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School is not a battleground for religion!

by Babu Gogineni, 8 April 2014

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World Religion News, 7 April 2014

by Babu Gogineni, International Director, International Humanist and Ethical Union

Jai Shri Raam!

I received recently a communication on Facebook that was rather disconcerting – it was typed in large font in Telugu, one of the Dravidian languages of South India. It was shrieking that an unnamed school’s authorities were considering suspension of a teacher as that teacher made students shout ‘Jai Shri Raam’ or ‘Hail Lord Raama’.

Can I not praise my Lord Raama in my own country, it wails.
Was it Lord Raama or Jesus Christ that was born in India, it demands angrily.
Does India belong to the Hindus or to the westerners, it asks mindlessly.
Why should Hindu children sing Christian prayers, it asks with justification.
Pointing out that almost all Missionary schools in India ban girl pupils from wearing the bindi on the forehead and bangles on their hands, it asks for banning of such Christian Missionary Schools for violation of children’s rights.

What is all this about?

Lord Raama

In Hindu mythology Lord Raama is one of the 10 avatars or incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Immensely important for the Hindus of North India, Raama is revered for his obedient filial morality, for his valiance as a warrior and for his rule as an ideal king.

Compared to the more complex Indian epic the Mahaabhaarata which is full of moral dilemmas, intrigue and surprising turns, Raamayana, the story of Lord Raama, is rather simple: Prince Raama is an avatar of Vishnu, born to King Dasaratha of the Sun dynasty. Raama abdicates in favour of a younger step brother to honour a promise his father had made to his step mother. While in exile in the forest for 14 years as part of this promise, Raama’s wife Seetha is kidnapped by the learned and powerful demon Raavana. After Seetha is traced Raama unsuccessfully negotiates her return. Ultimately she is rescued, and Raavana is slayed in a battle where an army of loyal apes helps. The most important of this army is Lord Hanumaan, the monkey-faced son of the Wind God who joins Raama on his way back to Ayodhya where he gets back his throne.

Raama reveres the saints, upholds traditional values, and diligently defends the sacred order of caste. For example, he executes Shambuka, a lower caste person, for reading books that are forbidden to his caste. When he learns that a lowly washerman had doubts about Queen Seetha’s chastity – she was in Raavana’s captivity for many years – Raama sends his pregnant queen away to the forest, abandoning her to an anonymous and uncertain fate. Seetha gives birth to twins who excel in warfare. When the youth unwittingly defeat their father in a show of strength their royal origins are revealed.

The slogan ‘Jai Shri Raam’ goes beyond devotion; it is a renewed political attempt to revive a divisive and disruptive agitation just ahead of elections.

Seetha does not seek reunion with her husband but redeems herself by entering a fire from which she emerges unscathed, establishing her purity and innocence. She then merges with mother Earth who gave birth to her.

There are hundreds of versions of this epic Raamayana story, spread all over Asia. In all of them Raama is portrayed as a virtuous and just king. Even the devout democrat Mahatma Gandhi declared that he desired Raama Rajya – the Kingdom of Raama – where women would be able to fearlessly wander in the streets even at midnight. Indeed, Gandhi considered Lord Raama as the ideal man, and movingly died with Raama’s name on his lips when an assassin pumped bullets into him in 1948.

Raama has a grip on the imagination of many Hindus, and for the past 25 years, Indian politics have revolved around the mythology of Raama. Emperor Babar, a Moghul invader, built an imposing mosque in Ayodhya in the early 1500s. That very spot is claimed by the Hindus as the birth place of Prince Raama who, they believe, was born there several hundred thousand years ago. They are now much worried about the more recent origins of humans as discovered by science.

After years of tumultuous political agitation and mobilisation of people, the huge medieval Mosque was pulled down bare handed by hundreds of marauding Hindu mobs in 1992 – they intended to avenge the desecration of their holy place by the Muslim invader, and to build a temple for Lord Raama there.

The agitation which has so far claimed several thousand lives in inter religious violence has lost some of its vigour in recent times, but politics continue to be conducted around the divisive issue of the still unbuilt Raama temple.

It is therefore obvious that the slogan ‘Jai Shri Raam’ goes beyond devotion; it is a renewed political attempt to revive the divisive and disruptive agitation for the temple just ahead of elections.

India belongs to ALL her citizens. India is not a conglomeration of faiths – it is a country made of individual citizens, those of faith and those of none. India also belongs to the world which has expectations of high standards of democracy from her.

