Place of religion in public schools: Part 1

Rohit Dhankar

Recently, I had an occasion to be part of a discussion on ‘place of religion in public schools’ with the teachers. This article uses the glimpses of the discussion. The idea, here, is not to report the discussion as it happened, but to reflect on some salient points that emerged in course of the discussion.  The teachers were of a school that proclaims itself to be a secular school in strict sense of the term. The occasion of discussion was created because the teachers and coordinators in the school had some doubts, confusions and disagreements. None of these doubts, confusions and disagreements seems to be philosophically and politically profound. Rather, they have emerged in course of day to day dealings with practical situations in the school and it appears that the opinions, concerns and doubts of these teachers were representatives of cross-section of larger community of the teachers in India. It, thus, goes beyond the concerns of a single school in question and makes these un-profound doubts of the teachers worth discussing and reflecting upon. The note from the organizers of the discussion put forth two questions:

  1. What is the place of religion in a public school?
  2. What should be the view and attitude of teachers towards religion in a public school?

The term ‘public school’ here is used to distinguish the schools from avowedly religious schools or schools run by religious denominations. It includes all government run schools and all schools recognized by the appropriate authorities which are not in the category of religious schools even if run by private parties.

I was supposed to lead the discussion. To start with, I found the two questions articulated above too general, and therefore, presenting a danger of making the discussion removed from actual concerns. So I asked the teachers to articulate their own problems and concerns. The issues and questions raised and articulated by the teachers themselves could be organized as follows, though these are not their exact words:

  1. Meaning of secularism—
    1. What is secularism?
    2. Can a person (teacher) who is deeply religious and has his/her religious beliefs firmly set in his mind behave as a secular person in public?
    3. Can a person who is deeply religions be secular in his private and family life?
    4. If a country declares itself to be secular how can it give freedom to preach various religions? How can it allow its citizens freedom to practice religion of their choice?
    5. Can people actually be secular? Does not everyone necessarily have a religion?
  2. Meaning of religion—
    1. Isn’t dharma the knowledge of right and wrong? Then how can we be secular? Every one needs the knowledge to distinguish right from wrong.
    2. What is religion? What is the difference between ‘religion’ and ‘dharma’?
  3. What should the school do if the children come half a day late every Tuesday on account of pooja in Hanuman temple or leave every Friday at lunch time to participate in the Jumma Namaz? Should it allow them, or try to dissuade them? Or simply prohibit coming late or leaving early?
  4. Display of religious symbols and behaviour in the school—
    1. Should teachers be allowed to display their religious symbols like thick moli dora on their wrist? Or tilak on their forehead in school? Should children similarly be allowed to display these symbols in school?
    2. What if a female teacher, while in school, covers her head every time she hears azaan from nearby Mosque, though normally she does not keep her had covered? Should children be allowed similar behaviour?
    3. Should teachers be allowed to preach their religion in the school? How are the above activities different from preaching their religion?
  5. Religious behaviour of teachers outside the school—
    1. Should teachers be allowed to preach their religion in the immediate community in which the school is situated and from which the children come to school?
    2. Should teachers be allowed to work for better adherence to their own religion amongst their co-religionists in the community, though do not preach it to the followers of other religions?
    3. Should teachers participate in public religious activities like keertan or namaaz every day or very frequently?

I was somewhat surprised at these questions. Many of them would not have come up in my own schools—where I studied—in late 50s and 60s. People would not have cared about them anyway. But then I remembered that when I recently visited my own Higher Secondary School I was surprised to find a Hanuman temple sitting on one of its entrances. There was no temple when I studied there. It seems the public discourse on religion is changing or has changed. Any ways, I did not answer these questions directly in the discussion, rather tried to develop a dialogue on them. But in this post I am articulating my own position and not trying to reproduce the dialogue. Perhaps in present day educational discourse these are important questions. I would be very much interested in readers’ (if there are any) views on these questions and my own position on them.

