Saturday, November 24, 2001
S T A M P E D  I M P R E S S I O N S

Learning to respect other religions
Reeta Sharma

I was extremely agitated to read about the punishment meted out to schoolgirls in Carmel Convent School in Chandigarh. My anger was not over the physical torture the little girls had to undergo, but was directed at their parents, who had failed to rise to the occasion.

When the parents of students of Carmel Convent received letters asking them not to apply mehndi on the hands of their children, a majority of them did not even realise that they were being asked to surrender their rights. A few of them went even a step ahead by seeking exemption from this order, thereby, legitimising the authoritarian decision of the school principal.

That none of the parents of hundreds of schoolchildren were provoked by this dictatorial letter is a testimony to their subservient attitude towards the school authorities. Innumerable times I have heard parents putting forward the argument that even when the school authorities are unreasonable, they avoid a confrontation to save their children from inevitable victimisation. None of these parents would ever concede that it is their timid behaviour that keeps them from raising a voice against injustice.


I have no intention of offending these parents or any person who fails to question a situation that impinges on their rights or is unreasonable and unjust. It is just unfortunate that they happen to grow as "quiet people". There is a positive aspect to such personalities. They not only let sleeping dogs lie but are also able to avoid ugly situations and confrontations with the authorities that be.

For instance, take the incident mentioned above. If the parents of the children of Carmel Convent School had responded furiously to the autocratic letter, the following could have happened. Thousands of them could have thronged the school premises. There could have been a noisy confrontation between them and the principal, which in turn could have provoked the authorities to punish the hapless children.

Activists and a conscientious lawyer eventually picked up the parentsí battle. History proves that others can lead your battles but they can be won only if you join them. Remember, Gandhiji fought the battle against racism on behalf of the Africans. But it could reach its logical conclusion only when Africans themselves joined the battle. Similarly, when Gandhiji raised a banner of revolt against the British Empire on behalf of the 30-crore Indians, he could not achieve freedom till the entire nation followed in his footsteps.

As for the principal of Carmel Convent, frankly, I was not surprised that she sent such a letter. Post-Independence, two streams of education have been growing in our country. One that is offered by schools run by the government and the other that is offered by private institutions. If one were to look at the record of these two streams, one would come across two glaring facts. While the government schools began imparting education with an agenda, which was inspired by nationalism, private schools gradually slipped into the mould of religiosity.

Private schools, by and large, were opened by either Christian missionaries or Sikh and Hindu organisations. Most of these schools, whether consciously or driven by divine feelings, introduced their own religion as the signature of that particular school. For instance, a school opened by Christians has morning prayers in the name of Christ. Similarly, schools run by Sikh and Hindu organisations recite shabads and shalokas, respectively.

There is certainly nothing wrong about it. Children grow to learn about other religions. They also learn to respect other religions. But these schools leave a scope for their authorities going overboard in the name of their religion. The example is right before us. The letter forbidding children from applying mehndi on their hands shows disregard for othersí traditions, conventions and customs. It is a well-known fact that the application of mehndi is a custom among the Hindus and, interestingly, it is even applied by non-Hindus for its sheer beauty.

I personally feel that private schools should follow the rules adhered to by the government schools. The latter follow no particular religion but stress on nationalism. Teaching of religion to children is best left to parents. Also, it is left to the parents to decide how they want their children to grow. Whether they want them to fight against injustice or not. A majority of children will follow in the footsteps of their parents. Some exceptions like a Gandhi, a Lincoln, a Nelson Mandela, a Suu Kyi will always emerge.