Unfolding Debate about Secularising Education
( To be published in ‘Indian Journal of Secularism)
“There is in every village a torch – the teacher; and an extinguisher – the priest.”
“Keep the words God, Jesus and the devil out of the classroom.”
A school teacher’s message on the first day of the school for first-grade students had caused tremendous consternation among a section of the parents.
She had a simple rationale to present her proposal. With their being a public school with children coming from different religions and beliefs joining it, she did not “[w]ant to upset a child/parent because of these words being used,” In her letter she had also advised them to talk to the children when they go to the church/temple/synagogue – whatever might be the case – or discuss the issue at home at an appropriate time and place of talking about it.” (https://www.indystar.com/story/news/education/2017/08/30/teacher-tells-first-graders-dont-talk-god-classroom/612118001/)
Well, instead of the discussion getting fixed on the slow imposition of the concept of God or closing of child’s minds it turned into a debate on students’ free speech rights. It did not take much time for the management of the school to rescind this proposal.
There is nothing new about this dilemma faced by a teacher who has welfare of students at the center of her/his concerns.
‘The Guardian’ had done a similar story some time back in a different manner where the science teacher had himself shared the dilemma inside the classroom. (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/jul/20/god-classroom-teaching-science) The teacher had described the “[a]wkward situation of teaching something that flatly contradicts the religious beliefs of some of their students.” or meeting “[s]tudents ..who have been brought up to believe that the holy book of their particular religion contains the literal truth about the origins of life and the universe” but in concluding remarks had emphasised how proper science education would equip young people to arrive at their own decisions about what to believe, and not to believe.
One can discuss similar experiences from different contexts and surroundings.
The task to discuss / not discuss the concept of god and its place in society and frankly discuss its relevance ( if any) for the subject being taught or raising question about holding regular prayer etc becomes extremely difficult if the institutions which manage the school/college or the parties which lead the government – who formulate policies to dictate what to teach and not to teach – become proactive on the issue. They use the medium of education to peddle their conservative world view and have no qualms in spreading superstition among them.
With the ascent of right-wing governments in different parts of the world the phenomenon seems quite widespread. The manner in which the idea of ‘creationism’ has caught fancy among many states of USA as opposed to the scientific theory of Evolution propounded by Darwin, is just an example to illustrate this.
No doubt countries of the third world seem to be more susceptible such onslaughts. One can look at well known physicist and human rights activists Prof Pervez Hoodbhoy’s writings who has been discussing consistently on the plight of Pakistani education which has been shaped by the military-Mullah complex there and how it has led to transformation of Pakistani universities from becoming “[b]eacons of enlightenment, open inquiry, and bold new thinking” to “sheep farms” ( e.g. https://www.dawn.com/news/1212051)
Of late, India – which had displayed lot of promise at the time of independence and had made strenuous efforts to embark a path emphasising scientific temper – seems to be catching up with the rest of the third world at a breakneck speed.
It is also true that one also notices that lot of efforts are going on – at the individual and collective level – to reinvigorate the spirit professed by ‘founding fathers’ of the Constitution, indicating once again that the struggle is far from over
It was June 2018 when BJP led state government in Rajasthan made a startling announcement.
It decided to invite Saints-Mahatmas to give lessons in moral education to the students, on every third Saturday of the month as an extra-curricular activity. (https://www.nationalheraldindia.com/india/rajasthan-government-schools-to-hold-classes-on-sadhus).What was more troubling that it was only few months back then that this part of India had been witness to the turmoil caused by the cases involving two high profile sadhus – Ram Rahim and AsaramBapu – for their involvement in sexual assault of their followers and other black deeds, who were later convicted by the courts. And there was enough documentary proof available to show how the saffrons did not shy away from showering their support to them in the long winding court battle, clearly with an eye on their mass following.
Vasundhara Raje led government had in fact to share few blushes then when it was brought to notice how in a chapter on saints in a Class III textbook taught in Rajasthan schools, the rape accused self-styled godman AsaramBapu had featured as a great saint, more than two years after he was jailed for his act. It was noticed that he was sharing the space in the text book with Vivekananda, Shankaracharya, Mother Teresa and Ramakrishna Paramhans in the book. ( http://www.mathrubhumi.com/tv/ReadMore/17604/in-rajasthan-class-iii-textbook-asaram-bapu-is-a-great-saint).
