– Sadat Hussain
New Delhi, 12 Sep: A program that has been running peacefully for almost a decade and contributing to the communal harmony of Goa has run into needless controversy due to the Vishwa Hindu Parshad’s unsubstantiated allegations. On Saturday, 9th September 2023, Class 11th students of Keshav Smruti Higher Secondary School in Dabolim, Goa attended a ‘Visit Masjid’ program in a masjid in Dabolim. The program was organized by SIO Goa Zone. After the VHP protested at the school premises, Shankar Gaonkar, the school principal, was suspended by the management. He also told The Indian Express that “Children from all the faiths study at the school. Some students from another school had also visited the mosque. I do not know why I have been suspended.”
Education Director Shailesh Zingde said, “The department has sought an explanation from the school management and the response is awaited. The principal has been suspended since it has been brought to our knowledge”.
Pandurang Korgaonkar, the school chairman has also said that all teachers who were part of the visit will be issued memos. The VHP’s claims mention that the students were made to perform rituals and wear hijab, which allegedly disturbed the parents. Members of the VHP on Monday also lodged a complaint with Vasco Police, alleging them of “supporting anti-national activities”, an official said, as cited in The Hindu. The VHP is also mistakenly linking the event to the banned Popular Front of India, which has been reproduced by multiple news outlets. News outlets are also highlighting that ‘female students’ were ‘taken’ to the mosque, in a way that completely takes away the agency of young women and curious learners to access places of worship.
Usman Khan, SIO (Students Islamic Organisation) Goa Zone President, told Radiance, “As students who are studying in educational institutions in a society which is as diverse as ours, it is very important to know each other’s culture, practices, faiths, and have a clear understanding of that because the way we interact with each other on a daily basis, there are high chances of we developing curiosity about the faiths of fellow citizens. When those curiosities are not addressed, they then become unfounded assumptions and doubts which can take any turn.
“Also, important is the context of the society, the things which happen in a society as a whole – the communal tension, the issues which are created about our educational institutions, the polarization, the way media reacts to incidents when one particular community is targeted. There is a high chance of students getting swayed by these headlines which do not always portray a balanced aspect of a religion or community. So, it is all the more important for students to be aware of others’ faiths and religious practices so that certain fake information or misleading pieces of info do not misguide us about the religion and faith of our fellow human beings.”
According to a statement issued by SIO, Goa Zone, “The motto of this activity has always been to clear the misunderstandings of our fellow brothers from other faiths, including Hindu and Christian communities about various aspects of Islam. We were being asked regularly why women could not enter the mosque (which they can enter), what happens inside the mosque, whom do Muslims pray to so on and so forth. It is to clear these doubts, and to promote a general spirit of amity, that SIO organises such activities.”
Asif Hussain, State President, JIH Goa, told Radiance: “The Masjid Darshan initiative by SIO Goa Zone is a very good initiative to promote social harmony by understanding and knowing more about each other’s faith in a plural society like India. It is the need of the hour to promote such constructive efforts to bring communities together.”
Multiple news outlets have reported that students were made to ‘perform’ rituals. Responding to this baseless news, Mr. Hussain said: “The rituals of ablution and namaz were only demonstrated and displayed to the students. Refreshments were served and students, both boys and girls, from different communities including Christians, Hindus and Muslims were present. The students were pleased to get an opportunity to visit the masjid and even thanked the organisers for the same.”
It is to be noted that Visit Masjid sessions and programs are often held by Jamaat-e-Islami Hind and its associated organisations like SIO, including in Goa in the recent past, all of which have passed off without any such controversy. They have always been highly popular and welcomed by the guests and contributed greatly to the fostering of mutual trust and harmonious relationships in a plural society. Many academics, students, and people from all walks of life enjoy the process of learning about the mosque, and like witnessing processes of ablution and prayer. There is a lot of curiosity of whether women can access masjids, and people are often delighted to find out that not only can they do so, but women throng such masjids with great enthusiasm.
Many misconceptions about Muslims and their religious practices revolve around prayer and the mosque. In a society where the mosque and madrasa are linked as spaces denoted to terror and mystery, it is vital to keep such engagements going. It can be recalled that Professor PR Kumaraswamy who teaches in the School of International Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi wrote about the warm and inclusive experience he and his students had at Masjid Ishaat-e-Islam, near Jamaat-e-Islami Hind headquarters in New Delhi, during the Ramadan of 2022.
He wrote on that occasion in The Indian Express: “…Greeting us at the entrance, the Jama’at officials took us into the mosque, and we were seated in two rows of chairs facing the simple altar. It was past noon and the Delhi weather was cruel; one of our hosts quickly handed out chilled water bottles and Tropicana juice to all of us. They never asked us about our faith, though our group had a few Muslims, and a couple of them are fasting. Our hosts wouldn’t listen. “You are our guests, and we need to ensure your comfort,” came the polite reply. There was no formality or feigned courtesy…A simple and genuine human gesture…
“Headscarves, a major controversy these days, did not matter; a few non-Muslim female students of our group were covering their heads with dupattas, and one attired in Western dress forgot to bring her scarf. Once the prayers were over, we were curious about ablutions, the mandatory ritual washing before prayers.
“What are our takeaways? Our knowledge of religion is limited, skewed and emotional than rational. We did not agree with everything that we heard, but we could not help but appreciate the openness with which Jamaa’t e-Islami Hind received, treated and allowed us to challenge some of the difficult issues facing Islam today. Knowledge is an ongoing process and sees or recognises no barriers.”
Being aware of each other’s belief systems and learning about religious values ought to be a regular part of a student’s life. The pivotal Radhakrishnan Commission and many subsequent commissions have emphasized the need for students to be introduced to the great religions of the world, and their major personalities, and imbibe the philosophical values of these religions. What better way to absorb such knowledge than by the practical attempts of seeing with one’s own eyes, the religious practices of all faiths? It is appreciable that the school in Goa took this initiative, and accepted the invitation of SIO graciously. It is unfortunate that the principal is being punished for this openness of mind and heart in a time of suspicion and polarization.