Like many children growing up in Uttar Pradesh in the 1980s, Waziruddin, 55, learned to sing Lab Pe Aati Hai Dua, a poem by the renowned Urdu poet Mohammad Iqbal, in school.

“Everyone, whether Hindus or Muslims, would recite it,” Waziruddin said.

He added: “Par mahaul ab badal gaya hai.” The situation has changed now.

He should know. Only four months ago, in December, the former elementary school teacher in a government school in Bareilly was forced out of his job after Hindutva activists objected to a video of his students singing the Iqbal poem in school and accused him of trying to convert some of them to Islam.

Not only was he terminated from his job as a Shiksha Mitra, the post of a temporary teacher in the state’s government schools, Waziruddin also had to spend 10 days in jail.

On a complaint by Vishwa Hindu Parishad members, the police filed a first information report against Waziruddin and another teacher under Sections 298 and 153 of the Indian Penal Code, accusing them of hurting religious sentiments and provoking with an intent to cause a riot.

This is one of at least three reported instances of Uttar Pradesh authorities punishing teachers over the song at the behest of Hindutva activists.

Parents outside a Hathras school protesting against the song. Credit: Piyush Rai/Twitter screengrab.

Three weeks ago, a group of parents led by Hindutva activists protested outside a private school in Hathras and accused the school administration of forcing non-Muslim students to offer namaz.

The management of BLS International School denied the allegations, saying that the children had only recited Iqbal’s song while celebrating World Heritage Day. But it went on to suspend the principal and two teachers.

The district administration ordered an inquiry. In her initial comments to the media, district magistrate Archana Verma said: “We have seen the video and we did not find anything like this. It was a cultural event.” But the teachers remain suspended.

A 16-year-old student of the school told The Indian Express, “There was no namaz. We were only reciting and singing patriotic songs and prayers from our school diary. They suspended our teachers and principal for no reason.”

Karnika Srivastava, the vice principal of BLS International School, told Scroll on Monday that the school is waiting for the report from the district administration before deciding on reinstating the suspended teachers.

Though the inquiry was supposed to be completed in five days, Hathras’s sub-district magistrate Ashutosh Kumar said it will take longer. “We are busy with the municipal elections and will submit the report only after.”

For teachers like Waziruddin who have found themselves in the cross-hairs of Hindutva activists, it has not been easy to move on.

Since his release from jail, Waziruddin, who has three decades of teaching experience, has tried everything to pick up the pieces of his life, even taking to manual labour in the farms near his town. “It was out of a compulsion to earn,” he said.

He also gives tuition to two dozen students in his home town of Faridpur. “I waited for my reinstatement but I think it will take a long time,” he said.


‘No one sings it anymore’

Written in 1902 by Muhammad Iqbal, Lab Pe Aati Hai Dua is also known as Bachche ki Dua (A Child’s Prayer). Sung in schools across north India for decades, as well as performed by singers like Jagjit Singh, it expresses the wish that a child grows up to be a light that dispels the darkness of the world.

Iqbal also wrote one of India’s most popular patriotic songs, Saare Jahan Se Achha.

“Reciting the poem was a routine affair in our school,” said Furqan Ali, a 49-year-old teacher in Pilibhit. “It is part of the syllabus, on the first page of the Urdu textbook prescribed by the NCERT [National Council of Educational Research and Training].”

In December 2019, Ali was the headmaster of a primary school in Gayaspur area in Pilibhit, when Vishwa Hindu Parishad members complained that he had forced students to recite a song, which they claimed, was sung in madrasas.

The local education department carried out an inquiry and suspended Ali.

But a protest by his students, who boycotted classes, and media reports pressured the administration to reverse their decision.

“I was reinstated in three days,” Ali told Scroll. “After they failed to implicate me, they started making false allegations that I have not distributed books and uniforms among students. When they asked students, they were left red-faced.”

Furqan Ali (in white) with students at his older school, from which he was transferred. Credit: Special Arrangement

Even if Ali did not lose his job, he has had to pay a price.

He was transferred out of the school, where he had taught for eight years, and where he was a head teacher much loved by his students. “I had a great time running that school. I miss the students I had taught for years and who I had to leave behind. They stood up for me when I was suspended,” he said.

He added: “Some of them have moved out of the school after I left. Even today when I meet them, they give me respect. They ask me when I am returning.”

In the current school, he no longer teaches Urdu, nor does he have larger responsibilities. I only teach Class I students Hindi and mathematics.”

Ali believes he was targeted because of his faith. “I am a Muslim and I wear a skull cap and I have a beard,” says Furqan Ali. “They do not like it.”

In his former school in Pilibhit, he said, no one sings the hymn anymore.

‘Politics of religion’

On the morning of December 23, 2022, Waziruddin was in his class when two policemen arrived at the school.

“They said they were taking me to the police station for questioning but there I was arrested,” he recalled.

A day ago, an hour before the final bell at the school, a group of students had gathered in the school yard and sung the song.

A member of the school’s non-teaching staff clicked a video of the activity and shared it on the internet, Waziruddin said.

The video went viral and evoked a response from local Hindutva activists. Members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad complained to the police and the education department against Waziruddin and the school head teacher Nahid Siddique.

According to a report in The Times of India , the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had a problem with the line, “Allah Har Burai Se Bachana Mujhko.” (O Allah Protect me from all evil.” Allah is an Arabic word for god.

The school is located in a Hindu neighbourhood. The majority of its students are Muslims and the medium of education is Urdu.

As Siddique was home on the day, she did not face any police action or suspension. “I had nothing to do with the incident,” she said.

District education officials found Waziruddin “guilty” of conducting a religious prayer. They alleged that teachers had protested against the song being recited earlier, too.

“Nobody had any problem before the video went viral,” Waziruddin countered. “Reciting it was part of the school’s weekly routine.”

Waziruddin said he was not given a chance to defend himself.

He said the decision to terminate him was taken by the education department because they were under pressure from the media, VHP and local legislators.

“There is politics of religion everywhere,” he said. “They object to the poem because it is in Urdu,” he said.

The government officials denied this charge. “He made students do a prayer which is not allowed. That is why we terminated him,” Vinay Kumar, Basic Shiksha Adhikari, Bareilly, told Scroll.

‘Othering Muslims’

To many, the controversy over a simple prayer appears to be a part of a larger design to sow suspicion against language or symbols identified with Muslim culture.

“The climate in the education institutes has changed,” said Sudhir Panwar, professor at Lucknow University.

His memories of growing up in Shamli, a town in western Uttar Pradesh, are starkly different. “My headmaster was Muslim. I had Muslim classmates and friends.”

He said that manufacturing controversies around poems like Lab Pe Aati Hai Dua are a part of the larger plan of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to divide communities.

“The men who create such controversies are patronised by the present government,” he said. “Sometimes these incidents are sporadic and sometimes planned but they are aimed at othering Muslims and their culture.”