A quick perusal of the state’s policies reveal that inviting Saints-Mahatmas to schools was continuation of the process of providing ‘religious tinge’ to education undertaken by it. A report published in India Today had provided details about the ‘changes’ being undertaken there in the field of education since Raje government had took over :
“ Since 1 st July 2015 yoga, pranayam, vandemataram, suryanamaskar and meditation have been made compulsory at the time of school prayers ; Saraswati Puja Worship has been made compulsory on every government and non-government schools on BasantPanchami ; a school development committee has been formed in every school and its meeting is compulsory on every amavasya ; Bhagwadgeeta has been made part of curriculum; and Geeta and Jail diary of Bhagat Singh has been made mandatory in schools. Books on Integral Humanism and SamajikSamarasta have been made part of school libraries.” ( BadalneLagiHaiShiksha, ‘India Today’3 rd August 2016, Page 21)
The move to invite Saints-Mahatmas – most of them of dubious character – was later rescinded by the government after its stringent criticism by intellectuals and civil society people. Members of civil society as well as many political formations resisted this move purely on the basis of Constitutional Provisions to the effect.
It was pointedly asked whether such schools which are provided government aid can provide religious instruction or not ?
It was pointed out that a cursory glance at the constitutional debates makes it abundantly clear that a majority of the members – despite their own religious inclination – were clearly of the opinion that schools, whose basic purpose was supposed to to open minds of children and not to make them dumping ground of useless information, should never be opened up for any type of religious instruction. It was clear that they were seeing the perils of poisioning of minds by religious frenzy in this part of the subcontinent and were keen that future of independent India could be secured on secular grounds only.
The insertion of article 28 (1) just goes to show the united resolve of our founding fathers which clearly states that
“No religious instruction shall be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of State Funds” unless “established under any endowment or trust which requires that religious instruction shall be imparted in such institution”.
In fact article 28 of the constitution makes it more explicit and does not leave any ambiguity as far its implementation is concerned,
“No person attending any educational institution recognised by the state or receiving aid out of state funds shall be required to take part in any religious instruction that may be imparted in such institution or to attend any religious worship that may be conducted in such institution or in any premises attached thereto unless such person or, if such person is a minor, his guardian has given his consent thereto cultural and educational rights”.
It needs to be underlined that the expression religious instruction here has a restricted meaning. It conveys that teaching of customs, ways of worships, practices or rituals can not be allowed in educational institutions wholly maintained out of State funds.
It is worth considering whether an educational institution could impose its will on the students vis-a-vis religious instruction under the name of moral teaching etc ? Perhaps drafting committee of the constitution was aware of this possibility as well at a general level and had clearly stated that any such imposition is a breach of article 19 which says “”All citizens shall have the right -(a) to freedom of speech and expession;”; any such imposition is also a breach of article 25(1) which says “
“Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all person are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.”
What was found more disturbing that BJP government in the state then had not bothered to pay a heed to another constitutional provision which includes under fundamental duties “To develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”. ( Sec V, article 51 A on Fundamental duties) fully knowing that any such sermon by these “Saints-Mahatmas” would be a strong deterrent in development of scientific temper.
One could say that wiser sense prevailed and the government retracted its move.
What Raje government ( which has been replaced by Congress led government) tried to do was part of a practice popularised by the BJP which was leading the government at the center and many states.
Time and again it has expressed their proximity not only towards a particular religion but have promoted issues, taken up moves, courted controversial Sadhus which have had a serious impact on the secular fabric of the constitution. The public display of religiosity – which was unthinkable or rather muted till a few years ago- by people holding reins of power has become a new norm these days.
Merely few months before this order by the Rajasthan government, the MP government then led by Shiv Raj Singh Chauhan had granted Minister of State (MoS) rank to five religious leaders (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bhopal/madhya-pradesh-government-gives-mos-status-to-5-godmen/articleshow/63618992.cms) It was evident that the immediate trigger to make these appointments was that few of these Sadhus had planned to take out Yatra to supposedly expose an an alleged scam by the government.
In this era of ‘binary’ politics, it is possible to take out a similar examples from the records of any other secular parties and show that what BJP or governments led by it has been doing is nothing unusual.
Any such claim or understanding which reduces the really ground breaking developments in Indian politics merely as a ‘political change’’ would tend to miss the ‘paradigm shift’ which is occurring (has occured) before our own eyes, thanks to the BJP government. (https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/bharat-bhushan-pm-as-pilgrim-or-indianness-redefined-114081401189_1.html) In fact, in a write-up commenting on Prime Minister Modi’s first Nepal trip ( August 2014) the author and well known journalist Bharat Bhushan had put it rather bluntly how a conscious attempt is on not only to legitimise ‘Hindu rituals in the public sphere’ but ‘’create a predominantly Hindutva public sphere that marginalises others.”( -do-)
Remember in his very first trip to Nepal Mr Modi had made a personal visit to Pashupatinath Temple, wearing a saffron kurta and saffron chawl, ‘wearing two strings of the holy rudrakshabead’and had symbolically presented 2,500 kg of yellow sandalwood to the temple authorities. He had performed a “RudraAbhishek” – a ritual supposedly performed to please Lord Shiva. The author had raised an important question whether it should have been done as “a representative of a secular republic” and whether ‘gifts’ worth more than 4 crore Rs should have been given from the funds from public exchequer should have “been linked with Modi’s personal visit to the temple?”
