The Arabic teacher at the school where my mother studied had quite a temper. Non-completion of tasks was punished severely and all students irrespective of gender were served a dollop of corporeal punishment. Some students were so terrified of his temper that after the first week they all shifted to Sanskrit instead of Arabic. And they even completed their matriculation with Sanskrit. It goes without saying that the majority of these students were Muslims and no, studying Sanskrit was no stigma then.
While working in Goalpara College, during an invigilation duty, Dharmeshwar Barman of Botany department recites a kalema fluently. Seeing my shocked response, he smiles and explains that he did his primary schooling from the High Madrasa of his village and he can read Arabic with utmost ease.
These incidents transport us to a time and space where languages were not put in water tight compartments, when Arabic was not Muslim and Sanskrit Hindu…when languages were just pathways that opened up new avenues of knowledge for students.
But of late, things seem to have changed. Divisive incidents are constantly trying to push and shove us away from the syncretic culture that we once felt proud of. On regular intervals demands to declare Urdu, which is more similar to Hindi than Arabic, a foreign language is made. The latest incident in this divisive trend took place in Benaras Hindu University where the appointment of a Muslim Sanskrit Scholar Firoz Khan as an Assistant Professor is being protested against. Even his would-be colleagues are protesting against him. However, the reason of their protest is not his eligibility but his religion. The appointing authority has time and again clarified that the appointment was made by due process laid down by University Grants Commission.
Firoz Khan from Rajasthan completed his education at the Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan at Jaipur and taught for three years. He was also awarded the Sanskrit Yuva Sanman for this year by the Rajasthan government. Despite all this, his appointment is being opposed on grounds of his religion. Interestingly a justification is being forwarded that students are not opposing his appointment per se but his appointment in a particular department. This sounds more problematic and will set a dangerous precedent if conceded because social justice demands that people have equal access to public goods and jobs happen to be one. The post to which Firoz Khan has been appointed did not make religion a criterion of selection. As such he cannot be deprived of the right to work there.
Controversies like this tend to push us backwards towards a darker age where studying Sanskrit was the sole privilege of upper caste Hindus. The lower castes according to the regressive Chaturvarna system were denied the right to learn Sanskrit. Skanda Puran clearly states that teaching Shudras Sanskrit will rob a Brahmin of his caste.
The monopoly of Brahmins over Sanskrit was questioned during the colonial period. British educationists interested in the study of ancient India undertook the learning of Sanskrit. Brahmins had to teach them and to accommodate these British among people who can read Sanskrit, the definition of Mlechchas was changed to mean only those who could not pronounce Sanskrit correctly.
Once learning Sanskrit was opened to others, it was impossible to deny it to the backward castes. Raja Radhakanta Deb of West Bengal emerged as the most celebrated Sanskrit scholar of 19th century. Even during the Mughal period, Dara Shikoh known for his intellectual interests learned Sanskrit from Brahmin scholars and undertook the ambitious task of translating 52 Upanishads. The exclusive right of Brahmins to read Sanskrit is a myth and pretending otherwise will be denying our history.
We cannot divide languages on the basis of religion. Medieval India’s history is mostly in Persian as most documents used in the courts are in Persian. Should Persian be boycotted because it is the language of Persia? The protests in BHU should bother every concerned Indian because it is trying to redraw a very narrow map of languages. Higher education is supposed to broaden our horizon but when highly educated people start evaluating someone’s calibre on the sole basis of their religion, we should be concerned.
Premchand wrote in Hindusthani which used words of Hindi, Urdu and Arabic. His short stories were rendered a rustic lyricist by this beautiful language. Sa’adat Hasan manto, Ismat Chugtai wrote in Urdu. Should these authors be boycotted because they wrote in an objectionable ‘foreign’ language? And can we discuss Indian literature without talking about their works?
At present, political formations who benefit electorally from communal polarisation want newer faultlines to be drawn in the name of language. But those who believe in democratic values and Constitutionalism, should oppose this onslaught. Let language work as bridges between people bringing them closer to each other and initiating dialogue. In this world where higher walls are being erected in the name of religion, caste, nations, we need more bridges to be built. Languages should be learned, conserved, enriched. Let languages rise above narrow national boundaries. What we need to boycott is cultural chauvinism, not any religion. A Muslim learning/teaching Sanskrit and a Hindu learning/teaching Arabic need to be celebrated, not protested against. It is high time that these classical languages are freed from the shackles of extremist religiosity and they are studied as languages which will open up newer avenues of knowledge.