Nabi Diwas vs Saraswati Puja: Fault lines in a Bengal school

Written by Esha Roy | Uluberia | Published:February 1, 2017 4:25 am
The Tehatta High School was closed on Nov 29. Source: Subham Dutta

AT AROUND 10 am on Tuesday, about 100 students of the Tehatta High School marched to National Highway-6 and blocked the road. Carrying a three-foot-tall idol of Goddess Saraswati, they protested against an order which has the school under lockdown for the last two months, preventing them from celebrating Saraswati Puja tomorrow.

The students, all from Classes VII-XII, were accompanied by residents of the area. The protesters threw stones, and the police retaliated with teargas and lathicharge. Two policemen sustained minor injuries.

“We have a right to celebrate Saraswati Puja in our own school. You assure us that we can perform the puja tomorrow. Only then will we leave,” Srinath Santra, 18, told a police official.

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For months now, there has been unease in Tehatta and its surrounding villages in Kalishani gram panchayat, in Uluberia sub-division of Howrah district.

“The problem began in November last year. A group of Muslim students wanted to be allowed to celebrate Nabi Diwas, Prophet Muhammad’s birth anniversary, within the school campus. They wanted to set up a stage and hold a grand celebration. They were denied permission, but they kept causing trouble,” said Shantilata Bhuniya, a Sanskrit teacher at the school. Some students reportedly roughed up the headmaster, Utpal Mallik, who has since resigned.

According to residents, there is communal tension during Saraswati Puja every year in schools that are located in Muslim-dominated areas like Tehatta. This year, the tension spilled over.

“When I joined the school in 2002, the police camped here on Saraswati Puja to ensure that there was no trouble. But there hasn’t been that much trouble since then,’’ said Bhuniya. Of the 22 teachers at the school, three are Muslims.

“A students’ delegation approached us seeking permission to celebrate Nabi Diwas, but we said no. There is no provision to celebrate the occasion on the school grounds. We told them that if they got permission from the state administration, we would let them hold the event,’’ said Mohanlal Bhuniya, a member of the school’s governing board.

“But these boys entered the school and constructed a stage for Nabi Diwas. The police have been stationed here since November,’’ he said. He added that Saraswati Puja has been celebrated in all schools in the state for decades and does not require special permission.

Sensing trouble, the local administration shut down the school on November 29. It opened briefly for a week earlier this month, to deliver the results of an exam held earlier, but closed again.

“Due to ongoing administrative problem, all classes at Tehatta High School are hereby suspended until further orders,” says a notice on the gate, dated November 29.

“There have been a number of scuffles between us and some Muslim boys over the past few months… We have always celebrated Saraswati Puja because Saraswati is the Goddess of learning… They told us if you don’t let us celebrate Nabi Diwas, we won’t let you celebrate Saraswati Puja,’’ said Prakash Mali, 16.

He and his two sisters are all students of the Tehatta High School. All three of them participated in the protest today.

“My Class X board exams are coming up and I haven’t been able to get my admit card. Our classes are suspended. What are we going to do? Some of us have tried to get admission in other schools, but they won’t take us because they have heard about the trouble here,’’ said his sister, Moushumi Mali, 17.

But Moidun Koel, 24, an alumnus of the Tehatta High School who is now a volunteer with the civil police, said the students were not always so divided. “We used to participate in the Saraswati Puja as well. All the students would come with their friends and relatives, and there would be a grand feast. The idol was brought with much fanfare, and Muslim boys would help as well… I remember when I was in Class X, I helped to organise the food,’’ he said.

In fact, residents belonging to both the communities take part in the annual rath yatra — the “rath ghar” lies just in front of the school.

Koel claimed that the trouble began after Muslim students sought permission to put up a “Nabi Diwas flag’’. “They had asked the headmaster, who gave his nod. However, after they put up the flag, it was taken off and thrown aside. So they got angry. They said if the headmaster had denied permission, they would not have done it. They just wanted to celebrate for one hour on November 28. For the past 15 years, we have been asking them to let us celebrate Nabi Diwas in school,’’ he said.

“I believe that outsiders are trying to disrupt the peaceful atmosphere of our village. One house in the area put up Bajrang Dal flags,’’ claimed Koel.

Meanwhile, the police said 14 protesters were detained today. “There were more adults in the protest than students… There were 50-100 students, but as many as 300 adults,’’ said SP Howrah (Rural) Sumit Kumar.

By afternoon, all the shutters in Tehatta and Kalishani were down. The police are anticipating trouble tomorrow as well. “We will keep a watch,” said Kumar. And that was the message that went out on the public address system mounted on an autorickshaw — “the administration requests you not to pay any heed to rumours, we will be watching.’’

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