By Mubasshir Mushtaq
NEW DELHI (AA) - A row over the role of religion in school has opened in India days after a state requested schools hold a Hindu prayer.
The move for schools in the city of Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat state, to hold a prayer to the Hindu goddess of knowledge has been labelled an attempt to impose the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu nationalist program.
"I am troubled by the Government of Gujarat's circular calling for Saraswati Puja in Ahmedabad schools. Many Muslim families could react in panic by stopping their children attending schools. That would be a tragedy for the community," said Juzar Bandukwala, a retired professor and civil rights activist.
Bandukwala, whose house was attacked during 2002 inter-communal riots that killed at least 1,000 in Gujarat, said the move to introduce Hindu prayers in secular schools is an attempt to implement the "extremist" agenda of right-wing groups, without provoking a secular reaction.
"Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a hands-on leader, who keeps eye on every vital development all over the country. I refuse to believe that this anti-minority hatred does not have his consent," said Bandukwala.
He said that he hopes the larger Hindu community will recognize this "dangerous" trend of “continuously attacking Muslims and their culture."
"They must speak out and condemn this madness," he said.
Local leaders from the opposition Congress party have slammed the move as an attack on the freedom all religions.
The Ahmedabad school board, an educational board of local civic body, issued a circular to all city schools on Jan. 19 to perform prayers in the school prayer gathering to Hindu deity Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, on Saturday.
"Vasant Panchami is the occasion to remember goddess of knowledge Maa Saraswati Devi. To make students understand the importance of education, schools need to organize Saraswati Puja and make students recite prayers of Saraswati during prayer gathering. Also, make them understand how Vasant Panchami is celebrated in other states," the circular issued by the educational board read.
The school board of Ahmedabad civic body runs over 400 primary schools in Gujarat’s biggest city, including over 60 Urdu-medium schools, where 15,000 Muslim students study.
"The order is an attack on secularism as enshrined in Indian constitution. It is an attack on fundamental rights of Muslims," a senior college student said on condition of anonymity.
"The constitution gives freedom to all faiths to pray according to their beliefs," he said, adding that the move was aimed at introducing religious prayer in secular schools.
He also claimed that majority of Urdu-medium schools in Ahmedabad city did not obey the order Saturday.
The chairman of the educational board tried to play down the move, saying it was not aimed at hurting the religious sentiments of any community.
"Our sole aim is to promote the quest for knowledge among children and not to hurt the followers of any religion," Jagdish Bhavsar, chairman of the board, was quoted as saying by weekly news magazine Outlook on Friday.
However, LD Desai, a member of the board, tried to defend the order, saying Saraswati is the goddess of education and schools are temples of education, for students of all religions.
"Thus, we just want students to understand the importance of education by remembering the goddess through prayer on that day," Desai said.