India is not a country of the Hindus only. It is a country of the Muslims, the Christians and the Parsis, too. The country can gain strength and develop itself only when the people of the different communities in India live in mutual goodwill and harmony. It is my earnest hope and prayer that this centre of life and light which is coming into existence will produce students who will not only be intellectually equal to the best of their fellow students in other parts of the world, but will also live a noble life, love their country and be loyal to the supreme ruler."

Have students from Banaras Hindu University (BHU) forgotten these lines by Malaviyaji Maharaj? Had it not been so, then assistant professor Firoz Khan wouldn’t have had to spend the first two weeks after his appointment in the department of Sanskrit in the faculty of Vidya Dharma Vigyan mired in an unwanted controversy.

The attempts to incite fury started on 7 November when he entered the university for his new assignment. A group of students sat in front of the entry gate of the department protesting against his appointment. From that day onwards, classes in Vidya Dharma Vigyan Faculty have not been allowed to run smoothly and 2-3 dozen students had been playing the drums outside the vice-chancellor’s residence. Why were these young men creating a ruckus? Explaining the reason, a young man told a “quick" channel, “how can a non-Aryan teach us religion?" Perhaps they did not know that Khan has been appointed in the department of Sanskrit literature. He will teach literature, not religion. Let me tell you, this faculty has eight departments and a lot is taught in the seven other departments besides religion. Jain and Buddhist philosophies are also taught here. Why and how did these religions arise, is there any need to explain this? It’s clear that the students have been misguided in the name of the faculty.

I don’t know if these students have heard about German scholars Goethe and Max Mueller. Of course, they would not even know about General Cunningham. We owe a lot to these “non-Aryan" Sanskrit and culture lovers. They not only translated classic Sanskrit texts but also placed them before the complacent European society. General Cunningham was an engineer in the British Army but he did great work in Indian archaeology. There is a long list of “foreigners" our culture and Sanskrit language are indebted to.

The people who are opposing Khan perhaps don’t know that Mughal prince Dara Shikoh had come to Kashi to study the Vedas. The scholars and Brahmins did not say anything while giving him this divine knowledge, why? Was it because he was a prince or just because we were comparatively more liberal at that time? It is not that this mutual impacting of language, cultures and religions is one-sided. In the same BHU, many Hindus like Prof. Mahesh Prasad contributed significantly to strengthening the department of Urdu. I myself was taught numismatics by Prof. Nisar Ahmad in the same university. The lecture he gave on the religious symbols on coins of Gupta period is still etched in memory. He also occupied important posts like chief proctor in the university.

It’s important to know a little about Firoz Khan. Khan belongs to a small village called Bagru near Jaipur, Rajasthan. He completed his MA from the Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan, Jaipur, and then did a doctorate. His father, Ramzan Khan, is also a Shastri in Sanskrit. Ramzan Sa’ab goes to a gaushala to take care of cows and sings Krishna bhajans in temples. What does Ramzan Khan, donning a tilak and speaking Sanskrit and Brij impeccably, make us realise by his behaviour and carriage? Needless to say that he inherited all this from his father, Gafoor Khan, who himself was a good musician and had a great affection for cows. These people are not devotees of Arabic or Persian but of Sanskrit. In the past, they would have been honoured with the title of ‘pundit’. A person who has such a family tradition, can he be denied his duties on the basis of religion? Neither our Constitution nor the guidelines of UGC followed by BHU nor our traditions says this.

The protesting students of BHU should also be told that in several institutes of higher education all over the world, Islam is taught by Christians and Jews besides the Muslim maulanas. A teacher is known by the knowledge he gives and not by his religion, face or dress. Examples of such teachers can be found all around us.

Quite the contrary happened in BHU. This has gravely damaged the image of the university. Besides, the vision and sentiments of ‘Mahamana’ have also been wounded. Had a little restraint been used, the ‘sarv vidya ki rajdhani’ (the capital of all knowledge, a phrase used in the BHU ‘Kulgeet’) would have presented an example before the entire world. Alas, it couldn’t happen. Mahamana, please forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. His Twitter handle is @shekarkahin