failing to balance individual rights with the societal right.

The public reaction in such a sensitive matter should be based on the correct and unbiased information. Globalization and technological advancement has caused information asymmetry and it requires the filtration of information before it disseminate in any manner. Society is an organic and dynamic concept, but for positive progression we need to be more tolerant and cautious while tackling these issues. 

Author: Rajesh Ranjan from NLU, Jodhpur.

Editor: Farsana Sadiq from Faculty of Law, Jamia Millia Islamia.

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