How a Karnataka School Almost Became the 1st Casualty of Anti-Conversion Bill

St Paul's School was asked to close down over an allegation of religious conversion. The order was later reversed.

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How a Karnataka School Almost Became the 1st Casualty of Anti-Conversion Bill

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Karnataka's Bagalkot district administration has decided to reopen St Paul's Higher Primary School, which was closed down on 26 December, after a Block Education Officer (BEO) issued a notice to the management accusing them of "religious conversion." The school will restart classes from 1 January, management representatives told The Quint.

The school's closure, which lasted four days, however, reveals the adverse impact of Karnataka's anti-conversion bill, which the Bharatiya Janata Party government had passed in the state's Legislative Assembly on 23 December. Here's how.


A Christmas Celebration, a School, and the Right-Wing

On 25 December, members of Hindu Para Sanghatana, a right-wing group, barged into a shed located at Ilkal in Bagalkot district of Karantaka, where Christmas celebrations were underway, to accuse the congregation of unlawful religious conversion. The celebrations were organised by an independent church, the management said.

A day later, on 26 December, based on a complaint filed by the Sanghatana and a one-man inspection done by the education department, the BEO forced St Paul's Higher Primary School, located on the same premises, to close down.

The BEO's order read, "It is found that some members of the school management are converting students and parents to Christianity." The order also accused the school of conducting the Christmas celebrations in "violation of norms" and "serving meat in classrooms."

The closure was the first of its kind as the Sanghatana's complaint and the BEO's letter reflected the effect of some clauses of the bill, including those on "allurement and force."

As per the bill, allurement includes, "any gift, gratification, easy money or material benefit in cash or kind." The bill defines "force" as "a show of force" and "undue influence" as "unconscientious use of influence or power." While there are other definitions of these clauses, in the complaint, the school management was accused of offering gifts in the form of food and religious literature to students. The management was also accused of influencing the students.

The complaint read, "The school management invited students and parents to the school on Christmas day and offered them meat, wine and Satya Veda, a Kannada translation of the bible."

While the school's headteacher Sylvia David vehemently denied the claims, the BEO accused the management of having brought "public disgrace" to the institution.

A school management representative, Jackson Mark, told The Quint, "One, we did not hold the function. Two, they assumed that we held the function based on the Christian identity of a few of our members." Of the 10 managing partners of the school, six are Hindus and four Christian, he said.

The school is not run by a church or a Christian missionary. It is run by private individuals, he added. The current management took over the school's reins in the academic year 2006-07. "The school was earlier run by a Christian pastor. When we bought the school, we retained the name," a management representative said on the condition of anonymity. When the complaint was raised, the management was also warned of the imminent implementation of the anti-conversion bill, he added.

Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai had, on 30 December, said that the state would institute special task force units to oversee the implementation of the bill.

A senior officer of the district education department said, "We cannot stop investigating such claims anymore as the government has made it very clear that forceful conversions in institutions will not be tolerated." The bill makes conversions through educational institutions and healthcare institutions unlawful.

Why then did the district officials withdraw the order? "The school management representatives came and spoke to me. We also did an inspection and found that the allegations were false," said Shreeshail Biradar, Deputy Director of Public Instruction.


Management in Fear, Students in Limbo

The management, meanwhile, is too scared to hold any celebrations in the school, representatives said.

"We will not hold celebrations even if our students ask us to. We cannot go through this ordeal again," Mark rued. For the headteacher of the school, Sylvia David, the past four days have been harrowing. "They closed down the school and put the academic lives of students at risk," she said. Around 400 students from kindergarten to Class VIII study in the school.

The order which had closed down the school "indefinitely" had not specified whether any plans were afoot to accommodate students of the institution in other schools.

The complaint against the school, however, did not come from any of the students or their parents, the management claimed. As per the anti-conversion bill, complaint against religious conversion can be raised not just by the aggrieved party, but even by those who are in the know of such illegal activity.

Three Christian members of the management were accused of having "started religious conversions right from the day they started working for the school," the complaint read.

The school will not rent any of the buildings on its premises for Christian religious gathering anymore, a management representative said, even though there is no law which prevents private educational institutions from renting out their property for private use.

"We are too scared to even hold our morning prayers," a management representative said. If the anti-conversion bill gets enacted, such disruptions could become the norm, they rued.

Karnataka is yet to table the anti-conversion bill in the Upper House or the Legislative Council, where the BJP does not have simple majority.

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