I will try to take these questions one by one below, more or less as I articulated my views in the discussion. I am not sure if the teachers were convinced by the answers that emerged in the discussion or by my views on these issues, most probably not.

Meaning of secularism

What is secularism?

The teachers had a range of views on secularism: from respecting all religions equally to being totally indifferent and unconcerned about religions, to taking any anti-religion stance. They also saw secularism as an ideology of the state and of an individual.

It seems to me that the term secularism mainly addresses the issues of relationship between the state and religion and of public behaviour in general. Secularism is an ideology that claims that humans are capable of solving their social and political problems on the basis of their experience and reason in this world. They neither need to wait for life after death nor for any divine intervention. The state and society should organise their policies in a manner that they are not influenced by religious dogma or practices. That the state is indifferent to all religions, and further it treats all its citizens equally and fairly according to its own rule and policies and does not discriminate on the basis of their religious beliefs and affiliations. Secularism has no problem with citizens’ beliefs and religious practices as long as they do not interfere with other citizens’ rights. Religious beliefs of citizens are their private mater.

In India, however, there seems to be a debate on two significantly different meanings of secularism. One view of secularism is “state being equidistant and unconcerned with all religions”, that is what I will mean by secularism in this article. The other meaning is “equal respect for all religions”, which I will call sarva-dharma-samabhava here. Difference can be illustrated by an example. Recently, I have heard (am not sure), that the Madhya Pradesh government has decided to make financial support available to senior citizens for char-dhaam-yatra. This decision is against the idea of secularism, as state has got to do nothing with religions and char-dham-yatra of its citizens is their own private business. But if one takes sarva-dharma-samabhava as the state ideology, then the state provision of financial support to citizens from all religions—haz for Muslims, pilgrimage for Christians, Gurudwara pilgrimage for Sikhs, and so on—it becomes acceptable.

The idea of sarvadharama-samabhava is said to be propagated by Gandhi. He called it equimindedness or equal respect towards all religions. The present-day interpretation and practice of sarvadharma-samabhava is different from how Gandhi viewed it. Let’s dwell on this difference a bit. To understand Gandhi’s idea of sarvadharma-samabhava we have to begin with his understanding of relationship between religion and reason. He has written much on the subject. I will give just two examples to make the point here. Gandhi did not preach blind faith in and following of scriptures. In response to Mr. Andrews he writes “I reject any religious doctrine that does not appeal to reason and is in conflict with morality. I tolerate unreasonable religious sentiment when it is not immoral”. (Emphasis added, CWMG Vol.21, Young India, 21-7-1929) In Young India 19-1-21 while writing on untouchability he states “[T]he devil has always quoted scriptures. But scriptures cannot transcend reason and truth. They are intended to purify reason and illuminate truth. I am not going to burn a spotless horse because the Vedas are reported to have advised, tolerated, or sanctioned the sacrifice.” (CWMG vol.22) Thus he is prepared to submit religious scriptures to the test of reason and morality. In connection with an incident of stoning to death in Afghanistan, he wrote “[W]hatever may have been necessary or permissible during the Prophet’s lifetime and in that age, this particular form of penalty cannot be defended on the mere ground of its mention in the Koran. Every formula of every religion has, in this age of reason, to submit to the test of reason and universal justice if it is to ask for universal assent. Error can claim no exemption even if it can be supported by the scriptures of the world”. (Young India, 26-2-1925, CWMG Vol.30) He obviously was not scared of expressing his views on what is conjoined in scriptures be they Veda or Koran.

All religions accordion to him are man-made and imperfect because man himself is imperfect. “Religion of our conception, being thus imperfect, is always subject to a process of evolution and re-interpretation.” (September 23, 1939; CWMG Vol.50) In the same article he goes on “[A]nd if all faiths outlined by men are imperfect, the question of comparative merit does not arise. All faiths constitute a revelation of Truth, but all are imperfect and liable to error. Reverence for other faiths need not blind us to their faults.” Thus Gandhi’s idea of equal respect emerges from three key assumptions: one, all religions are man made and therefore imperfect. Two, all have both errors and truths. Three, religious dogmas can be revaluated and reinterpreted in the light of reason and morality of the day. If that be so, there is no reason to respect any one of them over the others. As a result his sarvadharma-samabhava is an appeal for open-mindedness and critical examination of religion; it is not for blind faith but for healthy scepticism about one’s own religion and healthy recognition of merits in other religions.