He had contrasted this public display of religiosity by the head of the state to the stand adopted by the newly independent Indian state on the proposal for renovation of the Somnath Temple.
When Sardar Patel and K M Munshi went to Mahatma Gandhi with the project, he blessed the idea but told them that people should contribute for the renovation and not the state. Jawaharlal Nehru distanced himself from the project. He reprimanded Munshi for writing to the Indian Embassy in Peking asking it to “send waters from the Hoang Ho, the Yangtse and the Pearl rivers, and also some twigs from the Tien Shan mountains” for the reconstruction of Somnath. (-do-)
There are innumerable other examples which go to show the conscious manner in which the leaders of the nascent republic took steps so that the state does not appear favourably disposed towards particular religion, maintain separation between religion and state.
We should never forget that founders of constitution decided to move ahead on these lines in an atmosphere which had seen enough inter-communal bloodletting and killing of innocents. Despite the challenges involved in the process they resolved that unless and until we ensure separation of religion and politics similar bloodletting may occur again. The principled stand on maintaining the separation taken by Gandhi and Nehru, vis-a-vis Somnath Temple was merely a reflection of this greater concern.
“Prayer is a religious practice. And the Constitution of India, via Article 28, says that no religion instruction shall be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of State funds.
…In a similar instance in the United States of America, one man had petitioned that religious prayers must not be held in schools run by State funds as the USA is a secular country. And the supreme court of America agreed with that viewpoint and passed a judgment. Now this practice of prayers has been discontinued in American schools run on government funds.”
It is an interesting coincidence that this move by the Rajasthan government ( since rescinded) had come at a time when the highest courts of the country had been seized of a similar matter and had even asked the government to clarify its stand. A petition has been filed in the SC by Veenayak Shah, an advocate based in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh whose children had passed out of KV, which claimed that the Hindi prayers sung during the morning prayers in over 1100 Kendriya Vidyalaya’s promote a particular religion and hence violate the Constitution.
According to the petition, the Hindi prayers including shlokas like ‘asto ma sadgamaya’ and other prayers promote particular religious beliefs and thus parents of students from religious minorities, agnostics etc. might find them “constitutionally impermissible”. (https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/supreme-court-kendriya-vidyalaya-hindi-prayers-religion-constitution-1131217-2018-01-10). The Supreme Court had observed the petition had raised a ‘serious issue’ and has thus issued a notice in the same.
The petition stated that such religious instruction will create a “lot of obstacles in developing a scientific temperament among the students”. The petition insisted that a school or any educational institution funded by state cannot propagate any particular religion and had asked the courts to “Issue a writ of mandamus or any other appropriate writ, order or direction to Respondents to forthwith discontinue any form of Prayer from the Morning Assembly or otherwise in Kendriya Vidhalaya Sangathans and to promote Scientific learning among the students”
Describing the daily routine inside a Kendriya Vidyalaya the petition contended that all the students have to begin their day by reciting the Common Prayer also followed by silent prayer. It added
” This practice creates a lot of obstacles in developing a Scientific Temperament among the students as the whole idea of God and Religious Faith is given immense priority and the same is instilled as a thought process among the students as well. Students as a result learn to develop an inclination towards seeking Refuge from Almighty instead of developing a Practical Outcome towards the Obstacles and hurdles faced in everyday life and spirit of enquiry and reform seems to be lost somewhere”
It had provided the following grounds for filing the petition . ( https://www.livelaw.in/sc-issues-notice-centre-plea-stop-prayer-song-kendriya-vidyalayas-based-particular-religion-read-petition/)
1) The right to life enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution of India guarantees protection of life and personal liberty. Further, the Schools have bound the students to recite and conduct the Prayers without giving them a liberty to refrain from the same.
2) Under Article 19 of the Constitution, the citizens have been guaranteed Freedom of Speech and expression and as a result the students shall not be put under any compulsion to recite the prayer or even as to recite in particular manner by folding their hands and closing their eyes.
