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Rohit Dhankar

Banaras Hindu University’s Sanskrit Vidya Dharm Vigyan (SVDV) faculty students are on protest. Simply because Dr. Firoz Khan, a Muslim, is appointed as an assistant professor in SCDV Faculty to teach Sanskrit literature; for which he is amply qualified as per the UGC norms.

Students’ objection seems to be how can a Muslim teach in a faculty which has Hindu-Dharma at its centre? How can a Muslim teach Hindu theology? How can a Muslim teach us Hindu dharma? How can a Muslim teach is Sanatana? These seem to be the questions being asked repeatedly. Most of the media, including social media this time, seems to think that the students are being bigoted, the term is actually used. And it is appropriate enough. But simply leaving the issue at that hides a much bigger problem in hour universities unearthed. The students are not only behaving in a bigoted manner, they are acting this way under a wrong assumption about university education.

Our universities are actually acting as if purpose of a university is to teach students to believe that their teachers believe. In other words, the purpose of university education is assumed to be producing ideological clones of their teachers. Even a cursory survey of any humanities and social science department will amply prove that most of the students regurgitate ideological positions of their teachers more or less exactly in the same terminology. The malaise is deeper when you move to the extremes of the political-ideology spectrum. Extreme right professors produce indoctrinated bigots who spew extreme right views, and extreme left professors actually leave no room in students minds for anything else but their meaningless jargon.

From this point of view, BHU students’ logic is flowless: how can a believing Muslim, who is by definition non-believer in Hinduism, teach them to believe in dogmas of Hinduism?

What these students don’t know, because they were never taught, is that purpose of university education is not to develop faith in the doctrines of your teachers; it is rather to learn critical examination of all doctrines, gain confidence in your own intellect, develop courage to chose your own belief system on the basis of your own reason.

The BHU students don’t seem to realise that when a professor teaches theory of evolution or philosophy of Plato or Nyaya-Darshan in a university, she is not trying to convert students into believing in what she is teaching. She is interest in making them understand these topics/branches of knowledge, their development, their context, the arguments and evidence in favour and against them. In a university classroom the issue is not ‘instilling the beliefs’; that would be indoctrination. The issue is ‘critical understanding’. And leaving the student alone to decide what to believe or not to believe.

A good teacher needs to understand the subject matter she is teaching and should also be capable of resisting strong urge to indoctrinate young minds. I have a suspicion our university teaching is failing in both. Neither the teachers have mastery over the subject matter they are teaching nor the open-mindedness to teach this without indoctrination.

To illustrate the point: Once some faculty members of a famous university were lamenting that the new master’s programme they started was not really successful. A discussion ensued as to why do they think so? After a long discussion the problem as formulated by one of the lamenting group was: “when the students come, they have certain views on society, polity, etc. and they remain more or less unchanged when they leave after two years”. Others gave a counter argument that “maybe we notice little change in day-to-day expression of beliefs, but the students defend their views with much more rigour and appropriate arguments. Also, on many crucial issues they are more open to think and reconsider when they face challenging argument after two years, in comparison to when they enter the university.” The lamenting group was not satisfied. And they were not wrong. They have been teaching 21-25 years olds who started speaking their teachers’ language by the time two years were over. Therefore, students not only felt gratified, they saw the direct results of their teaching. In this new programme average age of students was above 30 years and most had work experience of ranging from 5 to 10 years. These more mature students were not as pliable as the younger ones, the faculty saw it as a sign of failure. While it was exactly the opposite. The faculty in this university saw the job of the teacher not to make students understand but to instil chosen beliefs in their minds. That the students start thinking like them.

From the point of view of critically understanding doctrines and principles; be they theological or scientific; we will be better off as a society if a Firoz Khan teaches Gita and a Ghanshyam Sharma teaches Quran. If both these fictitious teachers be knowledgeable, intelligent, honest and caring for students they will be able to keep their own faith to themselves and deal with the subject matter with the kind of rigour it demands. In addition, the two faiths living side-by-side for thousand years may get a chance of being understood by believers of each other. (Personally, in my view a declared atheist would be the best theology teacher for any religion.)

I suspect most of our universities see ‘teaching’ as instilling beliefs rather than forming belief on critical rational grounds. And that precisely what makes universities factories of indoctrinated copies of their teachers. JNU is no different from SVDVF of BHU in this, even if the colour of indoctrination is opposite to each other.

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20 November 2019