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'Hijab' Row: How Right-Wing Brigade Orchestrated Closure of Ganga Jamna School

Despite its name being cleared by the Damoh administration, how did the school get caught up in Hindutva politics?

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This article is part of our coverage from Madhya Pradesh's Damoh, where the shutting down of English-medium Ganga Jamna School, following a hijab row, has put the future of more than 1,000 children in jeopardy. As we continue to bring you ground reports from Damoh, we need your help. Become a member – and support our journalism.

Days after the Ganga Jamna School, located in the Futera area of Madhya Pradesh's Damoh district, was shut down over a 'hijab' controversy, a local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, on the condition of anonymity, admitted that "those marching with the flags of Hindutva blew the matter out of proportion for their personal and political gains."

"It wasn't an issue at all, but these flagbearers of Hindutva created one out of thin air. There are local players whom I know but I can't name them; they clicked the picture of the poster and made it viral with a false claim that Hindu girls are being forced to wear the hijab. Had that been the case, why would the parents admit their daughters to this school and then not say a word for years?"
A BJP leader

The poster the leader was referring to was a banner put up by the school to celebrate the success of its girl students in the Class 10 board exams on 27 May. The poster showed pictures of female students in headscarves, a part of the school uniform.

As the photo of the poster went viral, top BJP leaders from the state, including Chief Minister Madhya Pradesh Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Home Minister Narottam Mishra, and state party president VD Sharma, got involved.

And even after district education officer (DEO) SK Mishra and a team of police gave a clean chit to the school on 30 May, the right-wing groups refused to let the issue die down.

Organisations including the Hindu Jagaran Manch, Hindu Jagriti Manch, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and Sakal Hindu Samaj staged protests, raised allegations of religious conversion, demanded the dismissal of the district collector, and even threw ink on the DEO.

They also allegedly shared the poster with reference to The Kerala Story, a recent controversial movie that claims to tell the story of Hindu and Christian women who were 'lured' into joining the Islamic State (IS) group.

In response to these protests, Narottam Mishra stated that the district education officer had "conducted an investigation" and found "no evidence" of the alleged incident. He also highlighted that even the parents of the children involved did not file any complaints. Yet, further probe was ordered into the incident, he added.

So, how did a school, whose name was cleared by the local administration, end up at the centre of Hindutva politics?

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An Opportunity for the BJP

As soon as the photo of the poster went viral, the Hindutva groups in Damoh got to work.

Speaking to The Quint, Monty Raikwar, convener of Sakal Hindu Samaj, a Hindutva group in Damoh, claimed:

"The school has been carrying out conversions and illegal activities for a while now. Nobody knows what goes on inside the school. But this time, their activities surfaced after they put up the poster of Hindu students wearing the hijab, and thus, exposed themselves."
Monty Raikwar

Raikwar and other right-wing members were the first to stage a protest against the school at the collectorate on 1 June, demanding its closure and a further inquiry into the matter.

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As Hindutva groups mounted pressure, the ruling BJP leaders seemingly recognised it as an opportunity to neutralise the strong anti-incumbency wave before the 2023 Assembly elections. 

On 2 June, the chief minister accused the school administration of "teaching poetry of a man who talked about the division of the country." He was referring to the prayer 'Lab Pe Aati Hai Dua' penned by revered poet Mohammad Iqbal. 

Chouhan went on to warn that "such acts won't be allowed in Madhya Pradesh."

The BJP leader, quoted above, explained, "The state leadership cashed in on the narrative pushed by Hindutva groups, recognising it as a chance to build momentum before the state elections."

Local sources added that the Ganga Jamna Trust and its convener had "good political relations like any influential families of the area would have had," and hence, neither the Congress nor the BJP meddled in the school's affairs.

"You could understand the shallowness of the hijab row by the silence of BJP-Congress leaders. Even though they didn't jump to save them, they also didn't side with the Hindutva groups, falsely accusing them of enforcing the hijab on Hindu students."
Sources
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The Timing: BJP Leaders Stoked Conversion & Terror Angle

On 5 June, the BJP's state president VD Sharma introduced other narratives – 'love jihad' and terror. He also alleged that school teachers were being converted to Islam.

Sharma said:

"I noticed that two female teachers who had the surname Khare had become Khans. Our sisters were forced to change their religion because they were under pressure from the school management. The jihadi empire that they have created should be probed."

The next day, on 6 June, MP's school education minister Inder Singh Parmar stoked the religious conversion and terror link allegations, saying:

"I understand that if adults are also being converted there. It means that religious conversion activities are also being conducted there. It becomes clear… this is why I say that in the name of the school, there were not only religious conversion activities. It is also possible that they have links to terrorists."

While on the one hand, the media and right-wing groups continued pressing the administration, the BJP's state leadership commented that they will not allow "such things to happen." The Opposition, meanwhile, steered clear of the matter.  

On the evening of 6 June, Damoh district's BJP vice president Amit Bajaj, Sakal Hindu Samaj leader Raikwar, and a group of right-wing workers stopped DEO Mishra and purportedly threw ink on him as the crowd chanted Jai Shri Ram.

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The Irregularity: Suspension Not Linked to Allegations

As the matter refused to die down, the Damoh district collector constituted another team to probe the matter, and on the same day, the school's accreditation was suspended citing irregularities.

This followed the divisional educational department de-recognising the school citing inadequate infrastructure.

In the notice, it was mentioned that the school lacked a well-equipped library, and had a shortage of practical materials for physics and chemistry. The notice also mentioned that the school had inadequate arrangements for separate toilets and the absence of clean drinking water for the 1,208 boys and girls enrolled in the school.

However, nowhere in the notice by the Office of the Joint Director, Public Education, Sagar Division, suspending the accreditation, was it mentioned that the school was found guilty of religious conversion, forcing the students to wear the hijab or anything close to the accusations levelled by the Hindutva groups.

On the other hand, the right-wing organisations continued pressing the administration for further action against the school. 

On 4 June, the Madhya Pradesh unit of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights visited the school for further inquiry into the matter and spoke to the students of the school.

Sources, however, said that despite holding a closed-door conversation with the students, no evidence was found against the school over allegations of conversion and the hijab row.

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The Impact: Arrests, FIRs, and Call for Bulldozer Action

On 7 June, the Damoh Kotwali police station registered an FIR against around a dozen officials of the school, based on complaints by the three students.

In the FIR, the students alleged that they were "forced to wear a hijab, scolded on wearing a tilak" and that Urdu was made a mandatory subject, among other things.

As the controversy heated up, the Damoh Police, on 11 June, arrested three people, including principal Afsa Sheikh, a teacher named Anas Athar, and the security guard of the school, Rustam Ali.

After the arrest of the three people, the demand for the infamous 'bulldozer justice' gained momentum.

As Narottam Mishra hinted at another bulldozer spree on 12 June while speaking to the media, the district administration issued a notice to the school to furnish building records and permits, failing which it would lead to the removal of the 'illegal construction'.

Although the bulldozer wasn't used, the municipal corporation removed the construction done on the top floor of the school building citing illegal construction.

Now, over 1,200 students have been left in the lurch after the state government cancelled the school's accreditation, arrested its teachers, and closed its gates.

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Topics:  Madhya Pradesh   Damoh   Hijab Row 

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