The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 - more famously known as the Right to Education (RTE) - allows for only three non-academic duties for teachers: census, disaster response and election. That too without compromising their primary educational responsibilities, finishing the syllabus and attending to the students' needs. Allocation of any other activity by the school as part of his/her responsibilities as a teacher is squarely in violation of the RTE, and is prohibited under Section 27 of the RTE Act.
However, if reports on Haryana government asking public school teachers to double up as "priests" and help out in Kapal Mochan Mela organised in Yamunanagar district of the northwestern state - are anything to go by, the spirit and the rulebook of the RTE have been consigned to the winds.
The Indian Express reports that as many as 91 government school teachers, mostly from Hindi and Sanskrit language backgrounds, have been asked to perform priestly duties at temples dedicated to Hindu deities Shiva and Parvati, and others with ornately mythopoeic names such as Safed Gau Bachachha temple, Shri Maha Kapaleshwar temple, among others.
These teachers have been asked to accept religious offerings in lieu of the temple/deity, distribute prasad, and perform other non-academic, unspecified duties as per the direction of the education department of the Haryana government, led by chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar of the ruling BJP.
The Haryana Teachers Association representatives have naturally voiced their deep reservation about this legally untenable mixing of religion and education in government schools by the state order, saying it's "unwarranted". While the protesters among teachers find this to be an example of "saffronisation of education" and the BJP peddling its "Hindutva agenda", many others complain that extracurricular activities - such as compulsory organising of events for Yoga Day, sanitation campaign, Beti Bachcao, marathon race, arranging for radios so that students listen to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's monthly Mann Ki Baat on the last Sunday of every month - are taking a huge toll on the teachers, who aren't able to complete their syllabus in time.
Little wonder then that the Opposition in Congress has criticised this move by the Haryana government sharply. The Indian Express quotes Congress leader Geeta Bhukkal, who was Haryana education minister from 2009 to October 2014: "Such an issue (appointment of teachers as pujaris) never came to my notice earlier. This is just an attempt at saffronisation of education."
In fact, the ML Khattar government sought explanations from teachers who skipped the "priest training sessions" organised by the mela organisers in league with the state. How can the state that's constitutionally still secular and gives no religion special provisions or privilege, hold "priest training sessions" for teachers, who are government servants?
Ironically enough, the district officer, in contravention of the RTE Act, asked for "departmental disciplinary action" against teachers who chose to miss the training sessions, even though the latter committed no legal offence by doing so. Are teachers in government schools now part-time pujaris to stay in the state authority's good books?
Even an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court, in connection with a public interest litigation (PIL) from Punjab, that "administration had issued instructions whereby heads of all government schools have been directed not to assign non-teaching duties to the government teachers except as mentioned under Section 27 of the RTE Act, 2009".
Moreover, the Bombay high court had issued an order saying teachers should not be deployed to cook mid-day meal for students in government schools, and other staff must see to it, so as to not compromise the teaching duties.
In addition to deliberately messing with the educational textbooks in schools and inserting fake history that is aligned with the RSS/BJP's glorious Vedic India myth, there's now tampering with the staff and the expectation from them to perform activities that are clearly religious. This, while the climate of suspicion and paranoia keeps building up on madrasas and schools run by private Muslim charitable organisations, as well as the ongoing smear campaign against various Christian/Catholic/Jesuit schools all over the country.
India remains a constitutionally secular state, not a theocratic one. Until that's the case, the mixing of religion and education in government schools is not only a betrayal of the children's fundamental right to free and compulsory education, it's a violation of the spirit of our constitution.
Haryana government's conduct has been shameful, and must be rectified.