“What exactly happened, and what gave you the strength to fight your case, Mr. Salve?” I asked. “Your job as an English teacher was at risk, and your own colleagues shunned you. You are from the Dalit community, and you live in Maharashtra state where militant religion has frequently silenced dissenters – how could you hold out for 7 years?”
We were in Calicut, Kerala state, seated in the sultry winter shade outside the packed auditorium where Swatantralokam, the Annual Conference of the Science Trust was being held. Inside the auditorium, named in honour of Dr. Dabholkar, the recently assassinated Indian rationalist, were stalwarts of the Indian Rationalist and Freethinker movements. Presentations were being made, debunking astrology, examining alternative medical systems, looking at the ethical implications of biotechnology, critiquing the lack of women’s participation in the free thought movement, and discussing the problems faced by the 40,000-strong Facebook community of Kerala Freethinkers – their account was closed three times without being given any reasons.
Outside the hall were other attractions: not far was the calm and beautiful Pakkad beach where the pirate explorer Vasco da Gama landed in 1498, having found a direct sea route to India from his native Portugal. Vasco was well advised to use the sea route as Calicut’s airport is considered one of India’s most dangerous airports, perched as it is on a hill with a crazily small runway. Then there was the Mother of God Church, promoted by the Tourism Department of a state which promotes itself as God’s Own Country despite a strong presence of Communists and Atheists. Despite these temptations, I wanted to hear 41-year old Sanjay Salve who came to Calicut to receive the Dr. Narendra Dabholkar Memorial Award for ‘pursuing a lone legal battle that successfully upheld a citizen’s right of not having to kneel before religious authority’. Sanjay recently secured an important judgement from the Bombay High Court that confirmed to Indian citizens a right that they always had but which needed to be asserted in the gathering storm of religiosity in the country.
“I was not looking for a fight. All I was saying was that compulsory prayer is contrary to Article 28 (3) of the Constitution of India. It says that no person shall be required to take part in any religious instruction or to attend religious worship in an educational institution funded by the state. The Maharashtra Secondary School Code mentions the national anthem, but not prayer.
“I joined the school in 1996 and for 12 years I was given excellent ratings in my Confidential Reports. But because I did not fold my hands while the rest of the school was praying in the School Assembly.
I was asked to provide a written explanation. I explained that as a Buddhist Atheist I did not wish to pray and that I had no obligation to do so. Because of this I was found to be lacking in discipline, and on those grounds I was made ineligible for a pay rise to which I was eligible based on the length of my service. We have 1600 pupils, many from the nearby slums and mostly from the lower castes. We are indeed tackling a problem of indiscipline in the school but I never thought that this was a complaint about the teachers! “From then onwards, I was made to feel unwelcome. They created an atmosphere of fear for my colleagues who began to avoid me since the management started monitoring who I was speaking to. Only two of my colleagues stood by me. I wrote to the Government repeatedly but they never responded. Only when I approached the High Court did the District Education Officer respond to my complaint.
“The Officer wrote to the School Management that I could not be compelled to pray. He also said that the 30 minutes of mandatory daily human values education means also recognising the value of secularism. They were obliged to follow these instructions, but they did not. Even when warned by the Government that their funding would be cut off, they did not relent. I therefore had to approach the High Court once again to secure my rights. After all, I stand when the prayers are said, respecting the fact that others are praying. It is just that I do not join my hands during the religious prayer and I do not hold out my hand during the oath taking ritual. Did the Supreme Court of India not rule two decades ago that the 7th Day Adventists could not be compelled to sing the National Anthem?” Ironically, Sanjay Salve is employed by the Savitribai Secondary School, named after India’s great 18th century social reformer Savitribai Phule, founder of the first women’s school in the country. Savitribai came from the Mali community – a lower caste community of gardeners to which the school management also belongs. The school’s doors are open to all communities in society: the 35% Muslims and 59% Backward Caste profile of the pupils shows the school is not a sectarian institution.
When the Court hearing started, Sanjay was offered an out-of-court settlement. Much to the dismay of his family he turned this down as he wanted the court to rule on his rights.
“I am the child of my parents”
The trial itself was instructive. “What is wrong with singing the Freedom fighter Sane Guruji’s prayer? It is secular. It says true religion should make us love humanity. It asks you to spread smiles on the faces of the oppressed,” a judge remarked to Sanjay. After all, Sane Guruji has an important place in the cultural history of Maharashtra – he fought to end untouchability, and even undertook a fast unto death to get the doors of the Pandharpur Vithoba temple opened to the untouchables.
“It is not secular because it invokes God” was Salve’s response. “I cannot say this prayer as it says I am a child of God whereas I am the child of my parents. I cannot be compelled to sing this prayer or be asked to revere the religious concept of Satyam Shivam Sundaram even if it invokes Truth and Beauty,” Sanjay contended.
The Division Bench of Justice Abhay Oka and Justice Revati Mohite Dere did not agree that the prayer was religious, but found that Salve had the fundamental right not to pray and that he could not be compelled to do so. They ruled that folding of hands was not mandatory and that all of Sanjay’s increments, stopped since 2008, should be paid to him by 31 January 2014.
“I would have permitted his absence from prayers had he requested me”, said the school’s headmaster, perhaps realising this matter could have been settled differently. He had insisted all along that letting Salve have his way would open the doors to anarchy in the school. But Sanjay is firm. “Why should I ask for anyone’s permission? My beliefs are my fundamental right, they are at no one’s mercy. Some said that I should file a case against my school management invoking provisions of the Atrocities Act which protects former untouchables like me from discriminatory treatment. But the punishments are severe and it would not be a fair use of those provisions since all I was asking for was the right to hold my own opinions at school.
“I am an atheist, and I am a citizen. I believe in the Constitution that the former untouchable Dr. Ambedkar produced for free India. I have the fundamental right to hold my own opinion and to reject religion or God. My country’s Constitution protects me” he concluded, giving me a clearer idea of where he gets his strength from.