It is ironic that the online site of Banaras Hindu University opens with a quote from Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya stating ‘India is not a country of the Hindus only. It is a country of the Muslims, the Christians and the Parsees 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’. Sadly this jewel amongst educational institutions reposed with the profundity of a progressive moto, Vidyay?'mritama?nute or ‘Knowledge imparts immortality’, is struggling to nuance and uphold its foundational bearing with the shifting sands of time.

A section of students as per media reports, have not allowed the University to function because of the appointment of one Firoze Khan, as Assistant Professor of the Sanskrit Vidya Dharm Vijnan. Reports suggest that since the stir, the young scholar has left Varanasi and returned to his native Jaipur.

The assumption that a Muslim cannot be entrusted to preserve or promote Indian Shastras, Sanskrit language or literature, intrinsically wounds the soul of a civilisational Bharata (named after either Dushyanta’s son or Rishabha’s son) that is perched on the tenets of inclusivity, assimilation and wisdom.

It is the vividness of this cultural diversity within, that the loftiest modern exponent of Hinduism, Swami Vivekananda, had beautifully invoked in his seminal address at Chicago, ‘I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth’, later he added, ‘Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair’.

Today such mellifluous thoughts pale in the shadows of alien stridency that is diminishing, stabbing and injuring the soul of Hinduism, as also the nation. It is worth wondering as to how a Vivekananda, Gandhi or indeed a Madan Mohan Malviya would have responded to the ongoing saga?

From all public accounts, Firoze Khan is an eminently qualified scholar with an impeccable academic record and proficiency in Sanskrit, after having done his Masters and PHD in his preferred subject of choice. At 29 years of age, this young man who was born just before inflexion point of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janam Bhoomi turmoil in 1992 – faces the consequences of deeper societal cleavages and faultlines that are getting institutionalised.

Now in the 21st Century, he is forced to confine his opportunities to the ‘silos’ that the regressive elements, would have him confined to. The times that be, have oversimplified the intricate calculus and interwoven tapestry that defines our societal composition, to a reductive level wherein languages have acquired distinct religions, as also have colours!

The naturalness of a Mohammed Rafi singing a bhajan in his inimitable voice ‘hai paas tere jiski amaanat use de de, nirdhan bhi hai insaan mohabbat use de de, jis dar pe sabhi ek hain bande ye wo dar hai, insaaf ka mandir hai ye ...’ (if you have taken anyone’s asset, return it to the person as people are poor, give them love where all are treated equally, this is that very place. It’s a worship place of judgement and the abode of God), is perhaps no longer the usual.

A few ago back a 15 year old girl, Anam Ali, had scored a perfect 100% in her 10th CBSE Board exams in Sanskrit and a newspaper felt compelled to headline the news as ‘Guess who hit a ton in Sanskrit?’ What was presumably alluded to was not the young girl’s obvious brilliance, or the fact that Sanskrit as a subject was not dead but a live choice for the young generation – but a wonderment revolving around her religion. Just to contextualize the story, the newspaper reported that young Anam also ‘knows to read and write Urdu well’!

The lazy narrative of Sanskrit belonging to a specific religion is unintelligible and crude logic, and a grossly inadequate one at that. The fact that Sanskrit predates most organised religions should address the issue of its so-called ownership or exclusivity. Its intellectual and philosophical outreach is universal, all-pervasive and boundless that requires no retrofitting or narrowing of its limitless expanse.

The haunting and timeless wisdom contained in Lord Buddha’s last words in Sanskrit ‘Atmo deepo vabah, Atma sarana vabah, Ananya saranah vabah’ (meaning ‘Light your soul like a lamp, and take shelter in your conscience. That's the best thing to follow’) is universal and cannot belong to a denomination of race, religion, region or caste.

Regrettably for some, the wonderfully native and naturally-poetic Urdu has become the language of Islam – and by the same illogical binary, Sanskrit the exclusive domain of the Hindus.

This wholly misplaced simplification echoes and resonates with the flawed spirit of the ‘two-nation theory’ that was adopted by another country and rejected by us. And this is particularly important for people of a certain religious denomination who rightfully chose to repose their faith in the land where their ancestors were buried, as opposed to the suffocations and chimera of the ‘land of the pure’.

Incredously we ask those very people to ‘choose’ between the two nations, two contrasting thoughts, again.

As a very proud soldier and former-combatant, this ‘new normal’ of India militates against the instincts and moorings that we thought we were safely bestowed with, or at least aspiring towards. Contiguous to the district of Benaras (or Varanasi), are the dust-bowl districts of Gazipur and Mau, that have given my institution i.e. Armed Forces, and by that extension, India, two illustrious sons who go down in the golden annals of its Indian Army, as it’s very finest.

Havildar Abdul Hamid (Param Vir Chakra) from Dhamupur in neighbouring Gazipur, martyred in the 1965 Indo-Pak war, is credited with destroying seven Pakistani tanks. And the ‘Lion of Nowshera’ Brigadier Mohammed Usman (Maha Vir Chakra) of Bibipur in Mau district -who is revered and acknowledged for ensuring that Kashmir stays with India -did his schooling in Benaras!

To even think that anyone can question the loyalty of soldiers,on the basis of their religiosity, is an absolute abhorrence and anathema to our glorious traditions.

Noted Indian director, screen-writer, novelist and journalist, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, had written about the Lion-till-the-last, Brigadier Usman, ‘a precious life, of imagination and unswerving patriotism, has fallen a victim to communal fanaticism. Brigadier Usman's brave example will be an abiding source of inspiration for Free India’. 72 years since ‘Free India’ is once again vulnerable, and this time the enemy is within, as much as it is on the other side of the border.

Young Firoze Khan deserves better, and those who deny him that dignity in his own country, bring no glory to their cause, their religion, let alone the country. As the world drives ahead and evolves to meet newer challenges of this century, some will betray themselves, their generation and their nation by continuously looking back and pointing to all imagined ghosts and injuries of the past.

India needs to talk the language, syntax, emotions and aspirations of tomorrow and not yesterday – for that it is very important to celebrate Firoze Khan who chose Sanskrit as a true devotee of the language, not because of the times that be, but despite these.

Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry