Karnataka: School Headmaster Suspended for Planning to Hold an Essay Competition on Prophet Mohammed

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Abdul Munaf Bijapur, headmaster in a government school, had distributed copies of a book for an essay competition on Prophet Mohammed as a part of an exercise for ethical and moral education among his school children. In the past, he also distributed literature on the life and message of religious personalities of other faiths and held similar essay-writing competition on their birth anniversaries. But the government suspended him under pressure from Sri Ram Sene, a radical outfit, after he planned the competition on the Prophet of Islam.

Syed Khalique Ahmed

NEW DELHI—Abdul Munaf Bijapur, headmaster of a government school in Nagavi village in Gadag district of Karnataka suspended two days ago. His crime: He distributed a book titled ‘Prophet Mohammed for All’ among school students.

He distributed the book as a part of ethical and moral education, sensitizing students about all religions and their personalities. In addition, he told media persons that he had been holding essay writing competitions on birth anniversaries of Basavanna, Valmiki, Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, and other personalities in his school to generate awareness among his students about these great men. In this series, he said, he also held programmes on the life and teachings of Prophet Mohammed to educate students of all religions.

This year, he said, he distributed the book and asked the students to read it and write an essay on the Prophet. However, he clarified that he did not force students and only gave books to those willing to study them. 

One of the villagers, Jayashri Muttinapendimath, said that villagers did not know the religion of Bijapur, but he had been working honestly for the last three years after his posting in the village. According to other villagers, the standard of education in the school has improved ever since Bijapur joined. They admitted that Bijapur was holding essay contests on personalities of all religions.

However, there was no objection to essay competitions in previous years. But, a student’s parents informed the Sri Ram Sene workers this year, and they assembled outside the school on September 27, alleging that the headmaster was preaching Islam to Hindu students.

Under pressure from Sri Ram Sene, the state education department suspended Bijapur pending a departmental inquiry. 

Ironically, it was the same day when the Government of India imposed a nationwide ban on the Popular Front of India for the latter’s alleged activities in the radicalization of Muslim youths and involvement in several murder cases in Kerala and Karnataka, thus “posing a threat to the internal security of the country”. 

But Sri Ram Sene is also a radical and dreaded outfit whose members have been allegedly involved in several murder cases, including the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh and incidents of hate crimes. Media reports say that Sri Ram Sene organized camps to provide firearms training to dozens of youths. Instead of recommending a ban on Sri Ram Sene as done in the case of PFI, the Karnataka government buckled under its pressure to suspend a Muslim teacher.

If we go by the recommendations of the New Education Policy-2020 and reports of various education commissions on imparting ethical and religious education, Bijapur is not wrong. In fact, he is very much in line with their recommendations, including the NEP-2020 recommendations. Moreover, there was no disturbance to peace from his actions. 

The question arises: On what ground has Bijapur been suspended? School and college libraries have books on all religions; any student can read those. What is wrong if a book about Islam and its Prophet is circulated among students for an essay competition?  What Bijapur did was to educate students about Islam and its Prophet. And he held similar competitions on the religious personalities of other faiths as well. So, the essay competition about the Prophet should not be viewed from a communal angle. If we start looking at everything from a communal prism, there will be no end to it. There is an urgent need to promote interfaith understanding. What kind of message are Sri Ram Sene and the Government of Karnataka sending to the state’s people? Is this “Hindu Tolerance?” 

However, no official, including Commissioner of Public Instruction Dr Vishal R., could be contacted despite several efforts to seek the answer on what ground the headmaster has been suspended.

Can we live peacefully as neighbours with such kind of conduct on the part of Sri Ram Sene and the Government of Karnakata buckling under its pressure? 

Moreover, the school curriculum of various states has textbooks on the religious personalities of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains under various titles like “Our Ancestors” in Uttar Pradesh and other states. The Gujarat government recently introduced the teaching of “values and principles contained in the Bhagawad Gita” in all schools. Does this mean that the Gujarat government is propagating Hinduism by allowing “values and principles” based on the religious text of one religion only? However, it certainly goes against the religious diversity, multi-culturalism, and secular principles of the Indian Constitution. 

NEP 2020 Emphasizes On Teaching Of Ethics And Human Values To Students

NEP 2020 emphasizes the teaching of “ethics and human and Constitutional values like empathy, respect for others, cleanliness, courtesy, democratic spirit, the spirit of service, respect for public property, scientific temper, liberty, responsibility, pluralism, equality, and justice.” This means there is a scope for teaching religious texts of different faiths because ethics, courtesy, morals, a sense of pluralism, equality, justice, and human values will come from religious texts, not from science and art books. Since India is a multi-religious society, tenets of all religions must be taught to students to understand the basic principles of each other’s faith in the interest of peace and harmony.

All Education Commissions Recommended Imparting Religious Education

In fact, all education commissions – from Radhakrishnan Commission, the first education commission set up after Independence in 1949 – recommended imparting religious education to all religions and introducing prominent religious and cultural personalities of different faiths in the educational curriculum of schools.

The Radhakrishnan commission also recommended publishing a book on ‘Natural Religion’ based on fundamental teachings of all religions to create a broader understanding of all religions’ religious principles and ethical and moral values. However, it is a different thing that it was never implemented.

“The Committee on Religious and Moral Education” was set up in 1959 by the then Union Education Ministry with the then Bombay State governor Sri Prakash as its chairman. 

After going into the depth of the issue, the committee advocated ” an objective, comparative and sympathetic study of India’s essential religions.” It recommended that moral and spiritual education include “a comparative and sympathetic study of the lives and teachings of great religious leaders and, at later stages, their ethical systems and philosophies” from school to university level.

It further said that “by knowing the broad outline of our countrymen in all their variety, we shall add to the fund of our knowledge, and with this knowledge and understanding, ignorance which breeds prejudice and bigotry, will give way to tolerance and sympathetic appreciation of the religious life of our fellow citizens.”

No other commission had gone into so much detail about the importance of religious education in the school curriculum.

The authors of the report pointed out that India needs to adopt a kind of approach in matters of mutual religious understanding as discussed in Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s commentary on the Quran, titled Tarjuman-ul-Quran and Dr. Bhagwan Das’s The Essential Unity of All Religions. However, these recommendations were never implemented.

Earlier, Mudaliar Commission in 1953 had also recommended imparting religious education after school hours with parents’ consent. Kothari Commission in 1964-66 recommended implementing the recommendations of previous commissions and committees on religious and moral education.

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