When all in his school fold their hands during prayer, Sanjay Salve keeps his hands firmly behind his back. The 41-year-old English teacher in Nashik is fighting imposition of prayers during school hours. “Only the national anthem should be played in school,” he says.

But Mr. Salve has paid a price for his “defiance.” Though eligible for a higher pay grade since 2008 - the year after his revolt - he has been denied it for ‘indiscipline.’ The management of the state-funded Savitribai Phule Secondary School sullied his 2008-09 Confidential Report. It was the same management which gave him excellent CRs in the preceding 12 years. “And fellow teachers with whom I once had cordial relations now avoid me,” he says.

Ironically, the school has been named after one of Maharashtra’s greatest 19th Century social reformers. Savitribai was the first woman teacher in the first women’s school and founded one for girls from the marginalised castes. Mr. Salve is an assistant teacher in the school run by the Mahatma Phule Samaj Shikshan Sanstha. Of nearly 1,600 students here, almost 60 per cent are either OBCs or Dalits. Around 35 per cent are Muslims. Mr. Salve is a Dalit who embraced Buddhism. The school management is overwhelmingly OBC.

Mr. Salve, who joined the school in 1996, says “the national anthem can instil more values in students. In any case, compulsory prayer is contrary to Article 28 (3) of the Constitution. Nor is there scope for it in the Maharashtra Secondary School Code.”

He has sought redress from the Bombay High Court. The next hearing in the case - whose outcome could seriously impact the debate over religious preaching and prayer in schools - is on September 6.

The son of poor parents who never finished school, Mr. Salve is a B.A. B.Ed. His wife is completing an M.Phil. Savitribai Phule would have been proud of them. The school isn’t.

It all began in June 2007 when Mr. Salve and other teachers waited in the playground for the day’s prayer session to begin. “As students began their prayers and pledge, I remained standing as I was, my hands behind my back. Everyone else was praying with folded hands. My action was spontaneous and not intended as a revolt. I just stood there, wondering why I should pray to the god of a religion which I do not follow,” he says.

Only a furious headmaster, Madhukar Bachchav, noticed his action and demanded a written explanation from him. “I told him I am an atheist and cannot participate in prayers to any god, that such compulsion violates the Constitution,” says Mr. Salve.

“Had we overlooked this indiscipline, it might have spread to others. It was on this ground we did not find his work satisfactory. Hence, he was denied the higher pay grade,” Mr. Bachchav says.

With no other complaint on record against Mr. Salve, that ‘indiscipline’ remains the sole ground for his continued punishment. The issue remained unresolved in 2009 despite his repeated complaints to government authorities. In 2010, a Division Bench of the Bombay High Court directed the Education Officer of Nashik district to act on the issues raised in Mr. Salve’s complaint.

Despite multiple letters from the Education authorities over the next two years, and even a legal notice in 2012, the management did not relent. Government officers warned the school that they might cut off its funds. But no action was ever taken.

“Hence Mr. Salve has once again approached the High Court for strict compliance with the secondary school code,” says his counsel Sanghraj Rupwate. Rule 45 (9) of that code directs schools to begin the day with the national anthem. It mentions no prayers or pledges.

“I am not scared”

Not everybody is supportive. “Some distant relatives wanted me to withdraw the case. My own family is not enthused by this battle. But they support me, if reluctantly. Ever since the murder of Dr. Dabholkar, they have asked me to keep them informed of my whereabouts at all times. I am not scared but have started taking precautions,” he says. He believes the courts will vindicate him.

Mr. Salve’s petition cites clause Article 28 (3) which states: “No person attending any educational institution recognised by the State or receiving aid out of State funds shall be required to take part in any religious instruction that may be imparted in such institution or to attend any religious worship that may be conducted in such institution or in any premises attached thereto unless such person or, if such person is a minor, his guardian has given his consent thereto.”

The headmaster holds firm. “I would have permitted his absence from prayers had he requested me. What is wrong in folding hands while praying? Prayers instil values in students.”

Mr. Salve believes his right of religious freedom derives from the Constitution. “Why should I request anybody else for it? I will battle till the end. It’s not only about money, but about my identity as well.”