A 15-year-old Muslim boy studying in a south Bengaluru school has retreated into a shell and needs counselling. And it is all because of a prayer.
Naushad Kashimji's (name changed) school adopted a few Sanskrit shlokas as its official prayer for the morning assembly this academic year. Last week, when Kashimji's principal caught him and a few other Muslim students for not singing the prayer, they were punished for it.
"I was humiliated in front of 1,200 students and my constitutional right was violated. She made us go on stage and forced us to sing the prayer in front of everybody. She scolded me in front of everyone on the mike when I mispronounced a few Sanskrit words," said the remarkably articulate Kashimji.
Outraged by the incident, his mother along with activists of the Association for Protection of Civil Rights (APCR) approached the school and tried to lodge a complaint with the principal.
"The principal acted like she didn't understand what the fuss was all about. She kept saying that prayer was important to instil values and discipline in students. She just didn't understand when we tried to explain that we belong to a different faith," Kashimji's mother told the Hindustan Times.
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"What disturbed us most is that the principal suggested that the boy was turning into a fundamentalist Muslim. She also made snide remarks about the fact he was from Bhatkal (a Muslim dominated town in coastal Karnataka)," said R Khaleemullah of the APCR.
The only thing they managed to achieve was an exemption for Kashimji who can now sit in his class while the assembly is on.
"But that is not good enough. Why can't they go back to the old prayer which had no religion in it? Fourteen of the 32 students in my class are Muslims. There are people from other religions too. At least 30% of the school is Muslim. Why should I sit separately?" he asked.
Kashimji, who is also the head boy of his school, said the incident has "hurt his pride".
"I am on the school debate team and was elected as the head boy unanimously. I have studied here since I was in kindergarten. The teachers love me and my classmates respect me. I felt like all that was lost when I refused to sing the prayer that day," he said.
"I feel a little awkward now to discipline other students. They look at me as though I don't have the right anymore. Being the head boy makes me uncomfortable now."
But, Kashimji's 'head boy' badge was confiscated by the school authorities and has not been returned, his mother told Hindustan Times.
He, however, added that he is happy with the fact that many of his Hindu friends have been by his side since the July 27 incident.
Kashimji's parents say he has started keeping to himself after the incident and instead of staying back for games in the school grounds, he comes home and sits by himself on his computer. His parents are now planning to take him for counselling for depression.
One of the prayers is a selection from Guru Gita from Skanda Purana's Uttarakhand section and the other is an invocation to Hindu god Ganesha, who is considered the remover of obstructions.
Speaking to HT, principal Padmaja Menon said the one of the prayers, which invokes Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh, has a universal message.
"But Brahma is the creator of the universe. What is wrong in invoking his name?" Menon asked.
Jessy Joseph, the former principal of the school, says the development is "very sad". She also said that students were never forced to sing Hindu prayers when she was in-charge.
Other teachers in the school refused to comment on the incident.
Activists and members promoting communal harmony say while the principal's actions and the comments are questionable, they also point out that Kashimji's case is not a one-off incident indicating towards the so-called saffronisation attempts made by ruling dispensations in the state as well as across the country.
Ramdas Rao, executive committee member of the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum, tried to place the incident involving Kashimji in a larger context.
"Most government schools in the state also impose Hindu prayers on students. We are also fighting against the saffronisation of state government textbooks that was done during the previous BJP regime."
However, he is quick to point out that the Hindutva project is not the preserve of the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Sangh parivar alone.
"Hindu prayers were being imposed in government schools in Karnataka long before the BJP came to power. This type of soft-Hindutva has become all pervasive and cuts across political parties," said Rao.
Meanwhile, Kashimji's family is preparing to take their fight further.
"My two older children were also the students of the same school. It is a very good school and our family has been associated with it for the last 15 years. I am not going to let them get away with this divisive new policy," said Kashimji's mother.
"There is a reason we did not send our children to madrassas. We wanted them to get a secular education."