In Rajasthan’s Kota, teachers get the stick as Education Minister Madan Dilawar goes on a suspension spree

On February 21, the three teachers were suspended on the orders of Rajasthan’s Education Minister after a written complaint was submitted accusing the teachers of religious conversion

March 02, 2024 08:07 pm | Updated March 04, 2024 10:43 am IST - KOTA

Schoolchildren interacting with SDM Krishna Kumar Rajawat at his office

Schoolchildren interacting with SDM Krishna Kumar Rajawat at his office | Photo Credit: Shashi Shekhar Kashyap

On February 26, at 10 a.m. sharp, the bell at Khajuri Odpur government school in Rajasthan’s Kota district rang through the air, beckoning the students to take their seats. However, a group of students from Classes 6 to 11, instead of going to their classes, started a 17-km march towards the office of the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM).

Some of the students were carrying handmade placards with messages like Samaan hai samaan hai, jaati dharm samaan hai [all castes and religions are equal], Laana hai lana hai, teeno ko waapis lana hai [We have to bring back all the teachers]. The group, comprising some 25 students, took several breaks during their three-hour-long march while holding high their placards.

At his office, SDM Krishna Kumar Rajawat was waiting for the students. It was the second time since February 21 that the students were protesting, demanding the reinstatement of three Muslim teachers — Mirza Mujahid, 42, Firoz Khan, 52, and Shabana, 28.

Placards made by students of Khajuri Odpur government school in Rajasthan’s Kota, demanding the reinstatement of three Muslim teachers.

Placards made by students of Khajuri Odpur government school in Rajasthan’s Kota, demanding the reinstatement of three Muslim teachers. | Photo Credit: Shashi Shekhar Kashyap

On February 21, the three teachers were suspended and attached to the Education Department’s office in Bikaner on the orders of Rajasthan’s School Education Minister Madan Dilawar after an umbrella organisation of various right-wing groups — Sarva Hindu Samaj — and people from the Hindu community submitted a written complaint to the department accusing the teachers of religious conversion and propagating ‘Love Jihad’, a term coined by right-wing outfits for interfaith couples, at the school.

When the students finally arrived at his office, the SDM met them, accepted their memorandum, and asked his driver to drop them back to school.

“They are young children. They don’t understand the harsh realities of the world,” Mr. Rajawat said.

Distraught families

A police team was stationed outside the Khajuri village, situated around 70 km from the district headquarters in Kota, as the suspension of the Muslim teachers sparked tension in the area. The village, which has around 350 houses, most of them semi-pucca, is dominated by people from the other backward classes [OBCs].

Residents say the allegations against teachers surfaced after a girl from the village, Muskan Gaur, 19, fled with a boy, also from Khajuri, named Lucky Ali, 22, on February 5.

Police deployed in Khajuri village

Police deployed in Khajuri village | Photo Credit: Shashi Shekhar Kashyap

Following this, the girl’s family lodged an abduction complaint against the boy, claiming that she was a minor.

Following the complaint, the police reached out to the government school in Khajuri, from where Ms. Muskan had completed her Class 12. Her admission form stated her date of birth to be July 7, 2005. Moreover, Muskan, in a statement to the police, said she wanted to marry Mr. Ali, after which the police closed the case.

However, Ms. Muskan’s admission form mentioned her religion as ‘Islam’ instead of ‘Hindu’, prompting the right-wing groups to level allegations of conversion against the school’s Muslim teachers.

“Some anti-social elements, who are always on the lookout to create social unrest, were trying to find a way to give this case a communal colour. Muskan’s admission form served the purpose,” said a teacher of the school, who, in her statement to the Education Department, maintained that she had not seen any of the three teachers propagating religious conversion.

But Mahaveer Singh, the husband of the village sarpanch, Sushila Kanwar, said, “These teachers used to force Hindu students to offer namaz in the school. They had converted Muskan Gaur to Islam, after which she fled with a Muslim boy.”

Rubbishing the claim, Mr. Khan said ‘Islam’ was written in the place of ‘Hindu’ on Ms. Muskan’s form due to a clerical error.

“Three students named ‘Muskan’ were studying at the school in 2019. Two of them were Muslims. The error of writing ‘Islam’ instead of ‘Hindu’ happened in this confusion. However, the form was signed by her parents. Why did no one object to it all this while?” he said.

‘Ruined her life’

At Ms. Muskan’s home, her mother, Manju Bai, was inconsolable.

Apna jeevan khatam kar liya usne [She ruined her life],” said the wailing mother, who added that Ms. Muskan was a bright student who was supporting the family, “just like a son”.

Muskan Gaur’s mother, Manju Bai.

Muskan Gaur’s mother, Manju Bai. | Photo Credit: Shashi Shekhar Kashyap

Things are also not easy for Mr. Ali’s family, who used to live with his maternal grandparents in Khajuri. Following the complaint lodged by Muskan’s family, the police picked up his uncle Mazoor Foji and many of his friends in the middle of the night. His grandmother, 65-year-old Shamshu Begum, is spending sleepless nights worried about the well-being of her grandchild.

“I took care of him for 22 years, and he left us to deal with this trauma. Police are pressurising us. They are threatening to demolish our house with a bulldozer. I don’t want anything but peace,” says Ms. Begum.

Amid the chaos, Mr. Khan, who has taught in the school for five years, says he knows why action was taken against him and two of his colleagues.

“Our fault is that we are Muslims,” he says.

Suspensions galore

The action against the three teachers in Khajuri is not the only case in which the Education Minister vowed to take “strict action”.