But modern-day Indian sarvadharma-samabhava is equal capitulating in the face of all religions. One can not interrogate and raise questions about religion. Hussain, Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie are victims of this mentality. The current interpretation of sarvadharma-samabhava bans critique of religion, kills freedom of expression. It sets all religions in competition with each other for more and more preferential treatment from the state, more and more freedom to create public inconvenience in the name of melas, poojas, namaaz and muharram. If one religion encroaches on the road to build a temple, the current sarvadharma-samabhava attitude does not allow the law to take its course and declare that as an encroachment and act to remove it. Rather it prefers abject surrender to encroachment in the name of Mosques, Chapels and Gurudwaras constructions as well. It is a mindless bowing down in front of religious force and can not be justified as a kind of secularism or even as Gandhian sarve dharma sambhava at all. However, the Constitution of India correctly interpreted, and if implemented in spirit, still has the strength to uphold secularism in its true spirit of equal distance from all religions.

In the schools, therefore, we should prefer secularism in the sense of school policies being totally independent of religious considerations and feelings. That brings us to the second question in this section.

Can a person (teacher) who is deeply religious and has his/her religious beliefs firmly set in his mind behave as a secular person in public?

In the discussion with teachers I crated a fictitious example. Suppose there is a judge, she is a deeply religious person; she lives a religious life and does her worship (pooja, namaaz, ardas, attending mass, or whatever). Actually lives her personal life according to the tenets of her own religion, and believes in her religious dogma. As a judge she has to adjudicate according to the legal framework of the country. The question is: is it possible for her to act strictly as per the secular legal system of the country in spite of her personal belief in her own religion? Some teachers thought it is possible without any difficulty, some others thought it is not possible. Those who thought it is not possible did not think that this person is going to pass her judgment on the cases as per her own religious laws. For example they did not think that she will award different punishments for the same crime (say murder) to a shudra  and a brahmin, as stipulated in Manu Smriti, even if she happens to be a devout Hindu. Or that she will award punishment to a thief as per Koran rather than as per Indian Penal Code if she happens to be a Muslim. In this they all agreed that she can actually act as per the current legal framework. Their problem was that she is going to be biased in favour of her own co-religionists and if a matter between the religions arises will be tiled towards her own religion. But that is a human failing, and has nothing particularly to do with religion. Favouritism can happen on grounds of caste, political affiliation, kinship or friendship basis. Her being religious does not necessarily make her any more biased than her other affiliations.

Therefore, at least theoretically there is no contradiction between a person being deeply religious in her personal life and acting as per the secular principles in the public affairs. A teacher can be religious in personal life and be secular in fulfilling his responsibilities in the school. He can teach, for example, history in a manner a true historian would do.

The possibility of leanings towards one’s favourite ideology, be that religious, communism or atheism, perhaps can not be totally ruled out. But in a school, or any other work place, with clearly laid down norms of behaviour, collective responsibility and transparency; society can control this tendency and keep it within harmless limits.

Can a person who is deeply religions be secular in his private and family life?