That is the context of the angry communication I received and perhaps why the school management was considering the teacher’s suspension. Based on the communication one may guess that it was a private Christian Missionary school where the disciplinary action was being contemplated against the teacher. But, if the school management were Hindu, not Christian, would it have been OK for the slogan to be raised there?

Education is Preparation for Society

Education helps us fulfill our human potential; it improves us and helps improve others. A properly planned education will prepare children for future responsible roles in a complex society. Every child must be nurtured to be sensitive to the human condition, to show compassion and to empathise with others.

School is the modern institution where children take the first steps towards these ends of education. Through exposure to knowledge appropriate to their age, in the company of other children, every child must be taught to develop critical thinking and to question. Children are vulnerable and impressible, but eager to learn and absorb. A school should nourish the freedom to learn and to think.

School prepares a child for life; it prepares a child for society.
Schools are for Education, Not Indoctrination

If school is where a child is prepared for life and society, should religion not be taught there? Yes, children should be taught about religion in social studies and history classes, just as they are taught other subjects.

This means knowledge about religion, but does not mean that they have to pray or follow any religious rituals. A child should not be forced to practice any religion. No one should preach any religion in any school, nor should atheism be preached or taught. These are really adult matters.

Subjects taught should not be influenced by religion or atheism. Neither biology, nor moral science. Teachers need to be sensitised and trained to perform their duties right.

Education is Preparation for Society.

Schools are institutions where knowledge is acquired, and where children learn to collaborate with each other. Here is where pupils should learn about Human Values and Human Rights. Here is where they should understand civilisation and its achievements. This is where children should be taught the value of tolerance, mostly by example. This is where they should be shown how to combat prejudice. This is where children should sing and dance, play and frolic. School should be the foundation for a healthy society.

Schools are for education, not indoctrination.
A school is not a place of prayer, it is an institution of learning.
Schools are not battle grounds for religions or politics.
Schools are not recruiting grounds for religions or politics.
No Saraswati Puja, No Namaaz, No Hosannas in School!

Even though religion is too serious and complex a subject for children, if it has to be introduced to them at all, then it should be at home, not at school, and by parents, not by teachers. Children are free to pray at temples, mosques and churches or at home.

This applies to Christian, Muslim as well as to Hindu prayers – or any other religious text used similarly. No teacher should be promoting any religion – what are their qualifications to do so? Would their service rules agree to teachers shouting slogans in school?

If praising Jesus Christ in the class room is wrong, then praising Shri Raam is equally wrong! There should not be either Saraswati Puja nor Namaaz in schools. It is not about religious liberty – it is just that religion does not belong in the class room.

In India the law does not allow religion in any government or fully government-aided schools. Private schools too should adopt this best practice. Minority schools cannot coerce anyone to participate in prayer or in ritual. It is immoral and illegal.

India Does Not Belong to the Hindus

Of one thing we must be very clear – India does NOT belong to the Hindus or to other communities. She belongs to ALL her citizens who are individuals. India is not a conglomeration of faiths or communities – it is a country made of individual citizens. Citizens who are of faith and those who are of none: citizens could be Hindus, Christians, Muslims or Humanists or Atheists. Our India also belongs to the world which has high expectations of high standards of democracy from her.

Schools are for Education, Not Indoctrination.

True, India has an ancient culture, but it is also true that India is a new country which became an independent political entity in 1947. The Republican Constitution came into effect in 1950 – it is the supreme law of the land. India is a secular country – it is blessed Pakistan which was created on the basis of religion. We have seen the terrible consequences. India was untainted by a religious identity and resolutely remained secular even after half a million Hindus and Muslims died in religious clashes during partition. Why are we losing our secularism in these more peaceful times?

A teacher is not a priest

A teacher cannot and should not teach religion or bring in religion in school unless the subject of study is that religion. If the subject of study is Hinduism or Christianity, it need be that the teacher should belong to that religion which he or she is teaching: because the teaching should be academic.

Just as one cannot say ‘Jai Shri Raam’ in the class room in India, one cannot sing praises to Jesus Christ in the class room in the US, France, Belgium etc. either, because that damages the nature of the school which has to be an inclusive place in a multi-cultural society. A school teacher is not a political activist.