3) Because immense emphasis is laid down on the recitation of prayer and its importance thus curbing the growth of scientific temperament among students and young minds.
4) The above prayer is being enforced throughout the country in all Kendra Vidhalayas. As a result, parents and children of the minority communities as well as Atheist and others who do not agree with this system of Prayer such as Agnostics, Sceptisists, Rationalists and others would find the imposition of this prayer constitutionally impermissible.
5) The above prayer is based on Hindu religion and it is very different both in substance and form from the prayers of the other religious/ non-religious orientations mentioned above, hence, can the state impose the above mentioned “common prayer” on students and teachers throughout the country.
6) In Aruna Roy & Ors. Vs. Union of India & Ors. (1996) 3 SCC 212 held the distinction between “Religious Instructions” and “Study of Religions. The Court held that “Special care has to be taken for avoiding possibility of imparting “Religious Instructions” in the name of “Religious Education”.
One learns that it Supreme Court has placed the issue before a Constitution bench to decide the matter and it remains to be seen when the said Bench is constituted. (https://scroll.in/article/911135/should-kendriya-vidyalaya-students-say-hindu-prayers-sc-has-chance-to-revisit-previous-assumptions)
A bench led by Justice Rohinton Nariman said the question raised in a public interest litigation filed by lawyer Veenayak Shah was of seminal importance and placed it before the Chief Justice to refer to a Constitution bench of at least five judges. (-do-)
The importance of this petition before the highest courts can also be gauged from the fact that even NCERT – which is tasked by the Government of India ‘to assist and advise the Central and State Governments on policies and programmes for qualitative improvement in school education’ and also undertake ‘research in areas related to school education; prepare and publish model textbooks’ etc has also noted something amiss in the way prayers are held in school assemblies across the country and how it alienates children from minority communities further. It was only last year that news had appeared in a section of the media about a manual prepared by it underlining these difficulties :
A manual prepared by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has pointed out that children from minority communities at times find the prayers in the school assemblies and picture of gods and goddesses on the walls alien to them and has suggested some changes including the celebration of festivals related to religious minorities in schools, sensitive handling of these children during religious functions celebrated in schools, and adequate representation of minority parents in the School Management Committees (SMC).
Emphasising that empowerment of the socially disadvantaged groups, SCs (scheduled castes), STs (scheduled tribes), OBCs (other backward classes) and the minorities should remain on the priority list of the country, because these groups still lag behind the rest of the society due to their social, economic and educational backwardness :
It has also noted how discriminatory practices against these groups by teachers, peer groups and system are still prevalent in some schools and how the school management committee should play an important role to curtail such discrimination and provide a conducive atmosphere.(-do)
A perusal of judgements by various courts also corroborate the fact that judiciary tries its best to protect the fundamental spirit of the constitution mentioned earlier. For example, Bombay High court had held that a ‘[t]eacher cannot be forced to fold his hands while standing in the school prayers or hold his hand in the front while taking oath of the preamble of the Constitution.’ (https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/teacher-cannot-be-forced-to-fold-hands-in-school-prayers-bombay-hc/) It had said that forcing a teacher to do so would be violation of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. Justice Abhay Oka and Revethi Mohiti Dhere of the Bombay High Court had observed it while taking up the petition of a teacher Sanjay Salwe, who worked as a teacher in Matoshri Savitribai Phule Vidyalay in Nashik town of Western Maharashtra.
The school authorities had penalised him for ‘indiscipline’ and refused to to give higher pay scale for not folding his hands while prayers were being held. Teacher had contended that the prayer sung in the school is of religious nature and therefore he did not fold his hands. The teacher, who had an excellent record while working in the school since 1996 had argued that he has freedom of expression as per the Article 19 of the Constitution and,therefore,he cannot be forced to stand with folded hands at the time when the prayers are sung. Initially he had approached the education department, which had ruled in his favour but when school management refused to obey its order he had directly taken up the matter in Bombay High Court.
“I was not looking for a fight. All I was saying was that compulsory prayer is contrary to Article 28 (3) of the Constitution of India. It says that no person shall be required to take part in any religious instruction or to attend religious worship in an educational institution funded by the state. The Maharashtra Secondary School Code mentions the national anthem, but not prayer.
What needs to be specially mentioned here that Sanjay Salve was later given Dr. Narendra Dabholkar Memorial Award for ‘pursuing a lone legal battle that successfully upheld a citizen’s right of not having to kneel before religious authority’ at Swatantralokam, the Annual Conference of the Science Trust, held in Calicut, where he was interviewed by Babu Gogineni, an Indian Humanist, rationalist, and human rights activist, who also served as Executive Director of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) for many years.
