Motto of Karnataka residential schools changed, move sparks political debate

The original motto, penned in Kannada and loosely derived from a poem by Jnanpith winning poet Kuvempu – “This is the temple of knowledge, enter with folded hands” – was altered to “This is the temple of knowledge, question courageously.”
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From "enter with folded hands" to "question courageously," a change in school motto has become a flashpoint in Karnataka. The latest directive by Karnataka's Social Welfare Department to modify the motto in all residential schools under the Karnataka Residential Educational Institutions Society (KREIS) stirred fresh controversy on Monday, February 19.

The original motto — “Jnana degulavidu kai mugidu olage baa” (This is the temple of knowledge, enter with folded hands) is loosely borrowed from the opening line of Jnanpith Award-winning poet Kuvempu’s poem on the famed Somnathpura temple, which translates to, “Oh traveller, enter with folded hands.”

The school motto has now been altered to "Jnana degulavidu dhairyavagi prashnisi" (This is the temple of knowledge, question courageously) to align with an ongoing state-wide campaign on Constitution awareness.

The move has ignited heated debates within and outside the Legislative Assembly and Council, with some BJP leaders accusing the state government of attempting to influence children's minds and alleging that such directives stem from the Congress' anti-Hindu stance.

On Monday, February 19, former Karnataka chief minister Basavaraj Bommai criticised the Congress party for politicising education, alleging an attempt to sow conflict among students. “Schools are centres of learning and it’s okay for children to raise questions. But the government should not plant the seeds of conflict in the minds of children. Congress is trying to gain political dividends by promoting conflict,” he said. 

Other BJP members accused the Congress government of distorting Kuvempu's lines, leading to protests and counter-allegations. BJP state chief BY Vijayendra accused the Congress government of deliberately distorting Kuvempu's lines, sparking protests from BJP members. 

In response, Revenue Minister Krishna Byre Gowda alleged that a chapter on Kuvempu was removed during the BJP's tenure, leading to a brief uproar as the BJP sought clarification.

Vijayendra also took to Twitter (formerly X) and said, “Schools are sacred places. Congress is indulging an anti-Hindu mindset by issuing an oral order through a senior IAS officer to change Kuvempu’s phrase in all government residential schools.” He added, “A few days ago, the government issued a circular banning the celebration of religious festivals in schools. It was withdrawn after it faced severe backlash. These lines appear to instigate students against teachers. The government will have to face the consequences if it doesn’t change back to the previous motto and if disciplinary action is not taken against the officials behind this order.”

In the Council, BJP MLC N Ravikumar led protests demanding withdrawal of the modification and accountability for those responsible. He said that the changes were made following verbal orders from an IAS officer, conveyed through a Telegram broadcast group.

Sources told TNM that prior to bringing about the change, a thorough brainstorming session took place between social welfare department officials, generating over 20 potential phrases. After a significant voting process, consensus was reached on the chosen phrase. “It was a collective decision,” the source said. 

While speaking to the media on Monday, Minister for Social Welfare HC Mahadevappa seemed unaware of the directives regarding the alteration of Kuvempu's phrase in residential schools. “Why should we change his (poet’s) writing?” he said. 

Amidst the uproar, IT-BT Minister Priyank Kharge advocated for embracing the change and fostering an environment of fearless questioning. He said, “There is nothing wrong in asking questions fearlessly. If you don’t question, you won’t learn and if you don’t learn, there won’t be wisdom. If this doesn’t happen, how will society progress?”

Deputy Chief Minister DK Shivakumar defended the modifications. He said, “We are spreading the words of Kuvempu. No matter what BJP says, we are giving strength to the words of Kuvempu. They [BJP] don’t have any other job. They are just creating controversy.” 

Speaking to TNM, author N Jagadish Koppa stressed the importance of fostering scientific temper among children, noting that the government's modification to "question courageously" does not tarnish Kuvempu's words or ideology. He argued that these changes align with Kuvempu's vision of promoting scientific temper. He said, “It’s important to build scientific temper in children. The government has changed the motto to ‘question courageously’ and hasn’t said anything to malign Kuvempu’s words.” 

Jagadish also questioned the BJP's credentials to speak on Kuvempu's beliefs, asking if the party adheres to Kuvempu's call to move beyond religious divisions. “BJP doesn’t have the moral rights to speak about Kuvempu. If so, does the BJP believe in Kuvempu’s words of ‘gudi churchu masajidugalannu bittu horabanni (Leave the temples, mosques, churches and come out).” 

The controversy has arisen in the wake of a recent directive from the Social Welfare Department, which initially prohibited the celebration of religious festivals in residential schools and colleges under its jurisdiction. Subsequently, the Karnataka Residential Educational Institutions Society issued a circular, banning the celebration of religious festivals, regardless of faith, within these educational institutions.

The circular stated that festivals like Ugadi, Ramzan, Christmas, Sankranti, and Eid Milad, among others, were prohibited from being celebrated in residential schools and colleges. However, following outcry from both opposition parties and the public, the order was eventually rescinded on February 14. 

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