This is difficult to define what secularism in personal and family life would mean. Secularism is more of a principle for functioning of a state, and perhaps, of functioning of individuals in a multi-religious society and its public affairs. If the state policies, laws and rules of governance are not influenced by the religious doctrines, they are applied in spirit and they are non-discriminatory to its citizens, it is a secular state. A functionary of the state behaving as per those rules and principles is a secular citizen. Beyond that, what citizens believe in their personal lives is not really a matter of secularism. However, there might be people who prefer company of their own co-religionists and shun contact with believers of other religions. State can hardly do anything about it, even if this is an unfortunate attitude and eventually will fragment the society if majority of its members develop such attitudes. This kind of attitudes can not be corrected through laws, they are a matter of understanding. Friendship is definitely a personal matter. And religious beliefs may influence it. But there are umpteen numbers of examples where religious people do develop very close friendships with people from religions other than their own. A person who has this kind of biased attitude certainly can not be called secular in their social behaviours. But neither could they be corrected through making rules nor is it necessary that religious belief is going to promote such attitudes among believers.

Family life is a different mater altogether. The way of living, decorating one’s house, daily routine, visits of religious places, teaching of children, regulating one’s relationship with family members are all too personal for the state or any external agency to intervene. If a person is religious, his family behaviour will definitely be influenced by his religion. All one can expect in the name of secularism perhaps here is that a religious father or mother refrains from imposing his/her own views on other family members. That is very difficult, and perhaps religious people tend more to impose their views on their children than secular people do. But that is a matter of empirical study. In a democracy, all citizens have right to choose their own life and parents have no rights to impose their own choices on their children.

If a country declares itself to be secular how can it give freedom to preach various religions? How can it allow it’s citizens freedom to practice religion of their choice?

There have been secular states which don’t give freedom of publicly professing, practicing and preaching one’s religion to his/her fellow citizens. Peoples’ Republic of China has been one such state, and is one even now, in spite of relative openness compared to earlier times. Freedom to profess, practice and preach one’s religion for all citizens comes from the ideals of democracy, not from those of secularism. The fundamental principle of democracy is freedom to choose the kind of life one wants to live. And this freedom has to be extended to all citizens. For many people religious belief is a central issue in deciding the kind of life they want to live. And therefore, freedom to profess, practice and reach one’s religion can not be divorced from democratic values. Also, there is no necessary contradiction between secularism and believing in any particular religion as we have seen above. Therefore there is no reason for a democracy to curtail its citizens’ freedom to practice religion of their choice. A democracy necessarily has to be secular; however, a secular state may not necessarily be a democracy. The nation states which have a preferred religion are not true democracies, even if they claim to be so.

Can people actually be secular? Does not everyone necessarily have a religion?

This obviously is a mistaken question, in spite of the fact that it is asked ever so often. First, we have seen above that being religious and secular in public behaviour are not necessarily contradictory. Therefore, people who do believe in any particular religion can also be secular simultaneously.

But that is not the actual meaning of this question. The real questions here can be understood as:

  1. Can there be a person who does not believe in any religion?
  2. Can there be a person who does not believe in God?

These are naive questions very often asked by religious minded and theist people. It seems such questions arise out of unwarranted generalisations on the basis of one’s own state of mind. It is premised on ‘Since I am believer, therefore, others also must be believers’. Often people assume that moral principles are impossible to emerge but from religious belief. And since living in a society entails morality of some or other kind, therefore, everyone has a religious belief. But if we accept that there could be secular morality then necessity of religious belief for moral behaviour is no more there.

Actually the more forceful question is the second: it is assumed that human beings necessarily believe in some divine power. Often in teachers meetings—not in the one I have referred to here—people cling on such simple utterances as “he Ram” or “ohh God” as proof of belief in God. Another popular assumption is that every one believes in something or other, whatever that person believes is his God. This emerges out of ambiguity in the concept of God. One wonders if these questions are really worth engaging with. They seem to be results of confused state of mind regarding the meaning of religious belief and the God.

To be continued….


30th June 2013

Rohit Dhankar, Azim Premji University, Bangalore and Digantar, Jaipur

3 Responses to Place of religion in public schools: Part 1

  1. Anonymous says:

    Dear Rohit,
    read your note on secularism with interest. One is constantly at war with teachers over saraswati vandana and such like matters and nice to have a write up from you on this.
    I would only like to draw attention to what i see as a misplaced definition of secularism. you begin by defining it thus: “Secularism is an ideology that claims that humans are capable of solving their social and political problems on the basis of their experience and reason in this world. They neither need to wait for life after death nor for any divine intervention. The state and society should organise their policies in a manner that they are not influenced by religious dogma or practices.”
    This virtually means that secularism equals to rejection of religion.

