Class apart

A few weeks ago a public school in the National Capital Region organised an Id Milan during school hours for students. Not all students were invited to it. During the mid-morning recess, teachers instructed Muslim students to line up and go to the place for the function. I would leave it to the imagination of readers to visualise the sight and possible reaction of other children to the spectacle of a line of “different” students going for an exclusive party — refreshments were served on the house, of course.

Probably, similarly segregated celebrations were held in others schools across the country. Such events, even if not yet happening on a national scale, have the potential to drill the idea of the “other” from a very early age, much before children develop political maturity and ability to choose personal companions and political affiliations. Willy-nilly, from a country that thrived by believing in the “Unity in Diversity” slogan, India faces the prospect of becoming a country where people are beginning to live in little antagonistic boxes.

Let’s explore the logic of the decision of the school to have an Id Milan get-together exclusively for Muslim students. The decision was obviously prompted by the belief of school authorities that non-Muslim students had no religious reason to celebrate the festival. But if this logic is considered correct, why should schools have fancy dress events on Janmashtami when children routinely go dressed as Krishna or Radha? I am not making a case that Muslim students should be excluded from these festivities.

But surely, just as such festivals are celebrated in the spirit of bonding diverse streams of Indian cultural and spiritual traditions, there is a case for making Id Milan all-inclusive. It is important for children to be taught that in pluralistic societies like India, people must celebrate festivals of others. Schools that are not run by missionary or other Christian bodies celebrate Christmas as a participative exercise and often annual functions include plays on themes of nativity. I have not come across any instance where any sequence connected with Islam has been performed in public schools. School education in India has a colonial legacy and this explains why there is a great social connect with Christianity and not so much with Islam.

This shift away from social inclusion on religious lines is not new but has, slowly, over more than a decade, become the accepted reality. Religion has, bit by bit, through various episodes of social schism, emerged as the main basis of social identity over the past quarter of a century. Religious identity was a major factor for social discord and violence in India before Partition, but it became paramount from the late 1980s and early 1990s with the emergence of the Ram Janambhoomi movement and subsequent stranglehold of the Hindutva idea, a thought understood by its votaries less as a preference for something (Hinduness) and more in terms of rejection of the other’s value system — in this case clearly Islamic.

Almost 24 years ago, when Lal Krishna Advani announced his plan to undertake the Somnath to Ayodhya Rath Yatra in September 1990, he said that the campaign was not just for the liberation of Ram Janambhoomi but was intended to spread the idea of cultural nationalism. At that time the real meaning of these words was lost on the Indian intelligentsia and with little scholarly exploration of the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates, the ideas appeared incredulous and expounded by a political leader with little political future. At that time consensus in the camp of its adversaries was that “the BJP has peaked too early” and that Indians were inherently secular. This has clearly not happened and without betraying its original ideology, the BJP has become the first non-Congress party to secure parliamentary majority.

It will be myopic to look at the onset of religious segregation in schools distinctly from Mr Advani’s statement in 1990 or from the ones recently made by the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat. The official transcript of the contentious speech as available on the RSS website attributes the following lines to Mr Bhagwat: “All those who live here in Hindustan are Hindus. Our style of worshipping may differ, some may not even worship at all, we may speak different languages, we may belong to various parts of this land, our eating habits may differ, yet we all are ONE. We are one nation. We are Hindus. Just as those who stay in England are English... It is a such a simple thing to understand. Hindutva is our nationality. It is a way of life. Unnecessarily some people are confusing the nation.”

Critics raised a howl of protests completely unaware that Mr Bhagwat’s postulation was simply reiteration of his organisation’s known position. Over the past nine decades, RSS leaders and ideologues have consistently argued that Hinduness needs to be distinguished from Hinduism. They contend that nations of India need to conform to Hinduness while having the right to pursue their faith. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had the following to say when I quizzed him on how he looked at inter-community relationships.

He said: “Practices and traditions of pujas and rituals can be different — but cannot be differentiated from the country, from tradition.” To a supplementary poser, that during the Ayodhya agitation the main argument of the Sangh Parivar was that Muslims must accept Lord Ram as the symbol of national identity, he had accepted that “yes that was the basic argument, the main philosophy — that he (Ram) also was one of the Mahapurush (Great man) of this country. And that everyone in this country should believe in this and that those who led this agitation campaigned for this.”
Mr Advani and others from his ideological fraternity define Indian nationhood in terms of cultural nationalism and not territorial nationalism.

Mr Bhagwat further said in that speech that Indian have forgotten swadharma and they must immediate farm adequate knowledge of swa (own) and dharma (duty). Further he added: “Hinduism is swa of Hindu.”

If you recall his contention, everybody who lives here are Hindus even though the style (sic) of worshipping may be different — does it now make sense that schools have begun having exclusive Id Milans and all inclusive Janmashtami celebrations?

The writer is the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, the Times

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