How a video of students doing namaz in a Karnataka school was used to create tension
Through the window of a school in Karnataka’s Kolar, a YouTuber shot a sneaky video of the students studying there, who were offering namaz on a Friday afternoon. This video erupted into a controversy, with many projecting the offering of namaz in the classroom as a crime — the reasoning can only be explained as Islamophobia. The unsuspecting students and the school who have now been dragged into a controversy wonder what is even happening. Their principal, SM Umadevi, has been suspended by the Department of Public Instruction pending an investigation. But why, and what rules was the school breaking, is the question on the minds of the people whose lives have been suddenly disrupted.
A week after the controversy broke, the teachers and students of Someswara Palaya Bale Changappa Government Kannada Model Higher Primary School are rattled with the negative attention they have been receiving. “We did not think what we were doing was wrong,” says 14-year-old Azad (name changed), one of the students at the school. “We used to step out for our Friday prayers, so the school gave us permission to offer prayers inside a room in the premises itself; so we continued there. We now feel scared after so many people protested against us offering prayers,” he says.
Azad’s classmate Zaheer (name changed) is more angry than scared. He asks how their video at a private moment could be taken without their permission and circulated widely, now making its way to news channels across the country. “Is there no law against those who are making it seem like we are criminals, just for offering namaz? We did not disturb anyone, we were doing it inside a room just for a few minutes. What problem does someone outside have against it when nobody in the school seems to mind?” he asks. His father, worried about his son’s safety, quickly takes the phone from him and politely asks us to not quote his son’s name, not wanting any trouble for the family.
Over a dozen students and teachers at the school in Mulbagal in Karnataka’s Kolar district insist that nobody from the school had a problem with this temporary arrangement made in the school for students from the Muslim community to perform namaz in the school on Fridays, so that they do not miss the afternoon classes thereafter. A teacher who has been with the school for over a decade says she is very confident that none of their students had complained. “The teachers have a good relationship with students here. We have known most of them for many years and since this is a small town, we know many of their families too. If anyone felt uncomfortable, we would know about it. This is not the doing of anyone from our school,” she says.
True enough, the person who shot the video tells TNM that it was not an insider but someone living next to the school who informed him that namaz was being offered inside the school. Chala Pathy, a journalist who runs a YouTube channel called Moodala Kirana says that for over two weeks, a person living closeby was informing him of prayers being offered and that he went there on January 21 and shot the footage from outside the window. “One of the teachers who works there came to ask me what I was doing. Then I made him open the door and went inside. That is when I learnt that madam (the headmistress) had given them permission,” Chala Pathy tells TNM.
“The teachers told me that they thought allowing students to offer namaz on Friday would be better than them leaving the school premises. The headmistress also said that we did this to ensure students do not leave. None of the students or teachers complained to me of being uncomfortable about the namaz,” he adds.
This was confirmed to TNM by another teacher who was present when the video was shot. She says that many of them were surprised when Chala Pathy was talking to a student who was offering namaz and recording his video without anybody’s permission. Then, after some of the teachers asked him to not record, he left. But she says that none of them could imagine that it would become such a big issue. “Our principal was just thinking of ensuring that students do not just leave after the namaz from the mosque and miss out on classes. There has already been a break from school due to the pandemic and it is very difficult to get students to attentively sit through the classes. Her intention was good but now she faces suspension,” she says.
The Principal’s suspension order says, "It is the duty of the teachers of government schools to inculcate a sense of national integration. Religious tolerance, practices and traditions must be there. However, by allowing students to perform namaz in one of the classrooms instils a divisive mindset. This would have a negative impact on learning and will hinder the overall progress of the educational institution.”
Interestingly, the teachers and students confirm that this school, like many others, regularly had classes teaching Hindu scriptures including the Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana and several other slokas. Sahana (name changed), a Class 8 student in the school, says that many of her Muslim classmates too learn verses from the Bhagavad Gita and she was disturbed to know that some of them offering namaz is seen as a huge issue. “None of us (students from other communities) had an issue with the namaz. It was anyway done in a separate room. We have always been celebrating Hindu festivals like Saraswathi puja and Deepavali in school. If practising our religion is okay, what is wrong with this?” she asks.
Chala Pathy too concedes that the school allowed other religious practices. “There is a practice of Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, and other shlokas being taught and sung for many years. Even a few Muslim students have taken part in contests,” he says. “The prayer has the national and state anthem. I am worried about how students from other faiths will start behaving if they see namaz offered like this. This could take them in a different direction,” he says.
His YouTube channel is fairly well known in Mulbagal and the video of namaz was posted on January 22 and a day after that, Hindu groups protested in front of the school. Some of the protesters even barged into the school and videos showed that they were engaged in a heated argument with the police who came there.
The suspension order states that “conduct of the teacher does not suit the dignity of a government worker, and is against the Karnataka Civil Conduct Rules 1966, Section 3 (i) (ii) and (iii). Hence, the decision has been made to initiate action against the teacher,”. Section 3 (i) (ii) and (iii) says (1) Every Government Servant shall at all times;- (i) maintain absolute integrity; (ii) maintain devotion to duty; and (iii) do nothing which is unbecoming of a Government Servant.
Chala Pathy says the school is very well known, with a long history. “The alumni include IAS, IPS officers, doctors and several dignitaries. There are other schools nearby with several more Muslim students. The behavior of the Principal has pained many members of the alumni,” he claims.
But a teacher contests this claim. “We are not at liberty to come out and speak in favour of Umadevi madam now. We fear not just for our jobs but also of the backlash we could face from the Hindu groups. But it is wrong to say she brought shame to the school, she was in fact trying to engage the students,” he says.