A teacher at a Kendriya Vidyalaya in Sagar district of Madhya Pradesh thinks that the compulsory singing of Sanskrit hymn Asato Ma Sadgamaya at the school assembly every morning strangles the spirit of scientific inquiry and stunts the intellect of school students.

As an employee of the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan, the organisation that oversees the functioning of a number of schools run by the central government, the teacher was not permitted to file a case in public interest, so a friend and fellow atheist, Vinayak Shah, a Jabalpur-based lawyer, has taken the Sangathan to the Supreme Court. The teacher has requested to not be identified for the same reason he could not file the case. The Sangathan comes under the jurisdiction of the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development and runs over 1,000 schools across India.

Shah, 42, is a member of Ambedkarite group, Backward and Minority Community Employees’ Federation. He has challenged the revised “education code” for all Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan schools. This set of regulations, compiled in 2012 and implemented from 2013, requires morning assemblies to begin with the Sanskrit verse as a “common prayer” and end with another Sanskrit hymn: Om Saha Navavatu or May God Protect Us Both.

The Sanskrit hymns have been sung for decades in the Kendriya Vidyalayas, and indeed in a large number of government schools across states. A Hindi prayer that is recited after Asato Ma Sadgamaya is a longstanding Kendriya Vidyalaya tradition too.

The petition argues that these hymns are “based on Hindu religion”, their compulsory chanting amounts to “religious instruction”, and that this violates Article 28 of the Constitution, which says: “No religious instruction shall be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of State funds.”

The petition, filed in December, also says the practice “creates a lot of obstacles in developing a scientific temperament”. It adds: “Students…develop an inclination towards seeking refuge from the Almighty instead of developing a practical outcome towards the obstacles and hurdles faced in everyday life and spirit of enquiry and reform seems to be lost.”

On January 10, the Supreme Court issued notices to the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan and the Union government, asking them to respond to the petition.

‘Constitutionally impermissible’

The first objection to the prayers raised in the petition is that all students irrespective of their faith and belief have to perform it in a respectful manner “by closing their eyes and folding their hands”. The petition translates and partially annotates the first prayer, Asato Ma Sadgamaya, thus:

“Om, (O Lord) Keep me not in the unreality (of the bondage of the phenomenal world), but lead me towards the reality (of the Eternal Self) / (O Lord) Keep me not in the Darkness (of ignorance), / but lead me towards the light (of spiritual knowledge), / (O Lord) Keep me not in the (fear of) death (due to the bondage of the mortal world), but lead me towards the immortality (gained by the knowledge of the immortal self beyond death), Om, (May there be) peace, peace, peace (at the three levels – Adidaivika, Adibhautika and Adhyatmika)”  

The second hymn, as well as the prayer in Hindi, both invoke god.

The petition argues that “parents and children of the minority communities as well as atheist[s] and others who do not agree with this system of prayer such as agnostics, sceptic[s], rationalists and others would find the imposition of this prayer constitutionally impermissible”. It cites the Oxford Dictionary’s definitions for these terms.

Shah has challenged the practice also on the grounds that it violates the citizens’ right to freedom of speech and expression and to “profess, practise and propagate religion”.

‘Am an atheist’

Asked how he got involved in the case, Shah stated: “Basically, I am an atheist.” He was not always one. Till about 2012, Shah said he was “very dharmic”, or religious. This was despite his long association with various Left groups from his student days in the 1990s.

Shah studied in Dr Harisingh Gour University, also called Sagar University after the Madhya Pradesh district. He earned a bachelor’s degree in science in 1999 and joined the bachelor of laws programme in 2000. All the while, he was associated with two Left groups – the Socialist Unity Centre of India and its affiliated students’ group, the All India Democratic Students’ Organisation, as well as the Communist Party of India and its students’ wing, the All India Students’ Federation. He was a member of the All India Democratic Students’ Organisation and even held a post in the organisation’s Sagar district branch over 2001-’03. This is where he met the teacher, a member of the group, whose experience at a Kendriya Vidyalaya years later would lead to the petition.

Shah moved to Jabalpur to practice law in 2003, stayed in touch with his comrades in Sagar but ceased to be actively involved in the organisation. He started representing government school teachers in court on cases related to their pay, promotions and other rights. He also worshipped daily and acquired a guru with an ashram in Mehrauli, Delhi.

Over 2011-’12, another lawyer introduced him to a number of social media groups run by Ambedkarites, including one maintained by Bamcef, an organisation founded by Kanshi Ram who later founded the Bahujan Samaj Party. “Discussions with these groups got me thinking about my beliefs,” said Shah, who belongs to one of the Other Backward Classes. “I was asked if any god worked toward the uplift of Dalits and backward classes and why gods tell us to wait till after we die and not do anything about our misery now,” he said.

By 2012, Shah was done with god and religion.

But it would be another two years before he would join any of the groups that had had such profound influence upon him. In 2014, he joined Bamcef’s lawyer’s wing and started working on their campaigns on reservation for backward groups.

Two teachers

In 2015, Shah’s college friend, till then a teacher in state government schools, landed a job as a primary teacher in a Sagar central school. The compulsory training he underwent before joining brought him to Jabalpur, introduced him, an atheist and rationalist, to the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan’s education code, and reunited him with Shah.

The teacher started rebelling almost instantly, first by refusing to stand when senior teachers and officials entered the training venue at Jabalpur and then by not joining them in prayer. Later, at his own school in Sagar, said Shah, “He started teaching children to question everything they are taught and refused to enforce the prayer rules even after the principal told him to.” To him, Shah added, “The prayers were a waste of time.”

In February, his attempts to stop a Saraswati puja – Saraswati is the Hindu deity for wisdom – on the school premises led to a show-cause notice to which he replied, but eventually did not face any punitive action. “He had removed the idol from the table and put it away,” said Shah. “He has been talking about taking the matter to court for a long time. He has discussed it also with a professor in [Dr Harisingh Gour] Sagar University and the two asked me to help.”

In late 2017, he and Shah demanded answers citing the Right to Information Act. “We had asked the Sangathan on whose orders idols and photographs of the deity were being placed and they said there were not orders,” said Shah. By October, the teachers and Shah decided to file the Public Interest Litigation.