Place of religion in public schools: Part 5

Religious behaviour of teachers outside the school

Rohit Dhankar

The three last questions raised in the meeting I referred to in Part 1 of this series seem to be the most difficult ones to deal with. In the first glance they seem to be guaranteed in a democracy—freedom to practice and propagate one’s faith; but a little analysis brings out, if not objectionable, certainly worry some issues. Let’s try to understand what is involved here.

I have changed the order of the questions, and restate them as below:

  • Should teachers participate in public religious activities like keertan or namaaz every day or very frequently?
  • 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?
  • 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?

Teachers participating in public religious activities

It sounds ridiculous to even raise such an issue. As mentioned above, democracy is all about choosing one’s beliefs and living according to them. Therefore, there is no ground for denying that same freedom to teachers. Actually one may stop here and consider the matter closed. However, perhaps it is worthwhile to explore a little further.

Why does one participate ostensively in keertans, daily poojas and namaazs? Now of course we are speculating on other people’s motives and mental states, to which we have no direct access. Nor am I quoting here any empirical study to understand such motives. Therefore, what I say next might sound very biased and unreasonable. Still, it seems to me, it is worth speculating.

Perhaps one can imagine at the least five reasons for participating in such activities in an ostensive manner: 1. Plain entertainment; 2. Socialisation; 3. Solidarity with ones own community of believers; 4. Solace in times of difficulty; and 5. Spiritual progress. Of course, there could be more reasons, but I am unable to extend the list at this moment. And, of course, there could be a combination of these reasons.

One may object that no one goes for pooja, keertan and namaaz for entertainment. I am reasonably certain on the basis of personal experience that for pooja and keertan people do go for entertainment as well, even if the number of such people is very small; regarding namaaz or other religious activities, I am not sure; however theoretically speaking this is not impossible. Participating in religious activities for entertainment, all other things being equal, is no different from going to a movie or to a play for the same purpose. It is not something which any individual or organisation can objet to, as long as it stays in legal bounds. However, Ganesh pooja, other noisy poojas and Friday namaaz on roads tend to cause public nuisance. One has to regulate them in public interest and other people’s right to go about their business in an unhindered manner. But the organisers and participants in such activities are also within their rights of association and public gathering. All they have to do is cooperate with the state authority to cause as little disturbance as possible. Usually, though, they are less than willing to cooperate. Actually, they use such occasions to cause maximum inconvenience, and to show that their religion can brazenly browbeat both the public and the state. And still, no school can object to participation of their teachers in such activities.

Socialisation through pooja, keertan and namaaz is no different from socialising in a club with a couple of Patialas of some good whisky. There is nothing objectionable in that, either morally or politically. Nor is there anything particularly religious about it. Such activates might give good opportunity to be with the community, to keep in touch with one’s acquaintances and even for making new acquiesces. This, too, can be no concern of the schools if their teachers socialise through religious activities.

Solidarity with and belongingness to some group of likeminded people seem to be a fundamental human need. It is a necessary basis for forming self-identity as we all see ourselves in the mirror of other people’s social behaviour towards us. Self awareness and identity is the basis of one’s purpose in life and one’s epistemic, ethical and aesthetic (styam, shivam, sundaram) belief systems. Therefore, through expressing solidarity with groups one forms and enriches oneself, as well as fulfils a social obligation by helping others to do the same. Who can object to such a fundamental need and obligation? But groups and socio-political-religious formations need some unifying principles which each member accepts. Such unifying principles may be exclusionary and closed in nature. All exclusionary group formations to my mind are potentially dangerous for a democracy. Therefore, one has to be aware of divisive potential of expression of solidarity. Religion seems to be especially prone to such divisive potential, due to its characteristics discussed earlier. Still, all other things being equal, no school can object to its teachers’ participation in religious activities for purposes of solidarity.

Seeking solace and spiritual growth through participation in religious activities are obviously the legitimate religious ends. There might be people who may not regard such motivations particularly commendable, still no on has a right to object to other people’s seeking solace and spiritual growth—whatever the later might mean! Therefore, it seems participation in religious activities out-side the school timings is a personal matter of the teachers and the school transgresses it’s legitimate concerns even in questioning such activities.

Working for better adherence to their own religion

Making others co-religionists to act in accordance with their religious code of conduct or dogma’s may not be such a simple matter. One has to think how one proceeds to do that. If there is peaceful persuasion; even on non-rational and religious logic (?), but leaving the persuaded person to make his own decision; one can not object to it. However, religious zealots who want to make others more faithful then they are, rarely remain in the bounds of peaceful persuasion. Numerous incidents in India connected with misbehaviour of self-styled protectors of Hindu vales on valentine day or violence against girls peacefully enjoying themselves in bars, are case in point. The self-styled protectors of Indian culture and Hindu values in such cases claim to be correcting deviant behaviour of their own coreligionists. Umpteen number of incidents of this nature could be sited in other religious communities as well. Enforcement of burka on Muslim women against their wishes, objection to school girls participating in singing and dancing on stage in school functions, passing various fatwas (not all fatwas), etc. are common examples in Muslim community. Therefore, one has to make a distinction between willing participation of to be persuaded and enforced against their wishes. If the persuasion is within the bounds of the law of the land, even by teachers, it can hardly be objected to.

We should also keep in mind that the grounds given to behave in a particular religious manner; for example, Hindu girls not wearing jeans and Muslim girls always wearing burka; are unlikely to be rationally justified and are likely to encroach upon peoples autonomy, even if does in a peaceful manner. A teacher who used such arguments in the community is unlikely to contribute to rational enquiry in the school. The children will see through his pretended behaviour in the school. This is not a very happy situation, but as long as one remains impartial to people and ideals in the schools, and fosters critical enquiry in the school, his public behaviour can not be objected to. I am certain that such a teacher will not be very suitable for a secular democratic school, but the school can not put restrictions on what he does in his private time and in his private capacity.

