MUMBAI – A Catholic school in northeastern India has requested police protection after members of a Hindu nationalist group known for staging aggressive “reconversion” ceremonies announced the intention, “by hook or crook,” to conduct a Hindu ritual known as Saraswati Puja at the school on Ash Wednesday.
Saraswati Puja is a ritual performed in honor of the Hindu goddess Saraswati, considered the embodiment of wisdom and creativity. It’s typically carried out on the Hindu festival of Basant Panchami which marks preparations for the arrival of spring, and which falls this year on Feb. 14, the same date as Ash Wednesday.
The individuals who said they plan to conduct the rite identified themselves as members of the Hindu Jagran Manch, which was founded in 1982 and is known for its efforts to resist religious conversion and to promote the “reconversion” of Muslims and Christians in India to Hinduism.
According to media reports, a leader of the Hindu Jagran Manch argued that the school should permit the celebration of the ritual at the Don Bosco School in Dhajanagar, on the outskirts of Udaipur, because the majority of its students are Hindu. They said they would seek support from the local government to go ahead if the school refused permission.
The state of Assam, where the school is located, is currently governed by the BJP, the Hindu nationalist party led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Salesian Sister Tessy Joseph, the principal of the Don Bosco School, filed a two-page application to a district magistrate requesting security measures to “prevent such an illegal act and to protect the institution, its property and its right guaranteed under the Constitution of India.”
The municipal government didn’t respond to Joseph’s request, but a local police officer said they would take appropriate steps once they verified what had happened.
Similar requests to stage puja rituals have been made to three schools in the state of Assam, prompting representatives of missionary schools in the area to hold an emergency summit in Guwahati on Sunday.
“Though our institution is a purely Christian minority institution primarily meant for Christian students, our school caters to students from all section/religion of the state and we stress on making better human beings and citizens of India,” Joseph wrote in her application for protection.
In the letter, Joseph narrated three visits to the school on Feb. 8 and 9 by people wanting to celebrate Saraswati Puja.
“The first group of people identifying themselves as members of Hindu Jagran Manch visited my office and in my absence met vice-principal of the school, demanding to conduct Saraswati Puja in the school,” she wrote.
“The vice-principal politely informed them that we are a Christian Minority Institution and we cannot allow them to do so within the school premises, as The Constitution of India granted the minorities of India the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice and we cannot be compelled to act beyond the guaranteed rights under The Constitution of India,” she wrote.
The group responded “by threatening that they will compel the institution to conduct Saraswati Puja on the school premises,” Joseph wrote.
On Friday, Joseph said another group of activists came to the school with the same demand, but she reiterated her earlier stand. Joseph said the group’s leader then threatened to gather locals and bring swamis to the campus, and to conduct the puja “by hook or crook.”
Yet another group visited the school on Friday and threatened Jospeh with consequences if she didn’t allow them to conduct the puja, she said.
“We again iterated that we have full respect towards Saraswati Puja and other religious rituals of any religion but we reserve our religious right and to run our institution as per Article 30 of the Constitution of India. But they were adamant,” the letter said.
“This being the situation, we now apprehend that the above-named group may try to do what they want illegally, and may cause harm to properties and persons … (the) illegal act will certainly infringe the right guaranteed to a religious minority institution under Article 30 of the Constitution of India”, the letter said.
Bishop Lumen Monteiro of the Diocese of Agartala, where the Don Bosco School is located, defended its record.
“The Catholic church in the diocese has been selflessly serving the people of the region and beyond, without discrimination of caste and creed, through our education apostolate,” Monteiro, a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, told Crux.
“Without discrimination we have been imparting quality education to the students and working towards nation-building,” he said. “We do not do any religious function in our schools, because the school is not a place for it.”
“Catholic schools in the diocese, no matter which congregation manages them, are bound to make leaders of their students,” Monteiro said. “Many of our region’s finest scholars, public officials, business leaders, doctors and educators today were students of our schools. The poor have found their dignity and God-given talents in our classrooms.”
Monteiro said the local church will support the position taken by Joseph.
“We stand by the Sister,” he said. “We are not going to give in to any of these groups.”