Two years after introducing 'surya namaskar' in schools, the Madhya Pradesh government has now directed that students in state-run schools have to recite a 'bhojan mantra' - perceived by many Muslims as a Hindu chant - before partaking of midday meals.
"The schoolchildren in the state will have to recite the 'bhojan mantra' before their midday meals. This will come into force from Sep 5 - Teacher's Day this year," says a notice from state School Education Minister Archana Chitnis.
The directive has stirred controversy as many Muslims say the imposition of such a chant is against the religious freedom of minorities.
The mantra is, "Anna grahan karne se pehle, vichar man mein karna hai; Kis hetu se is sharir ka rakshan poshan karna hai; Hey parmeshwar, ek prarthana nitya tumhare charnon mein; Lag jaaye tan man dhan mera, matr bhumi ki sewa mein."
Translated into English it means: "Before eating, let us think why we have to nourish and take care of our bodies. Oh lord, this is a daily prayer to you that my body, mind and wealth be used in the service of the motherland).
Minister Chitnis said, "The mantra would be recited in all schools without any discrimination on grounds of caste and creed. It will be made mandatory for all wards availing themselves of government-run midday meals," she said.
"First the teachers would be taught the mantra at training sessions, so they can propagate it correctly among students," Chitnis told sources over phone.
She denied the charge that the mantra had a 'saffron' agenda. An education department official said: "The minister has already directed her department which, without losing any time, has started preparing for teaching the mantra to teachers in August and September."
"Preparations are on and about 1,000 teachers of higher secondary (up to Class 12) and 3,000 teachers of high school (up to Class 10) will participate in the training," said the official.
But Muslims in the state are not amused. "Asking children to recite the mantra before midday meals is unconstitutional. It is unacceptable not only to Muslims but also to other religious minorities," said Irshad Ali Khan, member of the Majlis-e-Shoora, a Muslim body.
"We will urge the government to withdraw such a diktat." Muslim Tehwar Committee chief Ausaf Shahmiri Khurram also opposed the directive saying, "The order infringes the religious freedom of minorities."
Madhya Pradesh Jamaat-e-Islami Hind spokesman Anwar Shafi claimed it was against the belief of Muslims. "The Muslim community recites 'Bismillah' before having meals and under no circumstances would recite the 'bhojan mantra' as directed by the minister," he said.
Several Muslim organisations and leaders - including Hafiz Saghir Jilani Chishti of Jamiat Ulema Chishtia, Maulana Javed of Jamiat Ahle Quraish and Muslim Raeen Panchayat's Noorul Islam - have decided to opppose the move unitedly.
Describing it as an attempt to saffronise the education system, the opposition Congress has also criticised the move. "India is a secular country where every individual has the right to live as per his/her religious beliefs," Congress spokesman Arvind Malviya said.
"The midday meal is a central scheme and the state government has no right to implement its agenda on it by asking teachers and students to recite bhojan mantra," he said.
"Instead of dividing the community, the government should focus on providing quality and nutritious food to children and check malnutrition deaths in the state," he said.
Another Congress leader, Noori Khan, said, "Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Education Minister Archana Chitnis could recite whatever they like while taking lunch at their homes, but they don't have any right to impose their will on students."
The decision to introduce the yogic exercise of surya namaskar in schools had also been opposed by minority community organisations. Later, it was made optional.
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