Religion in public schools

Rohit Dhankar

“I teach in a government senior secondary school in Faridabad Haryana. Last session we had only 2 muslim students in a total strength of 100. This year school’s strength has gone up to 600. Muslim students are about 10 now. Last friday two muslim students came to me with a request for half day leave for offering namaz at a nearby mosque. This incident started a heated discussion among staff members. The point was – should students be allowed to practice/showcase their religious beliefs?”

This was written by Mr. Sanjay Sharma as a comment on my blog-post titled “An interaction with students”. I find his question important enough to merit a separate blog post. Rather than answering directly I would like to narrate three short episodes in a school, then give justifications for final decisions in those episodes and then answer Mr. Sharma’s question as per my thinking. Those who do not want to read all this can go directly to the last section of this piece. 😊

I actively taught in a voluntary agency ran school called Digantar for 15 years and am part of this organisation, established in 1978. The three episodes I am going to narrate are of this school. The episodes are nothing extra ordinary and if you get bored in reading them then I would request your indulgence, as they illustrate secular outlook in a school, even if there is nothing special about them.

Episode 1

Digantar has shelf-space allotted to students in the classrooms, something like open lockers. In these spaces students keep their learning material including books and stationary and whatever other little interesting things they usually collect. The school had a practice of big cleaning every Saturday in which children cleaned and decorated their own individual spaces as well. On one such Saturday a student affixed a picture of Shiva at the back wall of his own space. Teachers saw and smiled.

In those days Digantar campus had a thick jungle of berry-shrubs (called “jhad-beri” in Hindi). During the 40-minute lunch break children eagerly ran to the shrubbery and collected berries (simply “ber” in Hindi). The boy who put the Shiva picture in his space started offering a few bers to Shiva, offering simply meaning putting the bers in front of the picture. Teachers saw and smiled.

In a day or two some other children started offering bers to the Lord Shiva. Teachers saw and smiled. In a few days the boy who established Shiva started objecting to other children if they were passing in front of his space with their shoes on. This time, teachers saw and asked him to take his Shiva home, if he did not want it to be thrown in the dustbin.

Episode 2

Digantar always had Muslim children in majority, as it was situated in a Muslim majority area. In the local community children learn to read Quran—actually learn to recite without understanding and learning to read Arabic. When a part of Quran—I think called ‘Sipara’—is completed there is a minor celebration. Once 6-7 girls in Digantar finished a particular part of Quran and started offering Namaz 5 times a day. When they came to school they wanted to offer Namaz at a particular time and wanted the school timetable changed accordingly. It so happened that I taught mathematics at the time they wanted to offer their Namaz. Children were in the habit of talking to either Reena or me when they wanted something of this nature. This time since I was the teacher at the time in question they came to me as a group. I listened to them. Then told them that the school has got nothing to do with Allah or Bhagwaan, and time table cannot be changed for this reason. However, school has no objection if they want to offer their Namaz in some of the vacant spaces in the school, without disturbing anyone else and without designating that space as some kind of Namaz space. They have to choose between Allah and mathematics.

The girls started offering Namaz at the appointed time. There was no change in the school timetable, mathematics moved in its own way. No one paid any attention to their devotional activity. In about a week the attraction of mathematics proved to be stronger than Allah and the Namaz stopped on its own.

Episode 3

Digantar had a tradition of monthly meetings of all teachers and other functionaries. In one of such meetings a teacher raised the issue of going for Friday Namaz in the nearby Mosque. The time table was such that the lunch break did not coincide with his Namaz time. There was a thorough debate on the issue and the teacher was not allowed. In case he wanted to go he was suggested to take half-day leave every Friday.

The school was in a Muslim majority area, about 80% children were also Muslims. Next Friday the teacher talked to some community members after the Namaz and complained that Digantar did not allow him to offer Namaz. We had very clear and good relations with the community. No one believed him that Dignatar objects to his Namaz per se. When he told them that the school does not change the timetable to facilitate his Namaz nor does allow him to be absent for that time, the community was with Digantar and they saw the reason why it cannot be done.

Why did Digantar took this attitude to religion?

The people associated with this school had made a clear decision that it is a secular school in every respect. We had no religious prayer in the morning, no Saraswati pictures blessing the walls, no religious quotes. We also had no problem with religion as a private matter. But if someone wanted to discuss religious views or beliefs in the school they were discussed exactly in the same manner as magnetism or big-bang theory or any political ideology. No special considerations of showing any extra respect for religious figures (including Allah and Ishwar) or doctrines.

Our view of secularism was not of “equal respect to all religions”. In any case, I personally find it impossible to have equal respect to all beliefs, if one takes religion only as a system of belief (religion is more than that); as one has to make epistemic and moral judgments regarding beliefs. Beliefs can be true or false, and it is very difficult for a thinking person to “respect” the belief that the earth is resting on a tortoise or the world was created by a bored God in seven days. They are plainly wrong to me. But we did have a strict policy of equal respects for rights of all people, irrespective of their belief systems. This way our definition of secularism was not of “equal respect to all religions” but of “equal respect to all people”. This gave us room to have a discussion with all with complete candidness and telling him/her in clear words that we do not share his views—political as well as religious, as the case may be. However, as person we recognise his/her rights exactly equal to our own.

Government school to my mind ought to be secular if we adhere to our constitution. And the definition of secularism should not be “equal respect for all religions”, but “equal distance from all religions”. But if we do that then the morning prayer (the devotional prayer songs) will have to go and all the Saraswatis and Gayatri Mantras have to be removed from the school walls.

We should understand that Saraswatis, gayatri mantras and celebrating religious festivals in the schools invite demands for Namaz and tomorrow will demand aaratis in schools. Therefore, in my view: no change in the timetable to facilitate Namaz.

Mr. Sharma’s case

But the students in this case are not asking to change the timetable or anything else from the school. All they are asking is half day leave. It seems to me one cannot stop a student from taking leave. However, the schools may have policies regarding attendance; for example, any one below 70% attendance does not qualify for participating in the examination.  No leniency should be shown for religious reasons in the requirement of attendance.

Mr. Sharma also asks: “should students be allowed to practice/showcase their religious beliefs?” Actually, practice and showcasing are two different issues. Indian constitution gives its citizens right to practice as well as preach their beliefs, faiths. And that is one of the strengths of this constitution. Therefore, one cannot stop anyone from either practicing or preaching their religious belief; unless they contradict other peoples’ rights.

But schools are not places of religious practice or preaching; therefore, ought not to allow religious practices and preaching in the schools.

“Showcasing” might mean many things: including using burka, a cross or aum in a locket, a tilak or a scull-cap. If students come wearing these symbols naturally, there seems to be nothing wrong, nor can one stop this in India. But if students from a particular community start making it a point to flaunt these symbols some action depending on the situation may have to be taken.

In the particular case of taking half day leave I don’t think school has the right to deny. However, it is a case of opening a dialogue with the community and students regarding sanctity of school practices. It could be rationally argued that students should not be absent for religious reasons. The issue is of a dialogue and not of a rule, it seems to me. I also feel that the schools have the duty to make students understand that in a pluralistic society public institutions cannot accommodate religion, and by bunking classes every day they are harming their own studies. It is a failure of education system and society in general if we cannot make this point to a community. But, as I said, it can be made only through a dialogue, and not through a rule.


29th July 2018

2 Responses to Religion in public schools

  1. Sanjay Sharma says:

    Thank you Rohit for such an elaborate insight on a burning issue. Much appreciated!


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