In an unusual move, Lucknow University in Uttar Pradesh has entered into an agreement with a Hindu religious organisation to increase the religiosity quotient of its professors, staff and students, raising concerns over possible ‘saffronisation’ of the academic institution.
“The university has signed a memorandum of understanding with International Society for Krishna Consciousness so that the Gita is preached in the campus,” Durgesh Srivastava, public relations officer of the university, told NewsClick. “A week-long course is on and it’s not compulsory. Those who don’t want to visit the university because of the pandemic can participate online,” he said.
So, for one hour in the morning, professors turn students as a saffron-robed monk from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) preaches them from the Gita.
The Lucknow University recently turned 100 years old and the occasion was celebrated in a big way. Along with the universities in Allahabad, Varanasi and Aligarh, the Lucknow University has been a major centre of education in what during the British rule was United Provinces and became Uttar Pradesh after independence.
The university has given India two of her presidents – Dr. Zakir Husain and Shankar Dayal Sharma. Kavi Pradeep, the poet and Qurratulain Hyder, the Urdu novelist, are the other two notable alumni of the university in the field of literature.
But many feel that with the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in power both at the Centre and Uttar Pradesh, the secular institution is being saffronised.
However, Durgesh Srivastava said that the exercise must not be given a religious colour.
The university has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with ISKON. “As we have signed an MoU with ISKCON, discourses on the Gita will be organised in the future as well,” Srivastava said.
“Our aim is that our professors, staff and students imbibe something from the Gita and apply its essence in their life in a practical way under the present circumstances,” he claimed.
Poonam Tandon, dean, students’ welfare, has been meticulously attending the lectures of the ISKCON for the past one week.
“Our students are living in a world that is too materialistic. We need to make them aware about spiritualism as well. Also, the Gita revolves around karma. We need to teach our students about karma,” said Tandon.
Like her colleague, she also said the attempt of the university must not be linked with any particular religion.
Tandon said the new education policy declared by the central government in the recent past says that education must be imparted in a holistic way. “We can’t limit education to books. The new education policy says that spiritual growth and physical wellbeing of the students must also be taken care of,” Tandon added.
Explaining her own experience, Tandon further said, “For me it has been a novel experience. Some people have very strong faith in god. The faith of other people may not be that strong. ISKCON is teaching us in a scientific way about the existence of god.”
But those who strongly believe in secularism say the university’s decision to introduce the Gita in the campus is not so innocuous.
Roop Rekha Verma, former acting vice chancellor of the university, told NewsClick, “It’s a no-brainer what or whose ideology is being forced upon the nation. The Gita being preached in the university campus is just another step in that direction.”
Verma says she was a student and teacher of Indian philosophy. “The present government gives you the feeling that it wants to introduce the Vedic culture and philosophy in the country. But what they do not know is that in the Indian philosophy debate, argument and dissent were too important,” she said, asking, “Do you have any scope for debate or dissent today?”
Verma lamented that India was a democratic and secular nation but that was now only on paper. “In reality, we have become an autocratic and theocratic state,” she said. “An attempt is being made to stall the intellectual growth of the country.”
She said she was hopeless about the future. “The intellectuals, students and youth who are raising their voice against bigotry and parochialism are being charged with sedition and sent to jail,” said Verma. “Those who are speaking for the poor or the minorities or the Dalits are being arrested. The government’s message is very clear – toe our line or your future is doomed,” Verma claimed, adding that she was put under house arrest by the present government.
In Lucknow, SR Darapuri, a retired Indian Police Service officer who was part of the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC), said, “Religion is something very personal. But introducing the Gita in a university campus is against the secular values of the nation.” He added, “Needless to say, a person is free to study the Gita or do research on the book. But it can’t be imposed on every professor and student.”
He said, “The intentions of the UP government are very clear – to make India a Hindu state, and saffronisation of universities is a step towards that goal.”
Darapuri said the BJP-ruled state has become the most serious offender of the Constitution and the law.
Violence broke out in some places in Lucknow as last year people were protesting against CAA and NRC.
“The government declared those protesting CAA and NRC as rioters and their posters were put up at prominent places in Lucknow. Courts ruled against the step but the government did not bother to remove the posters. The government has become autocratic,” said Darapuri. Last December, the Allahabad High Court had directed the Lucknow administration to remove the such posters.
He further said, “The democratic, fundamental and constitutional rights of a citizen are being attacked not only in Uttar Pradesh but in every state where the Bhartiya Janata Party is in power. The law being introduced in the BJP-ruled states against the so-called Love Jihad is an example.”
Dr. Ashutosh Verma, a Samajwadi Party leader from Lucknow, said it was not so that the professors and students of the university are not aware about the teachings of the Gita. “They all are adults and must be aware about the contents of the epic. If the government wants to impart some spirituality in the minds of the professors and students, then why limit it to one religion. Why not introduce them to the teachings of holy books of all religions?” asked Dr. Verma.
Rohit Ghosh is an independent journalist based in Kanpur.