Wednesday, May 29, 2024

“Damoh Story”: Why did Madhya Pradesh govt shut down a school for 1200 poor students?

Started in 2010, Ganga Jamuna Higher Secondary School is the only English-medium school in Damoh's Futera ward. Photo: Shaheen Abdulla/Maktoob
Started in 2010, Ganga Jamuna Higher Secondary School is the only English-medium school in Damoh’s Futera ward. Photo: Shaheen Abdulla/Maktoob

Outside the district jail in Madhya Pradesh’s Damoh, 49-year-old Iqbal Sheikh looks desolate after visiting his wife Afsha Sheikh, a respected school principal in the city. She was among three staffers from the Ganga Jamuna Higher Secondary School languishing in jail for over a week in an FIR, accusing them of religious conversion.

Parents and Muslim community leaders refute the accusations pitched by the Hindutva groups and amplified by the Chief Minister and Home Minister of the state.

“This phase is worst than death,” Sheikh said candidly with teary eyes. “Someday, these students will grow up and question the people responsible for this.”

He is referring to the 1200 students from poor backgrounds who have no place to go after authorities shut down the school. 

Late last month, Iqbal’s daughter was among the students featured in a poster outside the campus celebrating the school’s success in class 10 Board exams. Right-wing groups got outraged by the poster for featuring non-Muslim students in headscarves.

They launched a series of protests against the school run by the Ganga Jamuna Welfare Society, established by a Muslim businessman. On 31 May, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh mouthpiece Organiser coupled the poster with a video of students singing Alama Iqbal’s poem, accusing the school of forced conversion.

The management dismissed the allegations and said that the headscarf was part of their uniform, introduced after class VI  but non-Muslims had an option to not wear it. They also apologised to people who were offended by the poster.

Although allegations were dismissed in the initial enquiry by the district administration, Home Minister Narottam Mishra ordered a high-level probe, answering to the demands of right-wing groups. 

On June 2, the education department derecognised the school, citing “inadequate infrastructure”. But Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said that the school was “teaching poetry of a man who talked about the division of the country” and warned that “such acts won’t be allowed in Madhya Pradesh”.

“Iqbal’s poem is part of Madhya Pradesh’s Urdu school curriculum,” points out Azzam Khan, chief of Eidgah Masjid Committee Damoh.

Khan said the right-wing message said soon ‘The Kerala Story’ will become the ‘Damoh Story’, invoking the Hindutva propaganda film’s theme into people’s minds.

The former journalist also shared videos of Hindu parents defending the school. He claimed those parents are now visited by Hindutva groups and “silenced”.

“The fee was only 12,000 INR for a year including books and uniform. There were other considerations as well. Only one student from a family had to pay fees. It was a model institution with the best results in the state,” Khan added.

“Open the school”

Several parents living nearby the school demanded the school be open immediately. While reporting, a huge crowd had gathered in a Muslim dominated lane to make their case in favour of the school. Started in 2010, it is the only English-medium school in the city’s Futera ward.

They rebuked the inflammatory claims made by right-wing TV channels.

“We had monthly parents-teachers meetings. If anyone had an issue with the way things are running in the school, why didn’t they raise it then?” an angry parent asked.

“The children they showed on TV are not from here. Why didn’t they ask us about the issue? None was ready to listen to us,” another parent said.

According to parents and Khan, a Hindu pandit and a Jain community leader were also part of the management committee of the school. They also said a nearby temple gave the school land on lease. Maktoob couldn’t independently verify it but saw a temple next to the school.

Parents also informed Maktoob that there were several Hindu teachers in the school. They also claim no religious lessons were given to the children and children went to pray in the nearby mosque on their own.

A lane from the school going to the mosque was shown as evidence by media outlets.

“The government has no worry about the children here. They only wanted to play along with RSS. We are all poor people and how can we afford hefty fees in other schools?” a mother told Maktoob.

“We have no problem with the school. They taught Urdu but it was optional,” a Hindu parent told Maktoob. Muslim parents alleged that the Hindutva groups have warned non-Muslim parents to not speak in favour of the school.

Two Hindu families declined to speak their minds to Maktoob.

Misinformation, hate politics

Iqbal Sheikh wedded Afsha Sheikh in 2000 after she converted from Hinduism to Islam. Their story was used to portray the school as a hub for religious converts. Photo: Shaheen Abdulla/Maktoob

Afsha Sheikh fell in love with Iqbal Sheikh in 2000 and married him after converting to Islam. According to Iqbal, it was common during the days and the families had no problem with it. But in 2023, he had to pay the price.

Right-wing groups pulled out the conversion story from over two decades ago and used it to portray the school as a hub of conversion. Although the teachers called a press meeting and clarified the issue, they couldn’t rescue themselves from the controversy.

“The school started in 2010. How can this be related,” Iqbal said. The stir has taken a toll on the grief-stricken man.

“I don’t feel like going home to meet my children. I don’t feel like visiting her and watching her in that situation. The wife is the most intimate person. A man can’t bear such pain,” he added.

Anas Atahar, a mathematics teacher and Rustam Ali, the security guard are the other two men who are arrested. A case has been filed against 11 members of the school management committee. All of them are absconding.

Parents defended the Maths teacher who they said was a victim of “hate politics”. Meanwhile, the gateman was arrested after he allegedly forced Hindu girls to wear headscarves when they entered the school premises.

They were booked under IPC sections 295 (damaging or defiling any object held as sacred by any class of persons), 506 (criminal intimidation) and section 120B (punishment for criminal conspiracy) of the IPC, as well as provisions of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act.

According to Indian Express, Damoh District Collector Mayank Agrawal constituted a high-level committee to investigate the school’s registration, funding and school rules. He said, “Police made arrests on the basis of the statements recorded by the committee.”

An attempt to speak to the Agrawal was unsuccessful. Earlier he had said the authorities will facilitate the transfer of the students but there is no update on it. Sheikh has moved for bail in the case.

After the school was closed, a bulldozer arrived to demolish a under-construction floor of the new building in the campus. Due to lack of mobility, the local authorities had to rely on men to demolish the structure.

“But the bulldozer had to come, as it represented BJP’s politics,” Khan added.

Shaheen Abdulla
Shaheen Abdulla
Shaheen Abdulla, an award-winning journalist, is the Deputy Editor of Maktoob.

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