In a recent ruling, the Madhya Pradesh High Court admonished the Ganga Jamna Higher Secondary School, an institution under the state education board, for forcing Hindu and Jain students to wear hijab and chant Islamic prayers, all while barring Hindu religious symbols like the kalawa and tilak.
Located in the Futera region of Damoh district, this English-medium school from Nursery to Class 12 found itself at the epicenter of a charged debate around hijab practices and Islamic propagation in June.
The spark was a large poster put up on its wall, showing Hindu and Jain female students in hijab. This visual spread rapidly across social media platforms, catching the eye of the public and stoking reactions from Hindu groups.
It also led the chairman of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, Priyank Kanoongo, to intervene. Kanoongo swiftly issued a formal notice, reference DD6270, to the District Magistrate of Damoh on 31 May, seeking clarity on the issue.
Displayed on the aforementioned poster were top-performing students of the institution, an assortment of girls and boys. Out of the 18 students spotlighted, three were male. A closer look revealed that, of the 15 girls, four belonged to the Hindu and Jain communities.
Nevertheless, all the girls sported the hijab, a headscarf traditionally worn by Muslim women in adherence to specific Quranic verses.
The widely accepted interpretation of these verses mandate Muslim women to shield their hair and neck from unrelated males.
More stringent interpretations of the verses force women into a more comprehensive covering such as the all-body burqa covering even the eyes enforced by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The school found itself in a greater trouble on 2 June when the Madhya Pradesh State Child Commission representatives visited it and unveiled evidence of Islamic teachings being propagated, despite the school’s affiliation with the Madhya Pradesh Board of Secondary Education.
Notable findings by the team included Islamic verses in Urdu written on school walls, student IDs portraying girls past sixth grade — Hindu and Jain students included — in hijab, and the Urdu greeting ‘Assalam Walikum‘ practiced between teachers and students.
Additionally, the curriculum contained Urdu booklets containing Islamic teachings, with a Kindergarten manual in Urdu and English even posing questions like ‘What are the five pillars of Islam?’ and ‘Where is Allah?’.
The Commission’s survey further revealed obligatory Islamic prayer sessions and a ban on the tilak and kalawa for Hindu and Jain students.
The same day, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan gave a statement in the media that the matter would be investigated thoroughly and no institute could force students to follow a tradition that is not theirs.
On 7 June, a police case was filed against the school.
The FIR, number 498/2023, was lodged at the Kotwali Damoh police station, naming school principal Asfa Sheikh, teacher Anas Athar, and attendant Rustom Ali as accused.
The case was filed under Sections 295A, 506 and 120B of the IPC, Sections 75 and 87 of Juvenile Justice Act (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 and Section 3/5(1) of the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021.
They were arrested on 11 June.
On the same day the FIR was filed, Kanoongo shared an image on Twitter showing the school’s entrance emblem, in which the “the map was India was tampered with and half of India was shown disappeared”.
Curiously, this same insignia featured in the school management’s other enterprises, including hardware and apparel shops as seen in other images attached in the tweet.
During their bail hearing on 23 August, the court, while granting their plea, set forth explicit conditions: the accused must refrain from exposing non-Muslim students to Islamic scriptures, or compelling Hindu and Jain girls to wear the hijab, or inhibiting non-Muslim students from sporting the tilak or kalawa.
Readers may note that the accused had filed the plea on the grounds that they were not responsible for propagating hijab or Islamic literature as they did it on the directions of Managing Director Mohammed Idrish and other members of the school management.
Their bail was granted on the premise that the “charge sheet has been filed against the applicants who are principal, teachers and peon. The main allegations are against management of the school. Trial of the case will take considerable time”.
Following the controversy, the state education department suspended the school’s registration. See the notice below.
As layers of the story unfurled, it emerged that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists had previously protested against the institution in September 2021, presenting a memorandum to the District Magistrate alleging forced religious conversions.
However, this grievance seemingly went unanswered at the time.