Bhopal: The future of Ganga Jamuna School’s students looms in darkness as the recognition suspension continues for over two months. The school has been alleged of forcing Hindu girls to wear headscarves and sing the Lab Pe Aati Hai Dua poem written by poet Mohammed Iqbal during prayers.
Members of the Civil Society in Bhopal have submitted a memorandum to the Chief Minister’s Office for the immediate revoking of the suspension of recognition and re-opening of the school.
The private school at Damoh district came into controversy because of a poster highlighting high school board toppers wearing head-scarf. Far-right groups Hindu Jagran Manch, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and others protested demanding the derecognition of the school— alleging purported forced religious conversions and the imposition of hijabs on non-Muslim female students.
Madhya Pradesh’s chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, home minister Narottam Mishra, and education minister Inder Singh Parmar gave statements escalating tensions on the issue. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) chairperson Priyank Kanoongo also joined in.
The recognition of the school was suspended since the incidents and an FIR was registered leading to the arrest of the school principal and two staff members.
Ganga-Jamuna School Hijab Controversy
Following the announcement of high school results by the Madhya Pradesh Board of Secondary Education on May 25th, a wave of achievement swept through Ganga Jamuna School with a passing percentage of 98.5 percent. To celebrate the success of these students, on May 27, the school displayed a congratulatory poster showcasing eighteen top-performing students in which four Hindu girls were donning Hijab or scarves. The poster triggered the spotlight and rage among right-wing organizations who began protests against the school.
The initial investigation by the Collector gave a clean chit to the school. However, the issue persisted as the Hindu outfits kept demanding suspension orders. On June 2, the Madhya Pradesh School Education Department suspended the recognition of Ganga Jamuna School for inadequate infrastructure. The Hindu Jagran Manch workers on June 6 threw ink on DEO (District Education Officer). Consequently, on June 7, the Kotwali Police Station filed an FIR (First Information Report) against the school management, and school teacher under various sections including hurting religious sentiments and criminal intimidation of IPC.
The contents of the FIR stated by Hindu girls include mandatory Hijab, Urdu imposition, being forced to sing the “Muslim prayer” lab pe ati hai dua, and hurting the religious sentiments of Hindu students. The police apprehended the school principal Afsha Sheikh, a math teacher Anas Athar, and a security guard Rustam Khan. And within three days of it, the administration bulldozed part of the school building.
The High Court on the petition of the school ordered the education department to submit the report on the suspension order within three weeks from July 1.
“Yesterday it came to my attention about daughters being compelled to cover their heads at a school, which was also teaching the poem of the man who got the country partitioned,” Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had stated in Chattarpur.
He was referring to legendary Urdu poet Mohammad Iqbal who had a strong connection with Bhopal.
Abdul Kareem, an advocate representing the school, said that the police took action under political pressure. The education department suspended the school recognition mainly for inadequate infrastructure such as toilets, classroom space, and library. The committee of gazetted officers took statements of three girls then Kotwali Police Station filed an FIR against the management and teachers of Ganga Jamuna School. At least 17 teachers were forced by the police for a statement that they used as evidence that management had ordered the teachers to attract the children towards Islam.
“The security guard was a daily wage worker. His family is hand-to-mouth after his arrest. Should those teachers not be held accountable for keeping mum even after knowing everything? This whole matter is built on political narratives giving it a communal colour. In 2021, after inspection, the officers granted recognition to the school till 2024-25. Didn’t they realize whether the school has the proper infrastructure or not? Are they not guilty? The High Court had ordered the education department to submit the report within three weeks which is yet to be submitted. Isn’t it contempt of Court? ” asked Kareem.
Superintendent of Police Sunil Tiwari has issued a directive to attach the assets of ten school management members who according to the officer are dodging authorities.
Iqbal Shaikh, husband of Ganga Jamuna School’s principal denied any allegations of religious conversion. He said that his wife Afsha Shaikh and two other school staff members were wrongfully apprehended by the police. My daughter’s photo was among the toppers which created controversy. With so much disturbance around we did not think about her admission to another school. Both of the daughters are disturbed. “We are struggling mentally and financially. Those students have given false statements. Why was everyone silent if this has been happening for years,” Shaikh was emotional.
