Forcing a Choice on Children – Published in The Statesman

An Office Memorandum, directing all secondary and senior secondary schools to conduct prayer for twenty minutes, issued by the Government of Rajasthan became the subject matter of challenge in a petition before the High Court. Twenty minutes’ prayer time was trifurcated; five minutes for prayer, National song, National anthem, next 10 minutes for Suryanamaskar (Salutation of the Sun), Yoga practice and meditation and further five minutes for talk on newspapers.

The petitioner, Azmat-e-Rasool Foundation, based in Jaipur, took the plea that the direction of the State was in conflict with the religious tenets of followers of Islam. On 30 June, the Petition was dismissed by the High Court observing that the government had, subsequently (on 29 June), issued a clarificatory note on the earlier memo to state that “Suryanamaskar is part of Yoga and the student will have option to practice or not to practice any particular yoga”. To the challenge of mandatory singing of the National song “Vandematram”, the High Court observed that since the original song was edited and the edited version, removing the reference to goddess Durga, was approved by the Congress Working Committee, singing of “Vandematram” had no religious overtones and no fundamental right of any citizen was violated.

Coming back to the office memo, it had separated the provision for Suryanamaskar, Yoga and Meditation. The clarificatory note, successfully improved and mixed ‘Suryanamaskar’ as a part of Yoga practice and left it on the students’ will to follow or not. This clarification itself implies that Suryanamaskar is violative of the religious practice of the claiming party. If it is so, on what basis can it can be retained and continued as part of 20 minutes’ prayer? Do the children of that age group have such advanced unde standing as to where they need to stop in a congregation. If it is practised for a few minutes in a gathering of those children who follow it, the small group of students who did not participate would be targeted and ridiculed.

Yoga practice is a separate issue. Muslims consider it to have originated from Srimadbhagwat Geeta and other religious texts of Hinduism. In addition to physical exercise, according to religious texts, yoga allows controls over senses, soul and thought and one who follows yoga is a Yogi or Yogin, capable of achieving salvation. No agnostic citizens of India would want their children to practice it, let alone Muslims who have an additional reason. It cannot be doubted that yoga has proved to be a good physical exercise in the same manner as Muslims consider performing Namaz a kind of physical exercise also. But even in countries where a majority of population is practicing Islam, no one would suggest offering of Namaz being made mandatory to start their non-religious education in public-funded schools. Mandatorily offering of Namaz five times a day is implemented in madrassas, the institutions of Islamic religious education to Muslim students only.

Undeniably, children need physical fitness, which most of the schools have made provision for by earmarking some time for sports and physical exercise. If at all it has to be extended, mandatory participation in NCC training, with certain additions to it, could be a good idea. That would fit in all the requirements, in addition to making children consider opting for a career in the armed forces.

Similarly, the High Court appears to have taken a short-cut while dealing with the issue of “Vandemataram”. The larger version of the song has 25 lines, and was edited to seven lines. The Congress Working Committee may have cleared its edited version but if overall tone and tenor of the whole song is religious, a segregated part shall not become irreligious. A substantive plea in relation to the whole of the song was taken. The High Court could have gone into the issue rather than relying upon approval of the edited version by a political party, which in any event has no authority to declare a text to be in consonance with a particular religion or not.

The memo seeks to implement yoga and the National song even in private schools, which are not funded from the state exchequer. There are countries which may have provisions to have State- funded religious and philoso- phical institutes of their choice. We are surrounded with a situation where everyone has to follow one line.

In the US Supreme Court such issues have come many times. In Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), the US Supreme Court majority view held that State endorsement of prayer activities in schools is prohibited by their First Amendment rights. It reasoned that the criteria for determining the constitutionality of a statute is that it must have a secular legislative purpose and the First Amendment required that a statute must be invalidated if it is entirely motivated by a purpose to advance religion.

In Edwards v. Aguillard, (1987), the US Supreme Court took the view that teaching creationism in public schools is unconstitutional because it attempts to advance a particular religion. In Lee v. Weisman, 1992, the court held by a majority that a clergy-led prayer in a public high school graduation violates the First Amendment.

The heart and of our Constitution is for creation of a secular and moderate nation where everyone has a guaranteed fundamental right of freedom of choice to follow their religious practices in their personal life.

We cannot have a casual and partisan attitude towards our children’s future. We are in an era, after 65 years of independence, where our children are largest in number to suffer from malnutrition. In the name of Right to Education, they get incompetent teachers in public-funded schools and governments have not been able to control widespread child labour across the country. This issue has added one more hurdle for future generations.

This article appeared in the Print Edition of The Statesman on 30th July, 2015

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