Public schools and ‘secular’ prayers

Tushar Goel

The morality and legality of the word ‘secular’ in the preamble of the Constitution has been debated since the time it was included in the 42nd amendment of the Constitution in 1976. The religious angle, fundamental rights and beliefs of the common people have all been discussed on several platforms and on several occasions, but in this article I want to focus on a hitherto untouched angle – ‘How are school prayers in the public education system defining the concept of secularism?’ A majority of the population, especially in the rural areas, goes to state-run schools where the practice of school prayers or ‘prathna sabhas’ is present. Every morning, irrespective of their religious beliefs, students are forced to attend these prayer sessions.

In the majority of schools, a typical day begins with everybody in the school assembling for the school prayer. Students don’t have the freedom either to skip this ritual or to pray to a God of their choice. The school prayer is the prerogative of the school. In most cases, the school administration opts for a Hindu prayer. If the school belongs to a particular religious group this choice is understandable, but a serious question arises when such practices are undertaken in public schools. Most of these schools showcase goddess Saraswati as the god of learning. Are we not breaching the Constitution with such practices? Are we not going against the Constitution by not respecting the religious beliefs of a person belonging to another community and who has a right to study in the school? In my opinion, the practice of such prayers is a violation of one’s fundamental rights under Article 19 (1) (a) (freedom of speech) and Article 25 (freedom of religion). It is a violation of not just the members of the minority communities but also of those who do not believe in religion or in certain religious practices. Article 25 was included in the Constitution to ensure that every citizen of this country, no matter what his religion, finds his identity here. Article 28 of the Indian Constitution says:

  1. No religion instruction shall be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of State funds.
  2. Nothing in clause (1) shall apply to an educational institution which is administered by the State but has been established under any endowment or trust which requires that religious instruction shall be imparted in such institution.

Such practices are also a violation of the Preamble of the Constitution. Parents may choose not to send their children to public schools if they feel their beliefs are not being respected.

Note: This photo has been used here for illustrative purposes only.

Another issue is that through such practices we are coaxing all students to dwell and follow a particular religious belief. We are not giving them the space and freedom to think about what religion they would like to identify with or indeed whether they would want to identify with any religion at all. Of course, children automatically tend to accept and follow the religion of their parents but the school should provide them a platform to broaden their horizons with regard to religious practices. Instead, the school is narrowing the mindset of the students.

Many people argue that prayers are like meditation and a way of thanking God for our good fortune. There is no problem in thanking and appreciating nature or God but forcing everybody to offer that thanks in one way only is not justifiable, especially in government schools. The school is an institution where a child develops his/her understanding of the various nuances of life by becoming a free soul and such a place at least should not indulge in these kinds of practices.

There is another argument that the reason behind conducting such prayers is to link the school philosophy with education, but the question is whether the student at his/her age is competent enough to understand the link. Forced imitation of prayers can establish hatred for a particular religion in the child and this might have different implications later on.

Many teachers and students are influenced by these prayers and sometimes the teachings from these prayers may crop up during classroom discussions. In such cases it is a greater violation of constitutional laws.

A year ago, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed in the Supreme Court of India regarding the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sanghatan schools conducting prayers only of one religion. The court has directed the government to submit its report in this particular case. The issue is not primarily with KVs but all schools either run by the government or by private entities. Schools should be institutions where each individual is taught to respect the other’s religious views and to abide by the Constitution of the country, but in a majority of schools what they are practicing seems to be different from what they are preaching.

The author is currently working with Tata Institute of Social Sciences as Research Associate. He can be reached at [email protected].

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