School Principal Afsha Shaikh, Anita Khan, and Tabassum Khan (formerly Deepti Srivastava, Prachi Jain, Anita Yaduvanshi) belonged to different religions. They embraced Islam before joining the school. Backing the school administrator, the three of them came forward declining religious conversion by Ganga Jamuna School. They submitted their documents to the collector and superintendent of police, Damoh.
Afsha Sheikh told mediapersons that she accepted Islam in 2000 and joined Ganga Jamuna School a decade later in 2010. Tabassum Khan converted to Islam in 2004 and became part of the school in 2012. Anita Khan accepted Islam upon her consent in 2013 and joined the school in 2021. Ganga Jamuna School, on the other hand, awas established in 2009.
The fact-finding team disposes of allegations
A fact-finding team of collective organizations including Shiksha Adhikar Manch, Madhya Pradesh Mahila Manch, and Bhopal Group for action and information visited Ganga Jamuna School in Damoh and spoke with more than 350 students and their parents. They made an open appeal to the chief minister to stop communalizing education and allow the functioning of Ganga Jamuna School.
“After speaking with locals and examining the available documents we have come to the conclusion that the biased mentality of certain groups and media trials has created a situation of crisis for hundreds of students and 57 staff members. All allegations were found baseless and unjust. The team has submitted the conclusions to the school education department and the chief minister’s office,” the report reads.
Maheen Mirza, a member of the fact-finding team speaking with eNewsroom said resembling the name Ganga Jamuna School, a minority-certified school is the epitome of communal harmony where students of different communities were learning together without discrimination. We found the reality on the ground contrary to what the media had propagated. It was a media trial more than anything else. It was not even a Hijab but a scarf. Rather than religious motives, wearing a scarf in many cultures is linked with the dignity of girls. The Hindu students confirmed that Hijab was not mandatory. Media has given it hype by spreading misinformation. Despite the majority of Muslim students non-veg including the egg was not allowed in order to comfort the minority Hindu students.
A step depriving the poor of education
Maheen said that the majority of students in Ganga Jamuna School belong to weak socioeconomic backgrounds. The children come from families of daily wage workers such as rickshaw drivers, general stores, and factory workers. Since the school fee is ten thousand annually paid in three instalments, the shutdown is affecting the poor who can’t afford private education. We need to stop looking at it through the lens of Hindu-Muslim and focus on what kind of children can be easily deprived of education, simply poor who don’t have enough resources for negotiation. This anti-poor step by the government is not just against a particular community but people who can’t afford education.
“The students are suffering in this unfair process. Board class students have lost three months of their learning period. The English medium students are recommended to get admission to Hindi medium schools. They should be focusing on mastering the subject but now they have to do it in a different language altogether. This is harassment of students at the hands of the state. They are on a losing part. Instead of helping them build a good career they are destroying children’s education,” stated Maheen.
Affect on girl students
Shivani Taneja of the fact-finding team said that the administration suspended the recognition of the school on the grounds of rumours jeopardizing the future of students. The claims of religious conversion are bogus. It is an English medium school with Urdu as a third language. It seems people have an allergy to Urdu not recognizing that Urdu is also a scheduled language in the constitution. There is nothing significant in FIR. The school has 98% passing results with only one Muslim student having a supplementary in Urdu. The average passing percentage in Madhya Pradesh is 65 percent.
“Not opening the school will lead to higher drop-out rates among students. We met many girls who are the first generation studying and scoring higher marks in class tenth. An orphan girl studying in school wants to become a doctor. What about the dreams of students from such backgrounds which is common in school? The government is concerned about the education of girl children, “beti to padh rahi thi na”. Government must allow the functioning of schools if they care about education. Meantime, they can continue inquiry under the supervision of a Nodal Officer,” commented Taneja.
Advocate Abdul Kareem said that the response obtained through the Right to Information (RTI) revealed concerning details about the recommended schools. These schools lack English teachers and do not offer Urdu as a subject. Maheen Mirza further emphasized that these schools are unsuitable for children due to their poor condition, including dilapidated walls. In contrast, the infrastructure at Ganga Jamuna School is good, with better classrooms, a library, a computer lab, and sports facilities including football and volleyball courts.