Secularism and Minority Rights

In a multi-cultural society appeasement of any section of society on the basis of religion is against Secularism and damages the secular character of the country. Secularism is an integral part of the basic structure of India and cannot be changed. The Supreme Court of India is clear about this matter.

Minority rights are needed for groups to retain their identity and to conduct their activities without interference from the majority. These rights are precious and are a test of that country’s democracy – they are not really special rights for a religion. Even language communities can be minorities – for example there can be a Telugu educational institution with minority status in New Delhi or a Marathi educational institution in Hyderabad.

A school is not a place of prayer, it is an institution of learning.

By law, if these schools are wholly unaided by government and do not receive salary grants, they can have their own admission schedules, and as the Mumbai High Court recently ruled, they are exempt from reserving 25% of seats for poor students under the Right to Education Act. This judgement which reflects a Supreme Court judgement is being contested. It is morally repugnant that Minority schools, beneficiaries of a positive attitude towards them, do not wish to admit poorer sections of their communities and it certainly is not in the spirit of Article 26, 29, 30 and 31 of the Indian Constitution which give religious, linguistic and cultural minorities the fundamental right to establish, manage and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes within the law. These provisions are as per international standards for protecting the rights of minorities which India has a sovereign obligation to conform to. Just as Hindu or Bengali minority groups may get special protection or charitable status in Europe or in America, minorities in India also get the protection of the law.

It may be useful to recall that many years ago Ramakrishna Math, established by the well-known Hindu monk Vivekananda, following an employment dispute in its educational institution, claimed Minority status saying Vivekananda established a separate religion. In 1995 the Supreme Court of India rejected their peculiar claims which were aimed at avoiding government supervision of their educational institutions. Nobody wants government interference, but minority rights are really about protection of identity. This does not mean that the minority status can be used as a cover for not complying with the expectations of the law.

Dressed by Religion?

Schools have uniforms – an idea considered by some educationists as not a progressive one. While schools have the prerogative of deciding uniform, it does not mean that missionary schools or minority schools can make children wear or not wear a particular style of dress, specially where that dress establishes not the identity of a school but that of a religion. There are many mainstream educational institutions that are imposing regulations on grounds of modesty etc. as well even for colleges.

Why do moral science classes exclude the signal contributions of non-believers to the area of ethics and Human Rights in Human civilization?

To avoid unnecessary sectarian disputes, any restrictions or dress codes should be within the guidelines of the Education department. And on this count, in many countries, children may not wear obviously religious dresses to school – the Islamic scarf or the Jewish kepi or the Christian cross. This is indeed tricky territory and not without controversy as has been witnessed in France, Turkey. Algeria etc. For sure, the school can be a place where difference is celebrated, but that does not mean that officially there will be practice of religion by the teachers while discharging their duty. Unfortunately in almost all Islamic countries this freedom is not available to those who are not Muslim.

Why Prayer at All?

Now, why do we need any religious prayer in school assemblies? Of course, even the compulsory singing of National anthem has been challenged at the Supreme Court of India, which ruled in favour of those who wished to be silent while the National Anthem is sung by the others.

In an important case, the teacher Sanjay Salve approached the High Court of Mumbai pleading that he should not be punished on grounds of indiscipline simply because he does not pray at the school assembly. He declared that he was unwilling to sing a particular prayer because he was an atheist. He also added that the prayer at his school said all were children of God whereas he was the child of his parents! The court recently accepted he had the fundamental right to hold his own opinions and to remain silent at prayer-time in school with no prejudice to his employment rights.

The other problematic area is the Moral Science class or the Human Values education class. Frequently, God and religion are proposed as the basis of morality, whereas while having no basis in modern understanding of ethics, this is an approach that also excludes the positive and signal contributions of non-believers to the area of ethics and Human Rights in Human civilization. How can mythology be an ethical compass for modern life?

A school teacher is not a priest, nor a political activist.

Why not discuss the lives and thoughts of real people? How about famous and important thinkers and freedom fighters who held high the beacon of human progress – people who are both religious and non-religious – in assemblies and in moral science classes? That approach would contribute more to social wellbeing and nation building than would bringing in religion which continues to divide people in the country.

Children are vulnerable and impressionable and should not be allowed to be recruited to be warriors of subversive battles while they are at school. When an aberrant teacher smuggles in religious bigotry or religious superstition both management and parents should resist that subversion of the very purpose of education.

P.S.

The above article from World Religion News is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use