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Indian Muslim Sanskrit professor in hiding after rightwing protests

The Guardian logo The Guardian 28/11/2019 Amrit Dhillon in New Delhi
a small boat in a body of water with a city in the background: Photograph: Alamy © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Alamy

A Muslim scholar of Sanskrit has gone into hiding after protests from some rightwing Hindu students claiming that, as a Muslim, he cannot teach Sanskrit, the ancient classical language of Hinduism.

Feroz Khan, 29, was the unanimous choice of a selection committee at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi for the post of assistant professor of Sanskrit literature. The committee members were impressed with his erudition, which stems from a childhood passion for the language that continued into further education.

But on 7 November, two days after Khan took up the post, members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a rightwing student organisation with a Hindu nationalist ideology, staged a campus protest demanding that Khan be moved to a different faculty.

One placard read: “A Muslim cannot teach us our religion.” They vowed to keep protesting until Khan was transferred to another post.

Khan has been stunned at the protests. His Muslim family, who live in a village not far from Jaipur in Rajasthan, is unusual in that his father, Ramzan Khan, also studied Sanskrit and is famous in the area for singing Hindu devotional songs and working as a volunteer in a cow shelter. Hindu priests in the area have come out and supported his son’s appointment.

a small boat in a body of water with a city in the background: Feroz Khan had been the unanimous choice for assistant professor of Sanskrit literature of a selection committee at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi (pictured). © Photograph: Alamy Feroz Khan had been the unanimous choice for assistant professor of Sanskrit literature of a selection committee at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi (pictured).

Before vanishing, Khan made only a few remarks to the media. “Since my childhood, till the completion of my studies … I never faced any discrimination because of my religion. This is so disheartening. A group of students don’t want me to teach them Sanskrit because I am not a Hindu,” he told the Times of India.

Sanskrit is 3,500 years old and has the same status in Hinduism as Latin did in Christianity – only it is not quite as “dead” as Latin. It is still used in some academic and literary circles, as well as during Hindu and Buddhist religious rituals and ceremonies.

So far, the university has stood firm. It issued a statement saying Khan’s appointment was final and that it was committed to providing “equal opportunities to everyone irrespective of religion, caste, community or gender”.

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But Khan has left the university for the moment. University officials confirmed that he had left on Tuesday to go home for a while and would return when things had calmed down. But when journalists visited his home, Khan was not there and his father said he did not know his whereabouts. They did not respond to calls from the Guardian.

No minister from the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) has come out in Khan’s support. The Bollywood actor Paresh Rawal, a former BJP MP who is still affiliated with the party, tweeted: “Stunned by the protest against professor Feroz Khan. What has language to do with Religion!?!?!? Irony is professor Feroz has done his masters and PhD in Sanskrit. For Heavens sake stop this god damn idiocy!”

Meanwhile, other students on the campus have come out in support of Khan and his right to teach Sanskrit, along with some members of Hindu nationalist groups.

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