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India: Desecularising the State

Sunday 3 April 2022, by siawi3


Desecularising the State


THE announcement by the Gujarat education minister that the Bhagavad Gita would be taught in schools as part of the syllabus for class 6 to class 12 students from the academic year 2022-23, is a flagrant breach of the secular principle of the State.

It is a fundamental principle of all secular States that State-run schools do not impart religious instruction of any sort. The United States, France, Japan and a host of other countries follow this principle. Private schools are free to offer religious instruction of any kind but not State schools.

The Bhagavad Gita is a religious text. It seeks to expound a way of life and conduct based on Hindu religious traditions and philosophy. It cannot be depicted as a book of morals and ethics divorced from its religious context, as the BJP-RSS are claiming. There are some from within the Hindu fold who are critical of some aspects of the Gita such as the exposition of karma on its pronouncement that the chaturvarna system of caste is divinely ordained.

But the real issue is not whether the Gita is obscurantist and purveys some regressive ideas. The question to focus on is how government schools can have religious instruction of a particular kind?

The Constitution of India, in the Fundamental Rights chapter states in Article 28 (1) that: “No religion instruction shall be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of State funds”. It further states that in educational institutions (which are not State-run) but are recognized by the State or receiving aid out of State funds, if there is any religious instruction, no student attending such institutions can be made to take part in any such religious instruction or religious worship unless the guardian of that student, if a minor, has given consent.

The Gujarat decision on the Bhagavad Gita, therefore, goes against the basic premise set out in the Constitution - no religious instruction in State-funded and run schools.

The Gujarat example will now be emulated by other BJP-ruled states. The Karnataka minister for school education has stated that the state government will consider introducing Bhagavad Gita in schools after discussions with educationists. He said that, “Bhagavad Gita is not only for Hindus, it is for all.” It is the same Karnataka government which has outlawed the use of hijab by Muslim students in educational institutions.

The Union Minister, Prahlad Joshi, promptly stated that “Bhagavad Gita teaches us morality and ethics….Every state government can think about it.”

The efforts to introduce Hindu religious texts and scriptures in government schools is part of the overall project of the RSS-BJP to desecularise the Indian State. The Gujarat education minister cited the New Education Policy recommendation to include “Indian culture and knowledge systems” to justify the introduction of the Gita in the school syllabus. In all other spheres of the State, the introduction of Hindu religious symbolism in State functions and provision of State funds for expanding and renovating Hindu places of worship have become a common feature. The Prime Minister’s inauguration of the Kashi Vishwanath corridor is a prime example.

The State patronising the religion of the majority and privileging it in State institutions and systems is going to spell the end of any semblance of secularism left. The obverse side of this are the various laws passed by BJP state governments against `love jihad’, conversions and the drastic ban on slaughter of cattle which target the minorities. The Central law, the Citizenship Amendment Act, introduced a religious criteria to citizenship.

In Gujarat, the introduction of the Bhagavad Gita in schools has been welcomed by the main opposition party, the Congress. Its spokesperson said: “We welcome the decision to introduce Bhagavad Gita in the syllabus, but the state government also needs to learn from the Gita first”. Not to be left behind, the AAP spokesperson said, “We welcome the decision of the Government of Gujarat. This will benefit the students”.

This response of the opposition parties in Gujarat indicates the new reality – Hindutva is steadily acquiring a hegemonic status. The Left and democratic forces and all those who wish to see India remain a secular State will have to factor in this reality while working out a strategy to fight for an alternative vision to Hindutva.

(March 23, 2022)