Karnataka education minister Visheshwar Hegde Kageri wants every Indian to respect the Bhagavad Gita - or leave. "Only those who love to adopt western culture can oppose the Gita. Such persons may well quit the country," the minister is reported to have said. The timing - just as his boss BS Yeddyurappa, four BJP ministers, a former chief minister and a Congress MP are being indicted for their role in illegal mining - couldn't have been more ironic. Certainly, Karnataka's corrupt political class would benefit most with lessons in morality.
Alas, Kageri isn't focusing on the education of his peers. His attempt to make the Gita a part of the curriculum has been on since 2007. When the government tried to introduce the lessons in Kolar district, some groups approached the high court asking for a stay and for now schoolchildren will focus on the three R's.
There are two issues here. The first is the easier one. It is the rejection of the utterly crass belief that minorities must accept the Gita's supremacy. The subtext is made clear by BJP leader Dhananjaya Kumar (who Lokayukta Santosh Hegde has slammed for trying to 'persuade' him to leave the CM's name out of his report). Religious texts, particularly the Bible and the Koran, stem from 'western beliefs', Kumar said on NDTV. The BJP's agenda is clear. Muslims and Christians are welcome to live here provided their children learn Hindu texts.
The second issue, and the more troubling one for me, is whether religion has any role in public life. Given our history of riots, of mandir-masjid issues, of churches being burned and nuns raped, of Hindu terror and Islamic terror, the secular approach would be to steer clear. Religion, like the government's family planning programme post-1977, is now a red flag.
So in Madhya Pradesh, the practice of surya namaskar in schools is seen as a part of a design to saffronise education. Certainly, education minister Murli Manohar Joshi's attempt to introduce astrology as part of the university curriculum in the early 2000s was laughable, but not any more than Americans who insist that creationism is taught alongside evolution in the classroom.
Our secularism is a different beast from that of America where the separation of church and State has been an ideal since Thomas Jefferson first articulated it. Yet, the US president routinely hosts prayer breakfasts, George W Bush couched his war on terror in overtly religious language and Barack Obama survived a controversy generated by his pastor Jeremiah Wright.
Our notion of secularism stems largely from Jawaharlal Nehru's worldview and often boils down to meaning 'no religion', even though aberrations continue - the large presence of politicians and jurists at the funeral of Sathya Sai Baba, for instance. Gandhiji certainly didn't shy away from religion, holding daily prayers (where texts from various religions were read) at his ashram. Tilak used Ganesh-utsav to mobilise people during the Raj. And it was Tilak who said in 1908, "Secular education is not enough to build up a character. Religious education is also necessary."
You could also look at religious texts as works of literature. My prescribed Delhi University reading included both the Book of Job and the Gospel of Matthew, and I am certainly richer for my knowledge of them.
Yet, given our past experience with religion and the way it plays out in public life, perhaps there is no other way but to throw it all out, leaving no room for ambiguity. In an ideal world, children in schools would learn about the Bhagavad Gita as they would about the Koran, the Bible, the Guru Granth Sahib and the teachings of Buddha and Mahavira, learning not just about great religions but also about tolerance and acceptance. They would learn about morality and beauty and doing the right thing. But we live in a less than ideal world with politicians and assorted opportunists ready to flame religious sentiment at short notice.
The purpose of any education, religious, secular, whatever, is to widen the mind and encourage the exchange of ideas. My suggestion to Visheshwar Hegde Kageri then is simple: go back to school.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal