Policing of Prayers

Update: 2023-06-10 12:28 GMT
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The Indian state has been becoming a shrinking space for liberal and secular discourse. The actions of the various actors as well as the ruling party have been responsible for such a state of events. The growing religious intolerance has become cynical and taken a monstrous shape. The events which occurred in Uttar Pradesh are a testimony to this fact. On 23rd December, the principal of...

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The Indian state has been becoming a shrinking space for liberal and secular discourse. The actions of the various actors as well as the ruling party have been responsible for such a state of events. The growing religious intolerance has become cynical and taken a monstrous shape. The events which occurred in Uttar Pradesh are a testimony to this fact. On 23rd December, the principal of a government-run school in Uttar Pradesh's Bareilly district was suspended by the state's Education Department after right-wing groups reportedly complained to the police about a prayer song sung by the children. The prayer that was sung was “Lab pe aati hai dua” written by the renowned writer Mohammad Iqbal who had also written the popular “Saare Jahaan Se Accha” song. This prayer song was written by Mohammad Iqbal in 1902 and is sung at schools like The Doon School in Dehradun, India and has also been sung by Della Mae, a GRAMMY-nominated, all-women string band, sponsored by the US State Department.

Similar action was taken when the students at the Florets International School in Kanpur were reciting prayers that included texts from four major faiths — Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Sikhism, many right-wing Hindu organizations and Hindu parents held street protests in the city.

Following complaints by Hindu parents that the school was "preparing" pupils to convert to Islam, the school's manager was being probed under the law for violating religious convictions.

On the other hand, a PIL was filed by Veenayak Shah challenging the recital of the Sanskrit shloka, Asato Ma Sad Gamaya as the morning prayer in Kendriya Vidyalaya stating that the prayer was Hindu in nature and not secular. Similarly in Kashmir, political parties are contending that the singing of the hymn ‘Raghupati Raghav Rajaram’ is anti-secular. With such a turn of, events one is forced to think, since when our country became so averse to secular education and religious liberalism?

All these cases seem to be based on the idea of fanning narrow communalism in the garb of protection of India’s secular fabric. The same communal angle given to education in every new case reminds one of a quote by Rahat Indori, Naye kirdar aate jaa rahe hain, magar natak purana chal raha hai; loosely translated to new characters keep coming however, the drama still remains the same. Any activity done by a particular community is seen as an attempt at proselytisation.

To heighten the contrasting and discriminating approach of the government, The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Haryana has decided to include the recital of ‘Gayatri Mantra’ — a hymn from Hindu religious scripture Rigveda — in the prayers in all schools across the State of Haryana. In a similar vein, a resolution passed by the Gujarat state's Department of Education makes it mandatory for students of classes 6 to 12 to study the Bhagavad Gita. When the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred text of Hinduism can be viewed with a secular lens, why can’t the poem, Lab pe aati hai dua, which talks about peace and protection from evil ways, be seen in the same light? How cynical it is to remark that the poem promotes religious conversion while completely ignoring the fact that the same poet, Muhammad Iqbal who talked about religious tolerance in Saare Jahaan Se Accha, writing, majhab nahi sikhata aapas mein bair rakhna, translated to: Religion does not teach to hate each other.

Breaking down the State’s Action

Article 28(1) says, "No religious instruction shall be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out-of-State Funds". In the current scenario, the essence of the poem, Allah Burai Se Bachana Mujhko is not directed at imposing any religious “instruction” in the institution but rather is a prayer to protect one from evil deeds.

In Rajesh vs Union when the court observed that offering of prayer by any person for the betterment of everybody cannot be termed as any activity or any action resulting into non-secular activity. The prayer in this case is a part of the value and moral education and not religious instruction

The State’s action does not stand the test of Article 14. The State’s action was arbitrary in nature as it failed to fulfil the three-prong test grounds of reasonable classification under Article 14. The State’s action falls through on the first test that talks about intelligible differentia. The State is banning a prayer that has the synonym of God as Allah and is written in Urdu but at the same time, the State allows prayers like Saraswati Vandana, Christmas carols, and Gayatri Mantra to be sung in schools. There exists no legitimate reason for prohibiting the prayer of one religion and allowing prayers of other religions. Furthermore, there exists no rational nexus between the State’s action and the object it seeks to achieve. The State’s action of suspending the Principal for allowing a prayer that promotes values like patriotism, peace, generosity and brotherhood is not in tune with the alleged object of “secularism” that the State is trying to achieve. The differential treatment given to the prayer of one particular religion is itself violative of the Constitutional ideal of secularism that talks about equal respect and equal protection of all religions. Emphasis should be made on the word “equal”.

Examining the State’s action on the “effects test”, the action seems to enforce the notion of minority subjugation in a majoritarian rule. Additionally, the State allows the propagation of Hindu notions of “Bharat Mata” but prohibits a prayer that talks about contributing your soul to add to the grace of your motherland, and in this context, your “watan”. The singing of the prayer has been condemned as it goes against State sponsored unidirectional ideals of notion and expression of patriotism in any other form is curbed. Ironically, a prayer that talks about the unity of all and patriotism is challenged on the grounds that it promotes religious indoctrination. The prayer is sung at various institutions and is also a part of the Urdu curriculum in UP educational institutions. The State needs to substantiate how the replacement of allowed words like “Paramatma” and “Prabhu” as per the prescribed prayer list, with words like “rab” and “Allah” which act as mere synonyms go against the idea of secularism. Is the language an obstacle in the spirit of secularism or does the State have other motives behind the action?

