A row has broken out in southern India over whether schoolchildren should be obliged to learn a Hindu religious text in the classroom, with the state's education minister further fanning the flames by saying those who objected to the plan should leave India.
In a dispute that has raised questions about secularism in a country where religion is a part of everyday life for hundreds of millions of people, opposition parties and minority groups have said children should not be forced to study the Bhagavad Gita. They say the move infringes their constitutional rights and could trigger disharmony between religious communities.
The move to teach the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture that forms part of the epic Mahabharata, was first promoted in part of Karnataka state four years ago by a religious institution, the Sondha Swarnavalli Mutt. But earlier this year, the state government, which is controlled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), issued a directive that ordered schools to teach the book for three hours a week.
Various organisations of students, social activists and religious minorities protested about the decision, saying it could be detrimental. But the education minister, Vishweshwar Kageri, disagreed and told a public meeting that if someone opposed the teaching of the religious book, they should leave the country.
"This country believes in the Gita," he said. "Those who oppose it and believe in philosophies that are not of this country can go there and propagate them. The Bhagavad Gita is accepted as one of the greatest epics of all times. No light can challenge sunlight, no other religious epic can compete with [it]. Ethical values preached in the Gita have been accepted by many foreign countries, so there's no fun discussing the merits and demerits of the Gita."
Opponents insist the Indian constitution prohibits such teaching in schools. "India is a secular country, this is not permitted," said N S Bisse Gowda, a local leader of the Congress Party. "We are not against the Gita – we love the Gita, we are Hindus. But if you teach that in schools, the Muslims will want to teach the Koran and the Christians will want to teach the Bible."
Article 14 of the Indian constitution prohibits discrimination on grounds of "religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth". It also stresses that India is secular nation, despite the religious inclination of so many of its citizens. Ashis Nandy, a sociologist, said India had tended to redefine the meaning of secularism. "What this means is that it is equal sentiment to all faiths. This is something that is possible in India," he said.
The move by the BJP government in Karnataka and the comments of the minister came as the local party was under intense political pressure. There have been demands for the resignation of the chief minister, B S Yeddyurappa, amid allegations of corruption relating to the mining industry.
A filing by the State Minorities Educational Institutions Managements Federation has urged the Karnataka High Court to dismiss the government's edict on the Hindu religious text. The matter has been adjourned for two weeks.
Last night, Professor Mumtaz Ali Khan, a Muslim member of the BJP and the state government's minorities' minister, repeated the claim that the move had not originally come from the government. However, he said he believed that various religious texts should be taught in schools.
"In my opinion the Bhagavad Gita is a religious text that contains benefits for everyone," he said. "But we need to bring elements from all religious texts, from the Bible and the Koran."
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