Kanpur: Businessman Manoj Chaturvedi, 40, said his reason to protest against his son’s school was, in his mind, straightforward.
“My child is a Hindu,” he said, “why are you teaching him Islamic prayers?”
One of four residents of this central-western city of Uttar Pradesh (UP) named as complainants in a first information report (FIR) registered at the Sisamau police station against the St Florets International school for alleged forced religious conversions, Chaturvedi’s son is in class 2.
On 2 August, Sumeet Makhija, the director of the private school, was booked under section 295 A (outraging religious feelings) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, and section 5(1) of the UP Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021, under which converting or attempting to convert another person’s religion may invite imprisonment of one to five years and a fine of not less than Rs 15,000.
The FIR used the words ‘shiksha jihad’ (holy war through education) to describe the alleged offence, a term loosely based on the ‘love jihad’ trope, a right-wing coinage to refer to inter-religious relationships.
“Seeds of conversion” were being sown in the minds of young children through the alleged recitation of the ‘Kalma’ (the Islamic prayer recited as a declaration of faith), the FIR said, in Hindi.
The FIR made no mention of other religions’ prayers that were recited.
Since 2003, when St Florets was established, the school has conducted a daily morning multi-religious prayer recitation by students, including Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian prayers—the Gayatri mantra, the Kalma, the start of the Japji Sahib, and an Our Father In Heaven.
On 1 August, after a local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader took the issue up and demanded action against the school for a multi-faith prayer in an “Indian Hindu school”, right-wing groups conducted a ‘purification’ ritual at the school with ‘gangajal’ (holy water from the Ganges). The FIR was registered the following day.
“If I wanted my child to learn the Kalma, I would have sent him to a madarsa,” Ravi Rajput, another complainant and parent of a boy in class 6, told Article 14.
Two weeks since the controversy erupted, many parents continued to be angry, demanding an apology from the school, which discontinued the prayers entirely.
The Kanpur school is the latest among a series of incidents in educational institutions across India where Hindus, including students’ parents and others who claimed their religious sentiments were at risk, have aggressively demanded changes in practices or rules pertaining to religion, from the hijab ban in Karnataka’s schools to segregation of students by religion in a Delhi municipal school in 2018.
On the heels of the Gujarat state government’s announcement that the Bhagavad Gita will be made a compulsory subject from classes 6 to 8 in state board schools, the Karnataka government has also said it will consider introducing the Hindu text in state schools. Earlier, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) announced that the Bhagavad Gita would be taught in its primary schools.
Meanwhile, in another city of UP, Aligarh, following complaints that the content was “objectionable”, the Aligarh Muslim University withdrew the writings of 20th-century Islamic authors Abul Ala al-Maududi and Sayyid Qutub from the syllabus of the Islamic Studies Department and replaced them with a course on ‘Sanatan Dharma’.
Opposition Was Mainly To The Kalma Recitation
Chaturvedi, who owns shops that he rents out, said he is not a member of the BJP or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He knew about the multi-faith prayer in his son’s school but had not paid much heed to it.
All the prayers and their meanings were written in the students’ school diary, he claimed, but no explanation of the Kalma was included.
“We know that the Kalma means He is only Allah and there is nobody else, only worship him, anyone else is nothing,” Chaturvedi said. “Other religions don't have this, do they?”
Translated from Urdu, the Kalma says: “I bear witness that there is no deity but Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”
Chaturvedi said the school should instead conduct a collective rendition of the national anthem during the morning assembly. “Which Muslim do you think recites or sings the national anthem or song? Do they even sing it?” he said. “Very few of them do.”
Rajput, a 35-year-old salesman and the main complainant in the FIR, concurred, “Why should they teach all prayers?” he said. “Teach them Jana Gana Mana.”
Rajput said he heard of the issue through the local news, but also claimed that the students were “made to fold their hands and pray like Muslims do”. He said, “They were tortured if they didn’t comply.”
He said teaching the Kalma to a Hindu is wrong.
Indian citizens live “according to the Constitution”, he said, adding that one cannot teach students what is taught “at a madarsa”.
‘We Are Pure Brahmins, We Are Pure Hindus’
Other parents, who believed those who registered the complaint may have exaggerated the facts, also believed that Hindu children should not have been made to participate in a Muslim prayer.
Renu Pathak, a homemaker, told Article 14 she did not approve of the manner in which the school was described by some “oversmart” parents who spoke “too much”. She has two daughters in classes 7 and 8, and a son in class 3.
Some parents lied and others made their children lie about being scolded for not reciting the prayers, she said.
However, Pathak said the suspension of the multi-faith prayer was long overdue. Her husband was opposed to the recitation of the Kalma and had planned to speak to the principal about it, she said.
“We have also been taught Hindu Muslim bhai bhai,” she said, “but we are pure Brahmin and sanatani (high-caste conservative Hindus), so we cannot tolerate such a thing.”
Ram Prakash Gautam, 40, a cobbler by profession, whose two children are in class 3, approved of the changes in the morning assembly though he was unaware of the practice of multi-faith prayers before the controversy.
“Such prayers should not happen in a Hindu school,” Gautam said. “Through media reporting and with the help of the police, this was made possible.”
