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Religious behaviour of students and teaches in the school

Rohit Dhankar

We are discussing place of religion in public schools in a secular democracy. What I am saying here may be totally irrelevant in a theocratic state or a country which does not place any value on secularism. Secondly, even within a secular democracy we are interested in public schools, most of which are state funded. Some of what is said may be applicable to denominational schools, but rest may not.

I am assuming (it could be argues quite plausibly, but I am leaving that out for lack of space) that education system in a secular democracy is duty bound to help children grow up into active and critical citizens who can make informed choices and can defend those choices in public. Of course education will have other aims as well; but I am deliberately taking this one for the sake our argument.

Democracy gives every citizen equal rights to autonomously choose the life they want to live within the constitutional framework; which is designed to promote equality, personal autonomy, liberty and freedom. Thus in a democracy every citizen needs to learn: 1. To understand and respect the others views and freedoms; and 2. To care about them. These seem to be necessary qualities of an active and critical democratic citizen; though not enough in themselves. Therefore, the job of the school becomes to help students understand others’ views and respect other people as equals even if one can not agree and respect their views. (There is a difference between respecting a person and respecting a belief. Demand to respect all beliefs equally is an impossible hypocrisy; while demand of equal respect to all people is a democratic ideal, and is possible.) This is a very difficult attitude to develop, and perhaps no one succeeds completely; but we all have to keep trying thorugh all our lives; that is, if we want to live in a democracy.

We should understand that a secular state can not preach anti-religion ideas. It has to give people freedom to choose their personal beliefs; the schools can preach neither religious dogma, not atheistic ones. They can simple present them and analyse them. A secular school can not disdain, prohibit or insult in any way religious behaviour of its students. It can make its policies strictly on the secular and constitutional grounds but if the children want to participate in pooja or namaz, and even if remain out of school for these purpose, it can do nothing. However, the usual penalty for being absent, if there is such a rule in the school, applies to those who remain absent for pooja and namaz as well. It seems to me that the school should also bring the fact that by remaining absent they are losing opportunity to learn to students notice. But the final choice has to be that of the students. This is necessary as students have to learn to weigh pros and cons of their decisions and learn to be responsible for them. But at the same time he school, to my mind, should also not deviate from its settles time-table to make room for such activities. For example, there could be a demand for having Tuesday or Friday as the weekly holiday. All other things being equal, the schools should not consider that on the religious grounds of the communities living around it. In India there are too many religions, we shall never be able to manage such adjustments. However, in a mono-religious society such adjustments may be possible; but mono-religious societies are rarely, if ever, secular and democratic.

A secular rational attitude demands that one does not curb or promote any belief system through force and rules. Not even the secular and rational belief system. The only possible way is that of dialogue and rational persuasion where people make their own decisions on the basis of their own lights. So a school can not stop children from attending their pooja or namaaz even if they remain absent from the school for that purpose.

Teachers’ display of religious behaviour or symbols in the school

Some secular states take the position that as public functionaries teachers should not be allowed to display such behaviour or symbols. To my mind it is a very complex issue. Let’s take the example of thick band of moli (the red-white thread that Hindu priests tie on the wrists of their yejmaans on every auspicious occasion) which many Hindu teachers, officials, politicians, and so on display prominently these days. Actually I distinctly remember that about two decades back it used to be a thin kachcha dhaga that used to break on its on mostly by the end of the second day. Now it has become a think band which does not break for months, and usually becomes very dirty. It has nothing to do with Hindu religion as such. It is an assertion and display of identity. It is a social-political act, associated with religion but not unalienable part of it. Similarly, prominent display of a cross around a Christian’s neck or a round skull cap on a Muslim’s head are markers—and these days also an assertion, like moli—of identity and not really essential part of religion. I think it could be plausibly argued that in modern India a feeling of underlining difference with others is also mixed with these markers of identity. Conceptually, all identity marks have an element of difference from the other, as any identity has to do two things: proclaiming who you are and also who you are not. Our ambiguous attitude to religion and habit of our democratic state to prostrate before any thing vaguely religious have made these symbols into assertion of political power, solidarity to ones own community and challenge to others. Thus, as I understand the situation these symbols at the present juncture in Indian polity are dividing the society; and slowly but certainly nudging us to move away from dispassionate secular politics, pushing us towards aggressive identity politics where democratic principles are definitely a casualty.