Preaching of one’s own religion to others

Preach as a verb means to “deliver a sermon or religious address to an assembled group of people, typically in church” (OUP). As a noun preaching means to “publicly proclaim or teach (a religious message or belief)”. Here preaching is used as ‘preaching to convert’. More accurate word to express that meaning would have been “proselytizing” in place of “preaching”. The original conversation was in Hindi and word used was “dharma-prachar” in the sense of “attempting to convert” (dharma-parivartan) others to one’s own religion. We will continue here to use the simpler word “preaching” in the sense of “preaching to convert”.

Before we examine appropriateness of a teacher as a religious preacher, some time spent on understanding the motivation and implications of attempts to convert will be useful. A natural question that comes to one’s mind is: why do people try to convert others to their own religion?

It is hard to deny in the modern world that a major reason is to gain/consolidate social, political and economic power. Religion has always been associated with economic and political power, most often in favour of the privileged; but some times in favour of the underprivileged too. However, by the time a religion gets institutionalised it creates its own privileged and then works for their benefit all along. In the name of nuanced understanding—which most often is nothing more than obfuscation—one can site examples of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Bukti Movement as counter examples, and claim that they all started to ameliorate sufferings of the downtrodden. But by the time they firmed up as religions or created stable institutions (in case of Bhakti) they all started fighting for power and siding with the powerful. Therefore, when people see religious conversion as power games and attempts to dominate other religious groups they are seeing right.

Of course there is nothing wrong in trying to make democracy work in one’s favour. But that requires having a principle of unity that is not exclusionist, admits rational pursuit, and works for justice for all. Religion as a principle of unity fails on all counts. Therefore, playing power games with religion is playing them unfairly.

But not all people active in proselytizing are totally devoid of other motives; they may genuinely believe that converting to their own religion is actually good for the converted and the society in general. They almost always believe that their own religious belief system is the only true religion, all others are false. This is particularly true of so called Semitic religions: that is Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Hinduism basically is not a proselytizing religion, and multiplicity of religious truths is admitted in it. Reza Aslan thinks that “like “Hinduism,” “paganism” is a meaningless and somewhat derogatory catchall term created by those outside the tradition to categorize what is in reality an almost unlimited variety of beliefs and practices.” There is substantial amount of truth in this claim, even if it is not wholly true. Perhaps that is why Hindu zealots require racial, ethnic, and geopolitical elements to brew their own brand of fanaticism. Their idea of “matribhoomi” and “punyabhoom” being the same within actual or claimed boundaries of Bharat is necessary to turn Hinduism into a fanatical religion. Earlier, when Hindus had heir rifts with Buddhism the caste based hierarchical organisation of the society could be used to pepper over doctrinal differences, now that has become impossible. Therefore, they want a single doctrine and other ingredients to create fanaticism.

Islam and Christianity never had any doubt that their religion is the only true religion and anyone who does not accept that will definitely go to hell. Many Muslim clerics and ordinary believers will express that opinion as a matter of fact, without slightest hesitation. Many of them also believe, on the basis of scriptural authority, that it is the duty of the believers to spread the truth by all means they can. This, of course, will be objected to, but we can get into that debate later. One who converts a non-believer to faith is sure to get the rewards by admittance in heaven.

The problem with all this is that it is closed minded view which declares all other views false and is not open to examination. If a person happens to be indoctrinated into an unjustifiable belief system, and from within that belief system, if he does something to benefit others according to his own view; it can not be justified. His assumed to be good intentions alone are not enough here, as the very basis of his action is unjustified. This also leaves the room open for using force.

Of course, religious conversion could also happen for solace. We have dealt with the benefits and problems of religious solace earlier, need not revisit that here. Sometimes, spiritual growth is sited as reasons for conversion. Spirituality is not a clearly defined concept. On close analysis it looks like religion’s surreptitious attempts to disguise itself behind a veil of mystery. Unless a clearer understanding and articulation of what spirituality happens to be is available, we can not discuss it. My guess is that spirituality is either disguised religion or it has nothing that normal garden variety of secular morality or purposes in life can not provide.

This quick, partial and cursory analysis seems to point that a preacher for conversion is unlikely to be a good, impartial and secular teacher. His understanding of the world and humanity is likely to be marked by dogma, and rational enquiry for him would be of a certain variety that will always look up to theology. Therefore, the schools should not allow their teachers to be religious preachers. I am not aware of the rules and regulations for public servants, but suspect that they are not allowed to be part of organisations that proselytise. As I am not sure on this, any authentic information is welcome. (I am being lazy, do not want to look for material on the issue and read it!)

That brings us to the end of this series. I am aware that there are many logical gaps in my analysis and I may lack information on many issues. I have also become aware of further study/investigating on several issues during the course of writing. In a way it is a working understanding that is open to be questioned and to be refined. Therefore, critiques is welcome.



6th August 2013

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

One Response to Place of religion in public schools: Part 5

  1. Samir Samnani says:

    Wow! Five reasons for participating in religious is really informative. Participating for entertainment is an idea of my and following generation. We see how dance, bollywood songs and many styles attach to it. For me notion democracy really become challenging at one end it gives me right to do my likeable things but with rider that not to hurt others. HOW CAN I ENJOY FULLEST WITHOUT DISTURBING OTHERS!


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