    To my mind secularism consists in two principles: the public affairs will not be run on the basis of any religious dogma and religion will be a private affair. Secondly, the state reserves the right to interfere in the practice of any religion (private or public) which contradicts its core values as stated in its constitution.

    Thus to my mind secularism is not a general world view, but a principle of modern state which regulates the functioning of the state or the public space in general.

    A brief excusus into history may be of relevance. the idea of secular state originates in French Revolution and 19 century debates in England and US. First problem was the separation of state from organised religion (Church).
    France and US acheived this but not England.

    Second problem was how will the state view different sects of Christianity – will it promote one over the other, or lend its resources to one or the other? After much debate and struggle, it was resolved that the state will rigorously refrain from promoting any particular denomination – this was achieved both in England which has a state religion and in the US which is otherwise secular but for its central moto – IN GOD WE TRUST!

    The Soviet state stuck to these principles, while at the same time undertaking to promote atheism as a point of view. Some of the socialist states like Albania openly declared themselves an atheistic state – ie made it an article of basic faith of the constitution. Perhaps this was actually a transgression of the democratic norm as you mention.

    To conclude my first point – secularism has to do with the regulation of public life and should not be confounded with atheism or rejection of religiousness per se.

    A second point emerges from this: it is possible to keep distance from religion only so far as it does not interfere into the publc space – to put it strictly even family is a public space because it involves many equal individuals.
    Now religions including Hinduism, Islam or Christianity dont confine themselves to ones private affairs but have much to say about how people should relate to each other and hwo public affairs should be conducted. Some are more pronuncedly so as in the case of Islam which is political to begin with, as it puts the umma or the community in the centre of religion.
    The state thus cannot claim equidistance from these – it has to interfere to the extent that its own spere of work is a subject of religious intervention. This will vary from religion to religion.

    At the same time a democratic state as in India has an obligation to respect minorities and protect them. This may require tolerance of religious matters even in public affairs till such time as the minority community itself generates pressure for reform. This is the achillees heel of secularism. While India has had a particular solution of this problem, Europe is now rethinking on this as can be seen in the debates on use of head scarf by muslim girls in schools.

    In a sense this issue creates a tension and ambiguity even with respect with majority religions. I am sure in its resolution we will arrive at a newer meaning of secularism.


    • rdhankar says:

      Dear Subbu,
      I agree with almost all you say in your comment. Actually at many places you have expressed better what I wanted to say. However, on two issues I must say something.
      One, “the state reserves the right to interfere in the practice of any religion (private or public) which contradicts its core values as stated in its constitution.” I agree with it. Did not mention in the article because I consider it a direct implication of a democratic state’s duty to protect personal-autonomy and public liberty of all its citizens and regulate where they come into conflict with each other. Religious practice may come into that conflict and at that time state will intervene. A state that actively promotes atheism is not a secular state to my mind. I am likely to deal with it when defining religion.
      Second: “a democratic state as in India has an obligation to respect minorities and protect them. This may require tolerance of religious matters even in public affairs till such time as the minority community itself generates pressure for reform.” I do not agree with the idea expressed in the last sentence in the quote here. This is precisely the idea that leads religions into competition with each other in encroaching more and more public space—curbing freedom of expression, mistreating its adherents, creating public nuisance, and so on. This creates intolerance and one up man-ship. Nor do I agree with the contention that minorities have any special right to protect their ways of life and religion in the face of justice, equality, freedom and personal autonomy of citizens.
      Thanks for comment. Long time since we exchanged views. 


  2. […] which Gandhi defined equimindedness towards all religions. (For a brief comment on this see my blog […]


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