Above: Students in Gujarat appearing for the state Boards are being asked to specify online if they are Muslim/photo: UNI
A PIL has been filed in the Gujarat High Court over an online form for students that smacks of religious profiling. With past incidents of segregation in this BJP-ruled state, there is disquiet over this move
By RK Misra in Gandhinagar
From the subtle to the stark. Over the last decade or so, incidents of discriminatory practices targeting Muslims have been on the rise in Gujarat. The latest move, which has generated unease in the community, relates to authorities collecting information about schoolgoing Muslims.
This is being done through a mandatory online form which has to be filled in by students appearing for Secondary and Higher Secondary Board examinations. The form specifically asks them to identify their religion if they have clicked on the minority community button. “Please select”, says the script and gives two options: Muslim and Others. There are seven religious minorities in the state, but while it singled out Muslims, the website does not show any interest in further information about the “Others”, clearly giving the game away.
Following this move, a PIL was filed by an advocate, KR Koshti, in the Gujarat High Court, which then issued a notice to the government. The PIL alleged that in the guise of filling Class X and XII forms online, the government was asking for Aadhaar cards, which is contempt of the Supreme Court’s order on the use of this card. It said that the state government was “seeking to ensure religious profiling of the candidate/ students, specifically belonging to Muslim community, which is unreasonable and illegal”. It said such a system should be set aside. A division bench of acting Chief Justice Anant S Dave and Justice Biren Vaishnav issued the notice returnable on December 9. It also sought replies from the government and the Gujarat Secondary and Higher Secondary Education Board that conducts the examinations.
This move has elicited widespread disapproval from a cross-section of society. While the minority community harbours suspicion and fears about their children being targeted, activists have stridently demanded an end to such a discriminatory practice. The government, as well as the ruling BJP, have been forced on the defensive.
Gujarat Congress chief Amit Chavda terms it a reprehensible step and a classic example of the BJP’s doublespeak. “It talks about unity and is doing everything possible to drive a wedge between communities and to wreck the social fabric by widening the communal divide.” Hardik Patel, Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti convenor, who is heading the pro-reservation stir for his community, echoes similar sentiments. He said that such steps should not be seen in isolation. “It is part of a ruling party project to instil fear in impressionable minds. The objective is as much political as it is about subservience,” he said. Dalit crusader and Independent legislator Jignesh Mevani terms it a move against the grain of the Constitution. “Discrimination against the Muslim community during BJP rule does not surprise me at all,” he said. He demanded that it be immediately rescinded.
Educationists and social scientists have demanded prompt correction. While Achyut Yagnik, honorary secretary of the Centre for Social Knowledge and Action, has demanded the immediate intervention of the chief minister to set things right, political analyst Ghanshyam Shah said that it goes against the assertion of then Chief Minister Narendra Modi before the Sachar Committee that the government does not discriminate between its subjects on the basis of religion or caste. Even Dr Nitin Pethani, general secretary of Vidya Bharti (Gujarat), a Sangh Parivar set-up, saw no reason for segregation of students on the basis of religion. “We shall make a representation for its removal from the form,” he said.
While BJP ministers and party functionaries are ever quick to find fault with past Congress prime ministers, they clam up when it comes to fixing responsibility for this online form. For days after the story broke in a newspaper, ministers made themselves unavailable and party functionaries kept playing “pass-the-ball”. Subsequently, it fell on embattled education minister Bhupendrasinh Chudasama to state that he would look into the matter and initiate necessary changes, while stoutly denying that it was done with any intent to discriminate. There is no clarification on why specific data for other minorities was not sought.
Despite Chudasama’s saying that the collected data would not be misused, the past has given the lie to such assurances. Data collected in the past has been used to selectively target the minority community during communal violence. In 2015, two English-medium schools run by the BJP-controlled Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC), located in two different areas of the city, had different-coloured uniforms. The school in the predominantly Muslim area of Dani Limbda had green-coloured uniforms, while the one in predominantly Hindu Shahpur had saffron-coloured uniforms. The remaining 454 municipal schools had blue and white uniforms. “No prejudice, no preference, just a random choice,” is what then municipal school board chairman and BJP leader Jagdish Bhavsar had said.
The same year, after it was decided to observe Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s birth anniversary on October 31 as National Unity Day, municipal schools in Ahmedabad were given a holiday, but Urdu-medium schools were exempted. Urdu schools run by the AMC anyway have been in persistent decline—from 92 schools in 2001-02 and 30,000 students to 62 schools and 18,000 students now.
There have been other attempts to target Muslims. The Disturbed Areas Act enacted in 1986 and replaced with a new one in 1991, empowers the government to declare riot-prone areas “disturbed”. Property sale in such areas requires the approval of the district collector. It was also aimed at preventing inter-community sale of property under duress. The Act has now found new uses, i.e. to push out minority community members from mixed population residential areas.
Earlier this year, a Nagrik Sewa Samiti sought to “reclaim” a housing society. The matter went up to Chief Minister Vijay Rupani who ordered a review of the Act to “plug loopholes” in it. The Samiti, incidentally, is part of the Hindu Jagran Manch, an affiliate of the VHP. Whether the pressure being brought to bear on the state government by educationists and opposition leaders on the admission controversy will have any impact remains to be seen, but clearly, this is not a good time to belong to a minority community in the state the prime minister belongs to.