Pathak, like the complainants in the FIR, said teaching an Islamic prayer to a Hindu child is wrong. Asked if reciting another religion’s prayer eroded one’s faith in one’s own religion, she said, “We are pure Hindus. It may be just two lines but who knows what is hidden inside it? What does it mean? What do we tell people and our children?”
She went on to say that other schools must be checked too. “Who knows what is being hidden inside them,” she said.
Chaturvedi said he did not want to see the school shuttered over this incident because their children’s education had already been adversely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. He said he wanted the police or other authorities to issue a warning to the school.
He claimed he did not intend to file a police complaint, but other complainants knew his name and number and might have added his name to their complaint.
“If the whole society is protesting, then you have to speak up too,” he said. “... If they don’t teach the Kalma, I won’t protest.”
Multi-Faith Prayer Replaced With National Song, Anthem
The principal of St Florets, Ankita Yadav, said in an interview to local reporters that four prayers (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian) were recited in the mornings, a practice that has continued since the foundation of the school in 2003. “We were teaching our children equality and respect for all religions,” she told Article 14. “As per law, we did nothing wrong.”
She said she did not know how the sudden objection began. “Now we are doing the national song, followed by the national anthem along with news reading, article reading and other morning activities.”
On 31 July, a message informing students of the changes was sent by one of the teachers on a class WhatsApp group.
Nevertheless, the FIR was filed two days later. About the allegation that students had been coerced to recite an Islamic prayer, she said, the school did not ask students to learn it. She said the choir group leads and the others recite the four prayers, “during the morning assembly only”.
Other Complainants From BJP, RSS, Hindu Jagran Manch
Another complainant, Shivam Dikshit, 34, is a member of right-wing organisation Hindu Jagran Manch and of the RSS, the ideological parent of the BJP. He does not have any children studying in the school.
He said he got to know of the issue through one of his organisation’s offices that is located on the same road as the school. A team was then sent to the school during the protest on 31 July, he said.
“Everybody prays differently, but when you do such a thing in a Hindu society, it impacts the thinking of a Hindu child,” Dikshit told Article 14. “We teach them something and they come back home learning something else.”
He said they demanded an apology letter from the school stating that they had made a mistake and they would not repeat it.
The fourth complainant, Deepu Tiwari, is a local BJP leader, who refused to comment on the issue over the phone. He added that he had filed a complaint against media persons for telephoning him for interviews.
Inspect School Every Six Months, Says BJP Leader
According to Rajput, it was local BJP leader Geeta Nigam who initiated the protest at the school on 31 July and it was through her efforts that more people were invited to gather at the school. Members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad were also present at the school.
Nigam said she heard of the issue through parents who had come to talk to her about the school’s practice.
Speaking to Article 14, Nigam, 36, said, “They should understand that they cannot teach such a thing in an Indian Hindu school.” According to her, some parents had been incensed for five to six months. “The principal had said that action will only be taken if more (parents) complain.”
While Nigam and the complainants call St Florets a ‘Hindu’ school, the institution is not affiliated to any Hindu organisation. According to the school’s website, it is an English-medium co-educational institution affiliated to the CBSE board, managed by the Naveen Shiksha Samiti, a registered society.
Nigam, however, insisted that the issue concerned Hinduism and Hindu people.
“We will have to see what happens,” she said. “The school should not do it again, there should be an inspection every six months to check that neither the parents who complained nor the children are pressured.”
Parents Told Police Religious Sentiments Were Hurt
When assistant commissioner of police Nishank Sharma was made aware of the issue, he alerted the district administration that deputed an additional city magistrate to look into the matter. When the police reached the school on 31 July, they were told that it was a traditional practice for over 12 years, and that there had not been an objection to the multi-faith prayer before.
Sharma said they went to the school on 1 August but found that only the national anthem was sung at the morning assembly. “The diaries have all the prayers written in them,” he said. “But due to objections being raised by parents, we filed the FIR.”
He said parents approached the police saying their religious sentiments had been hurt. “They feel that this is an attempt to convert the children.”
Sharma told Article 14 the police acted in accordance with the law. “The media is also to be blamed as they blow things out of proportion,” he said.
At least 10 states, including UP, have laws prohibiting forcible conversion of a person’s religion. Alongside Hindu groups’ campaign against inter-faith marriages that they labelled ‘Love Jihad’, the UP government enacted the law in 2020 to stop “unlawful religious conversions”, including alleged conspiracies by Muslim men to convert Hindu women to Islam by marrying them.
Since coming into force in November 2020, as many as 164 cases have been lodged under the anti-conversion law. Of these, while chargesheets have been filed in 115 cases, 17 cases were closed with a final report and 31 cases continued to be under investigation, according to this report.
Within the first year of enactment of the law, the UP police registered 16 cases involving as many as 86 people—79 of them Muslims.
Article 14 has reported on the use of anti-conversion laws to falsely implicate minorities. Meanwhile, the Delhi High court recently said it could not direct the government to frame an anti-religious conversions law, especially in the absence of any concrete evidence suggesting instances of forced conversions.
(Aliza Noor is an independent journalist from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh).