Lessons to Unlearn

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A classroom activity in a school syllabus on how to deal with non-Muslims ignites communal passion in Kerala

Suppose your best friend Adam/Suzanne has decided to become a Muslim. Among the choices, what advice will you give?

a) He / She has to change her name to Ahmed /Sara immediately
b) He / She is wearing a chain with a cross. Need to remove it
c) Learn the Shahada
d) Run away from home as parents are not Muslims
e) Eat halal chicken

Put the above advice in correct order and explain the reason to the class.

THIS QUESTION FEATURED in an activity exercise for Class II students of Peace International School, an establishment run by Peace Educational Welfare and Charitable Trust, Kochi. The trust has 10 schools across Kerala and Mangalore and more than 90 per cent of their students are from the Muslim community. The question above went viral on social media, outraging many. Filmmaker Ashiq Abu shared it on Facebook with a note expressing deep concern over what was being taught to children. A case has now been registered against the school authorities for promoting enmity between groups on the basis of religion. “The investigation has begun. We are looking into all aspects. We guess they have a connection with the publications of Zakir Naik,” says S Sreejith, Inspector General of Police, Ernakulam.

The school authorities claim that they had dropped this activity two years ago. “We follow the NCERT syllabus. In addition to that, we give religious education, for which we selected some books available in the market. This portion of the syllabus came to our notice and we dropped it two years back. We are aware such an exercise is not appropriate for Class II students,” says MM Akbar, managing director of Peace Educational Foundation.

But he does not see anything amiss in the content, just that it was not appropriate for the age group. “There is nothing wrong in it. In India, freedom of religion is protected. We removed the said portion of the syllabus only because it is not supposed to be taught at such a young age,” he says.

There are other instances of obscurantism being taught to students in the school. A textbook for Class V students has a portion with the title, ‘Uncle Darwin Was Wrong’, and it claims that the theory of evolution is false propaganda: ‘While wandering through England’s animal fairs, Darwin noted that there were many different breeds of cow. Taking that as his starting point, he continued with the logic that ‘living things can naturally diversify within themselves’ which means that over a long period of time different living things could have descended from a common ancestor. What Darwin believed to be evolution was actually variation.’

This is not the first time that Peace International School has hit the headlines. The school’s name had also cropped up when 22 young men and women went missing in June and were believed to have joined the ISIS. Abdul Rashid, one of the missing persons, was a teacher trainer at Peace International School, Calicut. Akbar dismisses any such links with radical Islamists. “It was all false propaganda. None of the missing persons studied in Peace School. This Rashid has been a trainer for teachers for two years, but his subjects were Mathematics and Science, not Religion. We openly tell our students to be careful against evil forces like the ISIS, which has nothing to do with Islam,” he says.

Many Muslim scholars in Kerala believe that in the popular imagination, Islam is being identified with and maligned by the ultra-orthodox Salafi school of thought

Peace International School claims that 60 per cent of its staff members are non-Muslim. “We go only for merit. We need Muslim teachers only to teach the religious scripts,” says Akbar. There have been no complaints earlier by non-Muslim parents about their children being taught Islam, though police sources say such allegations are now being investigated. Surjith MR, a Hindu businessman whose three children study there, says he is “absolutely fine with the school” and believes it has fallen victim to a smear campaign. “In my understanding, this particular portion had already been dropped. The religious classes are for Muslim students only,” he says. “I belong to the Nair community, and all my children are happy with this school. I have chosen this school because a Muslim friend of mine whose son studied there spoke highly of it.” Surjith doesn’t care about the school textbook’s take on evolution. “That is only a religious text which is not being taught to other students,” he says.

“WE HAVE NO right to be shocked at this,” says a commentator about the controversial parts of the school’s textbooks. He says that practices commonly labelled as ‘secular’ in school are often not so. “We used to chant Hindu prayers in schools. There are many educational institutions where Hindu gods are worshipped. We have accepted all these as normal. There are schools that perform Saraswati puja. Worshipping Ganpati in government-run institutions and offices has been accepted as [a norm].”

In schools run by Chinmaya Mission, for example, students are obliged to greet each other and the teachers with ‘Hari Om’. By convention, even non-Hindus have to follow this. K Satchidanandan, a poet known for his political views, says that either secularism should be rigidly enforced across the board or mutual respect for all religions has to be created in schools. “Personally, I am for a secular education where either no religion is taught or all religions are taught in a comparative mode to create an atmosphere of mutual respect. But I find that in India, a Hindu education is considered normal and others are considered a harmful deviation. Sadly, the history we were taught as children had a strong Hindu bias. Hindu Mahasabha leaders who opposed Islam, like Lala Lajpat Rai, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya and Madan Mohan Malaviya, were introduced to us as ‘national’ leaders. Now the venomous teachings of VD Savarkar and Golwalkar, which challenge the secular values enshrined in our Constitution, are being propagated by Hindutvavadis with the tacit support of the Central Government. We see the disastrous consequences every day in this ‘othering’, often ending up as killing of Muslims under some pretext or another,” he adds.

Many Muslim scholars in Kerala share the view that in the popular imagination, Islam is being identified with and maligned by the ultra-orthodox Salafi school of thought. Muslim organisations and intellectuals have criticised this tendency. Salafism advocates extreme exclusivity and separation from other communities and its clergy even caution against interaction with non-Muslims in daily affairs. A recent video by a Salafi preacher Shamsudeen Palath that went viral has him preaching that even greeting a non- Muslim is forbidden for a true Muslim. He asks believers to flee the country so as to lead “truly Islamic” lives. A case under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act has been slapped on him for disrupting communal harmony.

Dr Yasir Arafat, an Islamic scholar and assistant professor of History at Delhi University, says the controversy highlights serious pedagogical issues. “Interestingly, you can see that the syllabus followed in madrassas under boards run by different Islamic groups—the Jamaat- e-Islami, Mujahid or Sunni—do not have any such texts,” he says. Arafat argues that the root of the problem lies not in such books, but in cultural ghettoisation. Including the Vedas and Upanishads in a school curriculum or teaching children what to do when a friend converts to Islam are part of the same process of exclusion.

“The question is how to draw a line between the right to believe and the right to withdraw [from plural engagement],” he says. The demarcation between the right to believe and the right to hate, meanwhile, gets blurrier by the day, and it is not something endemic to schools of any particular community, but to all that are run on the basis of religion. Most of these institutions are privately owned, and are meant for middle- and upper middle-class students. In an earlier era of public education in Kerala, children from all walks of life would study and mix together, learning diversity and plurality from their very childhood. That is becoming history.