After revising school textbooks to delete ‘Hindu’ words, among other such acts, to appease Muslim fundamentalists, the Mamata Banerjee government has adopted an openly hostile attitude towards celebration of Hindu festivals. The latest such act of appeasement is the harsh police action on Tuesday (31 January) against students of a school who wanted to celebrate a puja.
All that the 2,000-odd students of a school in Howrah district, about 40km west of Kolkata, wanted to do was worship Devi Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning, at their school this year too. They have not only been thrashed by the police for voicing their demand, but parents of some of the students have been arrested in late-night raids on Tuesday.
Tens of thousands of schools, mostly government-run and government-aided, celebrate Saraswati Puja on Vasant Panchami every year. The day has, since 1947, been a public holiday in West Bengal, and all Hindu homes also worship the Goddess on this day. In the schools, children from other religions also participate in the puja -- organising the celebration, decorating the school, collecting money and cooking and eating the khichdi prasad after the puja. Coming on the eve of school final examinations, the worship of the Goddess of Learning is considered crucial by students in the state.
And so it had been at the Tehatta High School in Howrah for the past 65 years. As in other schools, Muslim students had also been participating in the puja and the festivities associated with it. Tehatta has a mixed population of Hindus and Muslims. Trouble broke out for the first time when a section of Muslim students sought permission from the school authorities in November last year to celebrate Prophet Mohammed’s birthday (Milad-un-Nabi) as ‘Nabi Diwas’ inside the school. The students, say school teachers, were being instigated by some Urdu-speaking fundamentalist Muslim clerics who had settled down in Tehatta over the past few years as Imams and Maulanas in the mosques and madrasas in that area.
A group of Muslim students applied for permission to set up a stage inside the school premises and invite Muslim clerics to deliver sermons on Islam on Milad-un-Nabi that fell on 13 December last year. The Muslim students also demanded that attendance of all other students be made compulsory at the event. The school authorities refused since there was no precedent of observing ‘Nabi Diwas’ not only in that school but in any other school in the state. When the Muslim students insisted, the school authorities asked them to seek permission from the state administration.
That the Muslim students of the school were acting at the behest of fundamentalists who were bent on fomenting trouble, was clear right from the beginning. According to the school’s headmaster, Utpal Mallick (he resigned after being roughed up by Muslim students and clerics last month), the Muslim students made it clear right then that they would not allow Saraswati Puja to be held in the school if permission to hold the ‘Nabi Diwas’ programme was denied to them.
The atmosphere in the school got vitiated when Muslim students started clashing and fighting with the Hindu students and even harassing Hindu female students. This harassment of Hindu students, especially the girls, spilt over outside the school premises. On 13 December, some of the Muslim clerics barged into the school, hoisted a black flag (it looked like an Islamic State flag, say school authorities) and egged the Muslim students to erect a stage to celebrate the Prophet’s birthday. But they were thwarted. The police intervened and drove away the outsiders.
But the school closed down after the incident and reopened a week ago. Hindu students launched preparations for holding Saraswati Puja on 1 February (Thursday). The Muslim students, egged on by the Muslim clerics, objected to the preparations and demanded that they also be allowed to observe ‘Nabi Diwas’. When the school headmaster intervened, he was manhandled by a Muslim student and some outsiders who had entered the school. After this, on the advice of the district administration, the school was shut down indefinitely.
Over the past week, Hindu students and their parents have been demanding that the school reopen so that the Saraswati Puja can be held and academic activities resume ahead of the forthcoming annual examinations. They made a number of representations to the district administration. On Wednesday (Saraswati Puja eve), a few hundred Hindu students (mostly studying in classes 8, 9 and 10) and their parents gathered on National Highway 6 (that connects Kolkata and Surat) in support of their demand to reopen the school and allow the students to hold Saraswati Puja.
But within ten minutes, armed policemen descended on them and started a baton charge. The cops did not even spare girl students and beat them up brutally. Many sustained grievous injuries.
Even as the cops attacked the students, Muslim clerics were seen cheering the police action and egging on the cops. Later in the evening, police raided the houses of the students and arrested the parents of many on non-bailable charges of inciting communal passions. The district administration has ordered a crackdown on Hindu students and their parents and assured Muslim clerics that from now on, Saraswati Puja will not be allowed at Tehatta High School! ‘Nabi Diwas’ may be allowed in the school.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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