Kerala Education Minister C Raveendranath is under fire for apparently misleading the Assembly about the number of students who have chosen against disclosing their religion and caste.

Replying to a query by fellow CPI(M) legislator DK Murali on March 28, the minister informed the Assembly that around 1.24 lakh students admitted in Classes 1 to 10 in the 2017-’18 academic year had opted against listing both their religion and caste in school records. He provided a list of schools he claimed had enrolled over 100 students with “no caste” and “no religion”.

But the accuracy of the data was soon called into question as a clutch of unaided schools run by religious minorities in Kasargod, Kannur, Kozhikode, Malappuram, Palakkad, Thrissur and Ernakulam released their records. The Markaz International School in Kozhikode was claimed to have admitted 371 students with “no religion” last year, but the school’s records showed they all had listed their religion. Same was the case with 677 pupils in Bharath Matha School, Palakkad and 261 in St Francis School, Ernakulam.

Confronted with these facts, the minister tried to blame the education department’s school management system that tracks activities such as admissions. “The data was obtained from Sampoorna software,” he claimed. “We will look into the discrepancies.”

The minister was again proved wrong when, on March 31, Anvar Sadath, executive director of the Kerala Infrastructure and Technology for Education, a government agency that manages the software, released data from Sampoorna on Facebook. It showed that only 2,764 students had opted against disclosing both their caste and religious identities last year. Of them, 748 self-identified as “non-religious”, 486 wrote “not applicable” in religion and caste columns of the application forms while 1,530 left both columns blank.

Sadath wrote that while 1.19 lakh students had not entered their caste details, they had mentioned their religion. The Facebook post was deleted a few hours later.

‘Government propaganda’

Opposition parties and activists have come down hard on Raveendranath for providing misleading data. Congress legislator KC Joseph has even submitted a privilege notice against the minister for misleading the Assembly. The minister is expected to make a statement in the Assembly on Tuesday.

The Dalit thinker Sunny M Kapicadu alleged that the “false impression” given by Raveendranath that Kerala’s society was shedding caste and religious identities was “part of government propaganda”. “This happened at a time when people have started to seriously address the question of caste in Kerala after some recent incidents – the disrespect of Dalit artist Ashanthan’s body in Kochi, murder of Adivasi youth Madhu in Attapady, erection of a caste wall by upper caste Hindus at Vadayambadi, honour killing of a young Ezhava woman for deciding to marry a Dalit youth in Malappuram,” he said. “It was not accidental that a CPI(M) member raised the question and the minister, who belongs to the same party, presented misleading data. It was an attempt to divert people’s attention.”

It has turned out that only a “microscopic minority” chose not to disclose their caste and religion, Kapicadu pointed out. “This shows that we must address the caste issue seriously,” he added.

This is not the first time Kerala has witnessed a controversy over religion in school. In 2008, the previous communist government had faced criticism from religious organisations for including a lesson titled “Mathamillatha Jeevan”, or life without religion, in the social science textbook for Class 7. In the wake of the uproar, the title was changed to “Viswasa Swathantharyam”, or freedom of belief.

Different motives spoke to three parents who enrolled their children in school last year to get a sense of why they did or did not mention their religion and caste.

Ramesh, an Ezhava Hindu from Kannur who uses only his first name, enrolled his son in Class 1 in a government-aided school in June. “I kept the columns for religion and caste in the application form blank because I want to see my child grow without the influence of religion,” he said. “Let him choose his religion or live without religion when he attains maturity.”

Abdul Khader, a Muslim from Malappuram, said he stated the religion of his daughter as Islam but left the column for caste blank. “I enrolled my daughter in Class 1 in a government school,” he said. “I am a devout Muslim and I want to see my daughter grow up as a Muslim. Moreover, I don’t want to see her missing out on reservation benefits.”

Anil Kumar, a Dalit, said he did not leave either caste or religion column blank in his childrens’ application forms. “Why should I?” he asked. “I am a Dalit and I want my children to be proud of their Dalit identity. Caste is a reality in the Indian society that we cannot ignore.”