Excerpts of the interview would be opportune here :
“I joined the school in 1996 and for 12 years I was given excellent ratings in my Confidential Reports. But because I did not fold my hands while the rest of the school was praying in the School Assembly I was asked to provide a written explanation. I explained that as a Buddhist Atheist I did not wish to pray and that I had no obligation to do so. ..
“From then onwards, I was made to feel unwelcome. .. I wrote to the Government repeatedly but they never responded. Only when I approached the High Court did the District Education Officer respond to my complaint.
“The Officer wrote to the School Management that I could not be compelled to pray. He also said that the 30 minutes of mandatory daily human values education means also recognising the value of secularism. They were obliged to follow these instructions, but they did not. Even when warned by the Government that their funding would be cut off, they did not relent. I therefore had to approach the High Court once again to secure my rights. After all, I stand when the prayers are said, respecting the fact that others are praying. It is just that I do not join my hands during the religious prayer and I do not hold out my hand during the oath taking ritual. Did the Supreme Court of India not rule two decades ago that the 7th Day Adventists could not be compelled to sing the National Anthem?”(-do-)
The school where Salve taught is named after Savitribai Phule – the legendary social reformer from 19 th century – who alongwith her friend/comrade Fatima Shekh and her husband Mahatma Phule had started the first women’s school in Pune. Savitribai Phule belonged to Mali community, considered a lower caste in the caste hierarchy.
The trial itself was instructive. “What is wrong with singing the Freedom fighter Sane Guruji’s prayer? It is secular. It says true religion should make us love humanity. It asks you to spread smiles on the faces of the oppressed,” a judge remarked to Sanjay. After all, Sane Guruji has an important place in the cultural history of Maharashtra – he fought to end untouchability, and even undertook a fast unto death to get the doors of the Pandharpur Vithoba temple opened to the untouchables.
“It is not secular because it invokes God” was Salve’s response. “I cannot say this prayer as it says I am a child of God whereas I am the child of my parents. I cannot be compelled to sing this prayer or be asked to revere the religious concept of Satyam Shivam Sundaram even if it invokes Truth and Beauty,” Sanjay contended.
The Division Bench of Justice Abhay Oka and Justice Revati Mohite Dere did not agree that the prayer was religious, but found that Salve had the fundamental right not to pray and that he could not be compelled to do so. They ruled that folding of hands was not mandatory and that all of Sanjay’s increments, stopped since 2008, should be paid to him by 31 January 2014.
“[i]ts importance lies in the fact that educational institutions are taking it; there young people are led to understand their surroundings and their place in history. More, the last five years have seen grave assaults on the autonomy of these institutions. The opening up of the ‘religion’ option through terms ranging from ‘humanity’ to ‘non-religious’ therefore suggests both an assertion of autonomy and the desire to encourage independent thought among students.
As one awaits how the Constitution Bench deliberates on this petition about prayer in KVs or remembers/celebrates the not so little victory of Sanjay Salve it is heartwarming to see that the spirit to give a “[f]ormal welcome to fearless thinking and freedom of belief” (https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/a-formal-welcome-to-fearless-thinking-and-freedom-of-belief/cid/1691634?ref=opinion_opinion-page) is spreading. We have been witness to admission forms of some colleges from Calcutta this year providing new options under religion: humanity, secular, non-religious, atheism. Appears unbelievable !
Well, in an ambience loaded with religiosity and its increasing conflation with state, it is rather difficult to believe that some colleges may take such a creative step to convey how they see what is happening around them? No doubt it is small step but as noted by analysts it is an attempt to break/challenge the ‘construction of identity, thought and social and political space, indirectly conveying the vision of a secular and diverse India.’ (https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/a-formal-welcome-to-fearless-thinking-and-freedom-of-belief/cid/1691634?ref=opinion_opinion-page)
The significance of this little step can be better understood if one looks into the fact that the elections held to the 17 th Parliament – which has returned BJP to power – have demonstrated one more thing that BJP is the ‘the most preferred party of young India’ (https://www.thehindu.com/elections/lok-sabha-2019/the-most-preferred-party-of-young-india/article27277454.ece) It has support cutting across caste as well as class lines. It is the same BJP which alongwith its ‘Parivar’siblings has consciously tried to conflate religion with exercise of power and has been successful in collapsing the majority faith into a rabid nationalism which targets difference and dissent and other specific groups, the ‘others’ according to its worldview.
With few hundreds or say few thousands of students seeking admission to those colleges every year being exposed to the idea of education being imparted without any compulsion to declare one’s religion, is definitely a welcome thing.