Akleema Parveen, 38, who teaches social science at a government school in Kishanganj block of Baran district, was relieved of her school duties on February 23. Ms. Parveen, who had taught at the same school for 11 years, was also attached to the Education Department’s office 550 km away in Bikaner without being given any reason.

Ms. Parveen, a widow, has not been able to decide whether to join the office in Bikaner as there is no one to take care of her seven-year-old son, who continues to attend school in Kishanganj.

“She used to offer namaz in a corner when the students were out for lunch or to play. She used to wear a burqa to the school against which some people had raised objection,” said a teacher at the school where Ms. Parveen used to teach, on condition of anonymity.

In a similar move, 40-year-old Chaman Noor, a teacher at a government higher secondary school in Pipar in rural Jodhpur, was attached to the Bikaner office after a few students in the school offered namaz wearing a hijab. He is now awaiting the posting orders.

Mirza Mujahid used to teach at Khajuri Odpur government school.

Mirza Mujahid used to teach at Khajuri Odpur government school. | Photo Credit: Shashi Shekhar Kashyap

“The girl students were wearing the hijab on their own. It’s not as if the teachers asked them to wear it. They told us that they were wearing it because of the cold. But, some parents raised the issue of students coming to school in a religious dress,” said a senior Education Department officer.

“The video of the parents’ protest went viral and the department took action against three people — Noor, the Urdu teacher; Ram Kishore Sankhala, the principal, who tried to support the teacher; and the Block Education Officer, Sumer Singh,” the officer added.

At Lakdai village in Kishanganj, Hemlata Bairwa, an elementary school teacher, was suspended on February 23. The action came after the teacher put up the pictures of Mahatma Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, and Savitribai Phule on the stage at the school’s function on January 26 and refused to place a painting of Goddess Saraswati with the three. When some villagers got into an argument with her and demanded that the Goddess be worshipped with flowers, the teacher refused to be cowed down.

The teacher said Phule should be respected for her contribution to education and asked the villagers to list the contribution of Goddess Saraswati to academics. The villagers were seen threatening her and accusing her of hurting Hindu religious sentiments. The video of their argument went viral on social media.

When Mr. Dilawar visited the town on February 22, he said he would suspend “those who give weightage to themselves so much that they question the contribution of Goddess Saraswati”.

The Education Minister has also promised to terminate the services of teachers who have been accused of molestation and that teachers who have disproportionately high assets will face “bulldozer action”.

At a recent event, Mr. Dilawar, whose election affidavit states that he has 14 criminal cases pending at various police stations in the State, said if villagers beat up teachers who are found to be consuming tobacco in school, the police should not intervene.

Collective action

Calling the Minister’s action ‘one-sided’, Muslim organisations in the State have decided to collectively take up cases such as that of Mr. Khan and his two colleagues in Khajuri.

“The suspension orders, in many instances, were passed in an arbitrary manner before the conclusion of a departmental inquiry. Teachers, against whom action is taken, are not being given a chance to explain themselves,” said Urdu Shikshak Sangh president Amin Kayamkhani.

“If teachers here are not able to fight for themselves, how will they teach students to stand up for themselves?” Mr. Kayamkhani added.

Rajasthan Muslim Forum member Syed Mujahid Ali Naqvi termed the actions by Mr. Dilawar “a polarisation exercise” before the Lok Sabha election.

Dalit organisations in the State have also expressed their resentment over the suspensions. Dr. Ambedkar Memorial Welfare Society general secretary Ganpat Lal Verma said the Education Minister had no right to order the suspension of Ms. Bairwa.

“Such threats have created fear among government employees belonging to Scheduled Castes. We have asked for an appointment with the Chief Minister to tell him that the teachers must get an opportunity to explain themselves,” Mr. Verma said.

Days after the suspension of the teachers, the Rajasthan State Minorities Commission on February 27 took cognisance of the matter and sought a report from the Principal Secretary of School Education and Panchayati Raj (Elementary Education) within seven days.

Education Minister Madan Dilawar

Education Minister Madan Dilawar | Photo Credit: File Photo

While talking to The Hindu, Mr. Dilawar trashed the allegations by the Muslim and Dalit outfits.

“When I take action, I don’t see the caste. I will continue to act against all those who tarnish the image of the school and hamper studies,” he said.

“Besides, how can people say there has been ‘too much’ action against teachers in the past few days? I have barely suspended a dozen teachers in a State whose Education Department employs over six lakh people,” he added.

‘Must raise voice’

Back in Khajuri, the school is about to close at 4 p.m. The protesting students are wondering whether they should walk to the SDM’s office once more.

“There is no point going there again. Everyone has bowed down before injustice,” said a student who studies in Class 11. She added that “the fight has to be taken up by the teachers now”.

Mr. Khan and Mr. Mujahid have filed an appeal against their suspension in the department.

Firoz Khan used to teach at Khajuri Odpur government school.

Firoz Khan used to teach at Khajuri Odpur government school. | Photo Credit: Shashi Shekhar Kashyap

Ms. Shabana, however, has made peace with her fate and joined the office in Bikaner. Back at her home, her mother and younger sister live in fear as it is the first time Ms. Shabana has stepped so far away from home by herself.

“She had joined the school just four months ago. What did she have to do with a matter that dates back to 2019? Will they now look at all Muslims with the same lens and level the same baseless accusations against each person who follows Islam?” said Mr. Mujhaid.

Waise hi naukri milna itna mushkil hai. Paper leak ho jaate hain, bhartiyan nahi khulti. Aur ab itne mushkilon se mili naukriyan kya aise hi chali jaayengi [As it is, getting jobs is so difficult. Exam papers get leaked and job openings are scarce. After finally getting employed, will we lose our jobs just like that]?” he said.

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