How secular are Indian schools in practice?

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Like many secular nations, India faced the challenge of determining the place of religion in its educational system. After independence, Indian secularism aimed to separate religion from the state. However, the Indian variant of secularism retained a complex and “multi-valued” character. This complexity is reflected in the education system, partly because of the state’s position and partly because of the demands of effective learning.

In his book Social Character of Learning, former director of the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), Prof. Krishna Kumar, discusses how the educational system is intertwined with a student’s social identity. Introducing the values ​​of the learner’s home and community into the classroom plays a constructive role in learning.

Education policy in India recognizes the relationship between education and community experiences, which explains the emphasis on culture in the classroom. The National Curriculum Frameworks (2000, 2005) and the National Education Policy (2020) recognize and advocate respect for all religions and speak of raising awareness of different faiths in students. The establishment of District elementary school program (DPEP), the School Management Committees (SMC) and several other programs have a similar goal: to incorporate inclusion and sensitivity to local conditions into the school curriculum. Such a learning atmosphere in schools has two overlapping functions. First, giving examples from students’ real life experiences creates a stronger basis for their conceptual understanding. The result is improved cognitive growth. Second, bringing students’ community experiences into the classroom also conveys that they are welcome in the classroom with their whole being, not just because of their calculating brains. This supports participation in the learning process without fear or apprehension.

A fear-free and safe learning atmosphere facilitates the strengthening of the neural networks formed through learning. The background experiences, in this sense, enrich the learning rather than disrupting or disrupting the educational process. Following the same principle, countries such as Spain, Ireland and Sweden teach religious values ​​and morals or comparative religions in their secular curricula. One step ahead, Spain takes in children without restricting religious dress or symbols in public schools.

An education system that seeks to denigrate and exclude sociocultural or religious symbols from schools portrays minority cultures as deficient, inferior, or inferior. This exclusion inflicts psychological violence on minorities and limits their access to learning. As a result, the education system, which seeks to reform marginalized communities, pushes them further away by damaging their self-esteem. The United States and France are two good examples of this. Although both countries sought a complete separation of religion and education, researchers have found religious values ​​and symbols are visible in their schools. It was also noted that schools have no objection to such infiltrations by students belonging to majority groups.

This also applies to India. Religion has emerged as one component of the state-funded schools in the country. It can be seen in several symbols like images or idols of deities like Saraswati, Ganesha and the gurus of different sects, used to decorate the administrative offices, classrooms and even the directors’ rooms. A closer examination and description of everyday practices would easily uncover many instances where religious values ​​and eating habits are manifested in school culture. At the start of any cultural festival or school event, we find elaborate rituals such as lighting the lamp, poojas, and reciting the Saraswati Vandana and Ganesha Stuti as familiar sights. There are long designated holidays and breaks for certain religious festivals such as Dusshera or Diwali.

Teachers who serve as role models also embody and profess the religion into which they were born. The ubiquitous presence of religious symbols in Indian education is normalized, unnoticed and undisputed. Such symbolism is not uncommon for students from the dominant or majority groups, since their everyday life outside of school is shaped by similar religious values. However, for students belonging to minorities or marginalized communities, the display of such symbols and values ​​leads to alienation.

Schools are mini societies where students are trained to be part of a future society. A democratic structure at the rhythm of a school prepares them for their future civic roles. Suppose a school or college as a reformative entity communicates that only certain community practices are welcome. In this case the teachers will establish and reinforce them religious hierarchies in their engagement with teachers, each other and the students. The students who live out these narratives of cultural and religious supremacy will surely reflect this as citizens in the future.

Most importantly, members of communities who live in a miasma of cultural subordination during their college years grow up as adults and later with a feeling of abandonment. In vain, members of a minority or marginalized community are always blamed for their unwillingness to “grow” and access mainstream life. Furthermore, education of the exclusive kind will only create animosity between communities instead of teaching harmony.

Shaima Amatullah is a research scholar working on the identity negotiations of Muslim students in educational spaces in Bangalore. Shalini Dixit is Assistant Professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. The views are personal.

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