Furthermore, there exists no law that prohibits the addition of prayers to the prescribed list of State approved prayers. The State government has merely prescribed 6 prayers/hymns for morning assembly without any caveat for legal action on divergence from such prescription. The Principal's suspension is therefore arbitrary and is in excess of the powers of the State because it has no legislative basis and is disproportionate. The State’s action is also in contravention of Freedom of Speech as enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution. Reasonable restrictions can be put on grounds of public order or morality or the sovereignty and integrity of India but in the current factual matrix, the action is not immoral, does not disturb public order nor harms the sovereignty and integrity of the nation.

As observed in Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India, the State should “maintain a proper balance between the adverse effects which the legislation or the administrative order may have on the rights, liberties or interests of persons keeping in mind the purpose which they were intended to serve” Suspension of the principal instils the idea that every expression of patriotism must ascribe to the State-sponsored tests of patriotism. The action at best does nothing to save secularism but instead promotes blind religious jingoism.

The Constitutional Courts and Secularism

The concept of secularism in India differs from the western ideas of secularism. In the West, secularism is defined as the separation of church and State with no interference, no discrimination and no action with regard to any religion. The State does not support religious places and the law is the same for everyone regardless of their religion. While in the Indian context, secularism has a much broader meaning that talks about contact between the State and religion where the State can interfere in religions and the State actively funds and taxes religious institutions. Harmonious construction is made between the beliefs and needs of every faith subject to public order, morality and health. The laws in India are inclusive and accommodative in nature with the presence of Personal Laws. In SR Bommai, Secularism was declared to be a part of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution.

The UNESCO Department for Intercultural Dialogue and Pluralism for a Culture of Peace encourages the idea of "Spiritual Convergence" and strives to foster dialogue between different religious and spiritual traditions in a world where intra-religious and inter-religious conflicts are commonplace. As the author observes, it is from an early age that children should be exposed to the concept of "otherness", and to the values associated with tolerance, respect, and confidence in those on the other side that will lead to a change in behaviour and attitudes towards others. The Supreme Court’s observation in Ms. Aruna Roy And Others vs Union Of India And Others can be interpreted as a call to introduce inter-religious discussions and awareness in schools. It had observed, “Another aspect that must be given some thought is religion, which is the most misused and misunderstood concept. The process of making the students acquainted with the basics of all religions, the values inherent therein and also a comparative study of the philosophy of all religions should begin at the middle stage in schools and continue up to the university level. Students have to be made aware that the basic concept behind every religion is common, only the practices differ. Even if there are differences of opinion in certain areas, people have to learn to coexist and carry no hatred against any religion.”

Therefore, even singing a religious hymn or recital of a prayer which has a connection with a particular religion cannot be said to be against the constitutional value of secularism.

In the US case of Engel v. Vitale (1962), the Supreme Court had struck down state-sponsored prayers as it resulted in the imposition of one-size fits all prayer on students of all religions and given the multicultural and diverse socio-religious fabric of India, it would be highly unfeasible. Indian governments at various levels must adopt a liberal approach and give freedom to educational institutions to introduce changes in academic and non-academic exercises which will in turn catalyse inter–religious conversations and bring in more religious harmony and intolerance. Justice Indira Banerjee in the Kendriya Vidyalaya case had commented, "The school that I used to go to, we had to stand in the assembly and say our prayers." She also added that prayers are done in the schools to inculcate moral values.

The State’s action is propagating the notion that with every activity that might have a religious link is problematic. In the land of unity in diversity, actions like the above only show the drastic degradation of the concept of secularism and an inclusive and accepting element of Indian Constitutional morality.

India currently is crumbling under the pressures of religious intolerance. If India wants to become the Vishwaguru, it needs to clear the air of communal disharmony and bigotry that suffocates the sanctum of secularism. India needs to examine its history to learn from years of syncretism and composite cultures. With the worsening position in the USCIRF, there seems to be an attempt to regulate the country in the idealized beliefs that are in line with the ruling government's thought process. Intolerance is not only leading to feelings of mutual distrust, apprehension and disrespect but is also rekindling religious fanaticism. If incidents like these are allowed to continue, India might find itself in an atmosphere filled with religious riots where the actions of the public will be puppeteered by the ruling government.

The ruling party has often presented itself as the torchbearer of Swami Vivekanda’s philosophy and spiritual intellect. However, its actions are often in conflict with his views. Vivekananda realised that religion and Indian society are inseparable. He said, “Each nation has a main current in life; in India it is religion.” Therefore, adopting a unidimensional idea of secularism would cause great harm to the Indian ethos. What is required at this hour is inculcating the values of harmony and fraternity in young minds so that they may stand united because a divided nation cannot stand storms.

Views are personal.


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