PUCL Bulletin, January 1999

Outlandish and Illegal: Hindu prayers in government schools
By Rajindar Sachar

Any impression among woolly headed liberals that the BJP, realising that India being multi-religious and multi-lingual can play an effective role in the world only if it can give a sense of equal participation o the minorities, would surely have been dispelled by observing the BJP's chauvinistic stance in the matter of school songs.

With the Saraswati Vandana incident at the Education Ministers' Conference culminating in the UP Government's proposal that every student in a government school must participate in its singing the BJP's game of divisive politics is becoming clear, its protestations about the country's unity and integrity notwithstanding.

Now, so far as Saraswati Vandana is concerned, there can be no doubt that it is a prayer to a goddess, albeit of learning. An average Hindu, even one not believing in idol worship, may not feel the discordance in participating in a Saraswati Vandana too seriously because of his normal surroundings. But to force a Muslim child to sing in praise of a Hindi Goddess is an act which goes against the very core of his religion, namely, idol worship, amounting to gross interference with his fundamental of the Constitution which guarantee the freedom to practice one's religion.

Hindu reformer and Vedic scholar Swami Dayanand -- whom Romain Rolland described as a thinker of action and a hero of The Iliad or the Gita, and who was of the firm view that unless amongst other the evil practice of idol worship, (emphasis mine) was given up there was no hope for Hindu society -- would have reacted even more strongly than many Muslim organisations.

It is well known that even as a child he revolted and refused to accept Siva idol or any idol as an object of worship. In 1876, Rev. Lucas asked Swamiji what his answer would be if he were marched to a cannon and told that unless he prostrated himself before an idol, he would be blown to pieces. Swamiji promptly replied he would say "Blow away".

Is it a surprise that Muslims should react so strongly to this provocative action of the BJP government? RSS ideologue Sudarshan's outpouring about anyone opposing the Saraswati Vandana not being a son of India, and the equally obnoxious arrogance of the remarks of UP ministers and the Sant Samaj that the national loyalty of those refusing to sing the Saraswati Vandana is doubtful, is a sure recipe for communal bitterness. It shows the unmistakable resemblance of the RSS ideology to Nazism.

Let me remind these self-projected, smug pseudo patriots that the first person in independent India who excelled in patriotism, and laid down his life while defending Kashmir was my Muslim compatriot Abdul Majid.

In may view a compulsion to sing the Saraswati Vandana would violate the fundamental rights under Article 19 (1) (a) and Article 25, not only of Muslim students but also of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain students who have a conscientious objection to idol worship. Article 25 which guarantees freedom of conscience and the right to practice religion, is in the words of the Supreme Court in Emmanuels' case "an article of faith in the Constitution, incorporated in recognition of the principle that the real test of a true democracy is the ability of even an insignificant minority to find its identity under the country's Constitution.

The question is not whether a particular religious belief or practice appeals to our reason or sentiment but whether the belief is genuinely and conscientiously held as part of the profession or practice of religion. Our personal views and reactions are irrelevant. If the belief is genuinely and conscientiously held it attracts the protection of Article 25.

Compulsion in Schools for flag saluting, or singing Saraswati Vandana or any other song do not by themselves instill patriotism, rather "the deepest patriotism is best engendered by giving unfettered scope to the most crotchety beliefs".

The BJP is indulging in this deliberately divisive policy while couching it in this deliberately divisive policy while couching it in the innocuous language of national unity and cultural affinity. This is deception and one may echo what Justice Stone of the USA said: "History teaches us that there have been but few infringements of personal liberty by the state which have not been justified, as they are here, in the name of righteousness and the public good, and few of which have not been directed, as they are now, at politically helpless minorities".

Tested on the broader issue of no compulsion in schools, even introducing Vande Mataram may be subject of debate, same as Bipan chandra, noted historian with an unimpeachable commitment to secularism, that Vande Mataram is not a religious song. With this statement Syed Shahabuddin also agrees. I can still recollect the inspired sight of thousands of freedom fighters who fell to British bullets chanting Vande Mataram. I had always understood Vande Mataram to mean salutation to the motherland.

As a matter of fact, in Bankim Chandra's Anand Math from where Vande Mataram has been taken, the protagonist specifically says that the reference to mother is to the country, the motherland. But then as respected chairman of the Muslim Personal Law Board, have objected to the singing of Vande Mataram, the matter should be examined in a mutually accommodating spirit.

I would in these circumstances suggest the constitution of a committee of Muslim scholars and reputed historians to consider the question dispassionately to avoid any unnecessary misunderstanding and stain. I am, of course, doubtful whether the BJP government would agree to this because one of its political-strategic planks is anti-minoritism, whether against Muslims or Christians.

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