At My Govt. School In Odisha, A Single Religion Was Forced On Children

Posted by Alokananda Bisoyi in Education
December 12, 2017

With the hullabaloo over madrasas and missionary schools injecting kids with religious venom, we have purposefully forgotten that, according to the Sachar Committee Report, hardly 3% of the Muslims attend madrasas – and very few are able to afford an English education in missionary schools. In fact, looking at the recent figures provided by  District Information System for Education  (DISE), 65% total school-going Indian kids in 20 states, (that is, about 113 million children) 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 received 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 the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas was to offer an improved platform to rural talents to develop themselves in multiple fields – be it in academics or sports.

These schools provide free food, clothes, accommodation, sports equipment, a beautiful classroom with teachers who could speak English and all that 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. 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 (from all caste categories).

I can still not think of such a secular and inclusive educational space. But all this comes with a cost – cultural and religious indoctrination.

The first level of indoctrination starts with (I could hardly think of it as indoctrination back then in class 6, though. None of us could.) the food in the dining hall, where the students are made to wait with their food till everyone receives it. And then, all of sudden, some students start chanting a Hindu hymn that only a few of the new entrants would be 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 ||
(May he protect us both (the teacher and the student).
May he nourish us both.
May we both work together with great energy.
May our study be enlightening and fruitful.
May we not hate each other.
Om Peace, Peace, Peace.)”

To be very specific, chanting this mantra was not an optional task you could simply escape, rather, one had to learn and chant it mandatorily. My Christian friends also learnt it and chanted the same mantra for seven 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 themselves to dining halls but instead, the same kind of shanti mantras are often used by teachers in thousands of classrooms every day across the country, as a tool to supposedly help students concentrate.

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 have a common and mandatory prayer – the ‘Navodaya prayer’. Although the prayer is composed with a very secularist approach, my school, since years, has 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, that is, 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 would go to the microphone and chant in Sanskrit, often from the “Bhagwat Geeta” and Vedas, and elaborate its meaning. With a majority of students coming from Dalit, tribal and Christian communities, bearing this for seven 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 any belief in a platform – something which my school failed to realise.

In a very shocking incident, within a year of me joining the school, a huge wall painting of Jagganath – the Hindu God from Puri, was officially inaugurated by the principal and every one of us were supposed to celebrate and we did because, little did we know that public institutions could not propagate religious symbols inside its premises.

The fact that needs to be told here is, the main temple of Jagganath at Puri denies access to Non-Hindus. In all these years, the painting got faded, and is now replaced by three idols of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra. If idol worship inside a central government-run school is not religious indoctrination, then what is it? The same methods of indoctrination are used at thousands of government school through pictures of ‘Saraswati’ and ‘Bharat Mata’, which may 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 pandit has been appointed for the temple who still visits it twice or thrice a week to perform pujas. The temple is used on Sundays and weekdays 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 and Adivasi festivals of the region such as ‘Puush parab’ and ‘Chait parab’ by the school. This notion can be seen in several government-run schools where the Dalit and Adivasi orientation of ‘religion’, ‘god’ or ‘belief’ is highly ostracised and ridiculed.

Taking hundreds of these methods of religious indoctrination and subjugation of Dalit and 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 ‘Hinduised’ textbooks on students – which would ultimately legitimise such propaganda, and fuel enmity among the kids from their primary level of education.