-Reshma Ravishanker (Bengaluru)
With state legislative assembly elections less than a year away, rank and file activists of the BJP — even if not the top brass of the party — are targeting Muslim and Christian minorities in Karnataka (pop.65 million), widely acknowledged as the BJP’s gateway into peninsular India. Plainly the objective of the BJP is to consolidate the dominant Hindu community vote behind the ruling party.
In January, even as children returned to school after the prolonged pandemic lockdown, some hindutva fringe groups created a prickly controversy over Muslim girl children wearing the hijab (headscarves) in classrooms. And most recently, another controversy involving a Christian minority education institution has made headlines in the media.
On April 21, Mohan Gowda, a spokesperson of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, tweeted that Clarence High School, Bengaluru, a vintage CISCE-affiliated primary secondary school (estb.1914), is “forcing” parents to sign a declaration to the effect that they have no objection to their children “carrying” the Bible and attending scripture classes. Citing an extract from the school’s admission application form, Gowda tweeted: “You affirm that your child will attend classes including morning assembly, scripture classes and clubs for his/her own moral and spiritual welfare and will not object to carrying the Bible and hymn books during his/her stay at Clarence High School.”
Soon after, Hindu fringe groups accused the Clarence school management of “attempts to convert students to Christianity” and imposing scripture classes/Bible upon Hindu children. Unsurprisingly, the BJP state government, which according to the opposition has orchestrated this new anti-minorities campaign, issued a show cause notice (April 26) to the school to clarify whether learning the scriptures is mandatory for all students. A day earlier, April 25, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights wrote to the District Commissioner of Bengaluru Urban demanding an enquiry into a “complaint” that Clarence High is imposing Christian religious views on minor children by making it mandatory for them to study the Bible.
“This is against the Karnataka Education Act, 1983. Under the Act, no school should have religious books in its academic curriculum. The department has sent a notice to the school and will wait for its response. The DDPI and BEO are already checking the facts and we will take action after receiving their response,” said B.C. Nagesh, education minister of Karnataka, addressing the media.
Reacting, Clarence High School principal Jerry George Mathew says the school is being dragged into “petty politics”. According to Mathew, as a Christian minority education institution, the school has a right to draw from the scriptures to teach “moral values” to students. The school’s alumni were also quick to take to social media platforms to support the management, and accused the BJP government of raking up a non-issue and “communalising it”. Since its establishment in 1914 by British missionaries Alfred and Walter Redwood, Bible teaching has been mandatory in the school.
“The school is being targeted over a non-issue. Clarence has a tradition of drawing from the Bible to inculcate moral values. Three generations of my family have studied at Clarence High and haven’t converted to Christianity. In my own case, I have been greatly enriched by the study of the Bible and Hindu scriptures. If there is any objection to this admission condition, it has to be resolved between parents and the school management. The government has no role in it,” says Nooraine Fazal, co-founder and CEO of the top-ranked Inventure Academy, Bengaluru and alumna of Clarence High.
The garden city’s academic community is almost unanimous that sudden objection to a 100-year-old practice of this Christian minority school is politically motivated. Since the BJP government assumed office in 2019 by engineering mass defections, the state has been experiencing a slow spread of religious antagonism and identity politics. During the past six months, the state’s 8 million-strong Muslim minority community has repeatedly been persecuted.
Muslim girls are prevented from wearing the hijab in classrooms; hindutva groups have called for a ban on halal meat prescribed by the Quran, and a ban on electronic loudspeakers in mosques used for several decades to call Muslims to prayer (azan). The Clarence High controversy is widely being interpreted as part of a larger agenda of the BJP government to demonise the Muslim and Christian minorities to consolidate the Hindu vote in the run-up for the assembly elections next summer.
To ensure that minority education institutions are not sitting ducks for rabble-rousing politicians, Divya Balagopal, an alumna of the top-ranked National Law School University of India, Bengaluru, and currently a senior partner at Mundkur Law Partners, Bengaluru, advises caution. “Admittedly under Article 30 (1) of the Constitution, all minorities have the fundamental right to establish and administer education institutions of their choice. But all rights are subject to reasonable restrictions in the larger public interest. The Clarence school management should make it clear in its admission form that it is a Christian minority school in which ethics and moral values drawn from the scriptures will be taught. However, Bible and scripture classes should be optional,” says Balagopal.