Religious indoctrination in Govt. schools

Posted by Alokananda Bisoyi
October 3, 2017


With much hullaballoo of’ Madrassas’ and ‘missionary schools’ injecting kids with religious venoms, we have purposefully forgotten that, hardly 3 % Muslims attend madrassas ( Sachar committee report) and very few in the country are able enough to afford missionary English education. Instead, taking the recent figures provided by U-DISE into consideration, 65% total school-going Indian kids i.e. about 113 million attend schools run by either central or respective state governments. The greater concern is, whether these government schools, having undertaken the liability of 113 million students also engage in the practice, promotion and propagation of an explicitly specific set of religious or cultural belief(s) that may show a discrepancy from the beliefs of one or many students from the student community. I will provide here a brief story of activities of the authorities and teachers of a government school named Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya, Koraput (Odisha) where I had my high school education and draw links to how thousands of government-run schools, run similar kind of programming of religious indoctrination.

Ours was an abundantly green rural campus, spread across 33 acres of land. The inspiration behind establishing Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas by the Govt. of India across the sub-continent was to offer an improved platform to rural talents to develop themselves in multiple fields, be it academics or sports. These schools provide free food, dress, accommodation, sports equipments, a beautiful classroom with teachers who could speak English, all of which a kid from very weaker socio-economic background could think of. These schools reserve 75 % and 25% seats respectively for candidates from rural and urban India, along with reservation for candidates from SCs and STs as per the constitutional norms which can be flexible according to the population of various communities in a district.  Besides these technicalities, my school, during my time (2008), had more than 60% of students from SC and ST community and about 20% from Christian families (spread across all caste category) . I can still not think of such a secular and inclusive educational space but all this comes with a cost i.e. ‘cultural and religious indoctrination’.

The first level of indoctrination starts with (I could hardly think it as indoctrination back then in 6th standard. None of us could!) the food in the dining hall, where the students are made to wait with their food till everyone receives it. All of sudden, some students start chanting a Hindu hymn that only a few of the new-entrants would be hardly familiar with. The hymn is derived from ‘Krishna Yajurveda Taittiriya Upanishad’;

“Om Saha Naav[au]-Avatu |
Saha Nau Bhunaktu |
Saha Viiryam Karavaavahai |
Tejasvi Naav[au]-Adhiitam-Astu Maa Vidvissaavahai |
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||”

To be very specific, chanting this mantra was not an optional task you could simply escape, rather, one has to learn and chant it mandatorily. My Christian friends also learnt it and chanted the same mantra for the next 7 years but immediately after chanting the mantra imposed on them, they used to chant their own prayers very silently, which the school never paid a heed to. The question here is, does anyone really enjoy the power to push a mantra down to someone’s throat, with or without their consent. These mantras do not restrict itself to dining halls but instead, the same kind of ‘shanti mantras’ are often used by teachers in thousands of classrooms everyday across the country as a tool to supposedly bring ‘concentration’ inside the hearts of the students.

The school’s obligation towards a specific set of beliefs gets translated into ‘hegemony’ with the prayer class, where the ‘hegemony’ gets official legitimisation. Navodaya Vidyalayas across the country has a common and mandatory prayer i.e. ‘Navodaya prayer’. Although the prayer is composed with a very secularist approach, my school, since years, have been chanting the ‘Pavamana Mantra’ from ‘Brihadaranyaka Upanishad’ before the ‘Navodaya Prayer’, which particularly aims at showing the religious supremacy of one culturally dominant  group over others. Also, no matter how secular a prayer can be, the mode of singing it remains very constant in almost every government school i.e. to sing it with folded hands and closed eyes and this particular way of prayer can be associated to only a single religious group.

Along with the prayer, national anthem and news reading, the school assembly used to have a small one-minute programme titled ‘Today’s Hymn’ where one student goes to the mike and chant a ‘mantra’ in Sanskrit , often from ‘Bhagwat Geeta’ and Vedas, and elaborates its meaning. With about 50-70 percent students coming from Dalit, tribal and Christian communities, bearing this for 7 long years could be irritating. We must not forget that, ‘tolerance’ comes with either every belief getting represented equally or else in the absence of the any belief in a platform, which my school failed to realise.

In a very shocking incident, within a year of me joining in the school, a huge wall painting of ‘Jagganath’, the Hindu God from Puri was officially inaugurated by the Principal and everyone of us were supposed to celebrate and we did because little did we know that public institutions could not have religious symbols inside it’s premises. The fact that needs to be told here is, the main temple of Jagganath at Puri denies access to Non-Hindus and until before a century or two, the same was practiced for Dalits. If the wall painting was not meant for a majority of the student population, for who did the biggest wall of the academic block was covered with the painting of Jagannath? In all these years, the painting got faded in colour and now is replaced by 3 idols of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra. If idol worship inside a central government-run school is not ‘religious indoctrination’, what is it? The same methods of indoctrination are used at thousands of government school through pictures of ‘Saraswati’ and ‘Bharat mata’, which could be found right above the blackboard.

The most disgusting part of colonizing the choice of freedom of religion in my school was the presence of a huge Shiva temple within premises of the school campus. Even, a permanent Brahmin has been appointed for the temple who still visits it twice or thrice a week to perform ‘Pujas’ and ‘homas’. The temple is used on Sundays and week days to conduct prayer classes for the students. With much pride and joy, the temple is growing rapidly in terms of infrastructure. What should be noted here is that, non-recognition of Dalit-Adivasi festivals of the region such as ‘Puush parab’ and ‘Chait parab’ by the school. This notion can be seen in several government-run scools where the Dalit-Adivasi orientation of ‘religion’, ‘god’ or ‘belief’ is highly ostracised and ridiculed. 

Taking hundreds of these methods of religious indoctrination and subjugation of Dalit-Adivasi and minority beliefs in government schools (long before 2014 electoral victory of BJP) into consideration, it could be stated that the ruling party has a good ground to impose their set ‘factually incorrect and rhetorically well-built’ hinduised textbooks on students, which would ultimately legitimise such propagandas and fuel enmity among the kids from their primary level of education itself.


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