Personally, I feel that we should have a dress-code for all public servants. And these markers should not be allowed in that dress-code. Not because the state wants to take an anti-religion or anti-identity stand; but simply because a public servant should, particularly in present times, make all efforts to communicate that whatever her religious and political views she stands in absolutely identical relationship with all citizens in her role as a public servant. That is a stand in principle; but that can not happen in present day India. Therefore, as a compromise somewhat uncomfortable compromise one has to accept the display of these markers in office. That brings an added responsibility on the public servants that they should communicate in their behaviour a totally secular dealing with all citizens; people should develop a confidence that in spite of these identity markers the person will act according to our secular constitution. At present this is not communicated. And so there is a problem here.

A teacher, in this sense, is a public servant. She should, ideally speaking, refrain from public display of these makers, but our constitution does not prohibit it; therefore, even strictly secular schools can not ban or strongly oppose these practices. As a result we will have to live with them. Sadly, enough.

Preaching of ones religion in the school

In short no school has the right to preach any religion, and so no teacher can preach one’s religion in the school. But we need to understand the place of religion in curriculum and school life in a little more detail.

In addition to what we have discussed above—display of religious behaviour or symbols in the school—lets make two more categories: ‘teaching religion’ and ‘teaching about religion’. Teaching religion here would mean teaching religious beliefs in the school and hoping that the children will acquire those beliefs. It will also include religious practices in the schools—for example, various kinds of prayers in the school, including Saraswati and Gandhi’s supposed to be secular bhajans. Teaching about religion would simply means an attempt to make the religious belief systems known to the students, understand them and examine them as one examines any political, social or scientific theory.

Teaching religion is clearly contradictory to the ideal of democratic citizenship. The Morning Prayer in the schools, saraswati statues, gayatri-mantras on the walls etc. are all non-secular and objectionable practices. This certainly amounts to practicing religion in schools. Actively teaching religion in schools will also be objectionable on the same token.

Teaching about religion, however, seems to be a logical necessity for ay curriculum in a secular country. We have to provide children with the knowledge base needed to understand the history, culture and belief systems of all citizens if we want them to make independent and informed choices in life. Even if we do not like religious belief systems people live by them and the children may make the same choice. It is the duty of the school to inform them about these possibilities, as impartially as possible. But school can not present them as necessarily true beliefs. If we want our children to be informed about Ram and Karishna we will have to present views of those who consider them as avataras, we have to present the views of those who consider them historical figures, and also of those who consider them simply imaginary mythological figures, who never actually existed. We have to share these views with available evidence, if any. We can say that there are some Hindus who think that Ram was Vishnu’s avatar; but we also have to inform them that there are other people, Hindus as well as non-Hindus, who believe neither in Vishnu nor in Ram as his avatar. We will have to present the critique of what is supposed to be their lives and preaching. For example, we will have to inform children that in the eyes of some agniparisksha was injustice to Sita and banishing Sita from Ayodhya later was simple desire to cling to power and cowardice in some people’s eyes. I am putting all this rather in a crude sense; but the point I am making is for presentation of various contrasting views with their arguments and available evidence. One can make that as sophisticated as one pleases or the occasion demands. In case of Muhammad (as he is definitely a historical figure) we have to talk of him exactly as we talk of, say Marx, or Plato, or Nehru, or Buddha or Mahavir. We have to inform the children that Muslims consider him the last and final prophet. But we will also have to inform that there are plenty of people in the world who do not believe in God so they think no one could really be a prophet or an avatar or a sun of God. Therefore, all prophets and self-proclaimed avatars were either misguided people or they deliberately spread lies. That, however, does not preclude the possibility of spreading lies for imagined good of mankind. We will have to present both views with equimindedness, and leave the children to make their own decision. What I am arguing for is that teaching about religion will have to be done in a rational manner. All religious figures in this scheme will get only as much respect as any philosopher or historical figure; no less no more. They will face all the questions that other philosophers and historical figures face, whether they like or not. Similarly all religious scriptures will have to be analysed exactly as any other book on philosophy or political theory. I believe that would be of immense benefit to the children and to the country.

But that will also require a huge amount of preparation. We have to have balanced and authentic curricula, we have to decide at what age the children should be introduced to what kind of issues and information, we will have to have a huge number of teachers who can teach in a rational and impartial manner. Perhaps team teaching could be explores—education about religion could done by a team that has teachers from different religions in it, and not by a single teacher. Are we ready for it? I do not know, let sociologists and political scientists answer that. Should we teach about religion in this sense? Yes, I am certain of that. Should teachers preach their own religions in school? Not at all.

That leaves us with one more issue from the initial discussion. Teachers’ religious behaviour out side the school. The next and last part of this series will deal with that.indus HHh

 

To be Concluded.

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22nd July 2013

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

Rohit.dhankar@apu.edu.in