When students fought for a Muslim professor of Vedas
In 1977, a young, clean-shaven man, attired in an immaculate dhoti and kurta, joined the department of Sanskrit in Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gorakhpur University as an assistant lecturer (on an ad hoc basis) to teach the Vedas.
His name was Ashab Ali.
After a Haj pilgrimage in 1997, Ali started sporting a beard and his attire changed to a kurta-pajama with a skull cap. That did nothing to diminish his popularity with his fellow teachers and students, though. He continued to work till 2010, and was even the head of the department for some time.
Ali says he is surprised by the controversy over the appointment of Firoze Khan as assistant professor in the department of Sahitya at the faculty of Sanskrit Vidya Dharm Vinan in Banaras Hindu University (BHU). Authorities, including no less a personage than the vice chancellor, have endorsed the appointment, but some students at BHU have been protesting since November 7 demanding Khan’s removal or transfer. According to them, a Muslim professor cannot do justice to the job.
Ali, now 72, doesn’t remember any discrimination or misbehaviour by fellow teachers or students in a department dominated for years by Brahmins and Thakurs. Sure, there was one incident when a fellow teacher made some communal remarks (after he started sporting the skull cap) but mostly “they accepted me for my knowledge”, Ali said.
Ali topped both his BA and MA exams in Sanskrit in 1969 and 1971 . He then completed a PhD on a comparative study of Vedic and Islamic myths under the then head of department, Atul Chandra Banerjee, who also played a key role in his appointment.
Ali retired as head of department (HoD) in 2010, the only Muslim professor to hold the highest departmental post.
Expressing his displeasure over the treatment being meted out to Firoze Khan, he said: “Such things never happened in our times. Despite being a Muslim, I continued to excel in Sanskrit and went on to become the head of a department that was full of Brahmins.”
He recalls how a group of Hindu students laid siege to Banerjee’s office to protest against the preference given to two Hindu teachers over him when it came to promotion to a regular teacher position in 1979. They ensured his appointment as a regular teacher. His heads of department, for their part, made sure classes didn’t clash with his prayers.
Commenting on Ali, the current head of the department Murli Manohar Pathak said: “ He was so hard working that during his days of studies in the university he would come by a cycle, pedalling over 30 km daily from neighbouring Maharajganj, his home. He was a gentleman.”
And a scholar.