Can a state-owned educational institution mandate recital of shlokas from Hindu scriptures? This question has emerged in the recent petition filed by Advocate Veenayak Shah in the Supreme Court. The plea challenges the constitutional validity of Rule 92 of Revised Education Code of Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan (Education Code) as violative of Article 19, 25 and 28. Article 92 of the Education Code states that ‘…the morning Assembly shall begin with the common prayer which shall include a Sanskrit Shloka.’ The shloka is from Upnishads and denotes a universal appeal to god. It does not preach a particular religious practice. However, the main contention is whether compulsory recital of Sanskrit shlokas in the morning assembly of Kendriya Vidyalayas amounts to ‘religious instructions’, prohibited under Article 28 of the Indian Constitution? But is Kendriya Vidyalaya the only educational institution where performances in morning assembly resonate to Hindu traditions? And whether it is constitutionally valid?
In this context, the present article attempts to firstly, examine the purpose behind school assemblies; secondly, critically analyse major ‘performances’ carried out in morning assemblies of Indian schools (government, private and minority) and quantifies the prevalence of Hindu cultural identities in such assemblies; and lastly, offers a constitutional perspective on the topic. For the said purpose, the article relies on personal experiences of the author along with a randomised online survey conducted by the author.  The article analyses three performances, that is, the pledge (or national pledge), the prayer, and the supplementary celebrations in the assembly, such as choir singing, lightning the lamp, etc.
Why the school assembly?
The school assembly/prayer is one of the important mechanism of building national consciousness. The roots of recognising identification with the nation begin in childhood. Along with other foundational attributes of self-identity, national consciousness is regarded as a key aspect of a modern person’s identity. National consciousness or nationalism, as pointed out by Renan, is not based on objective criteria such as race, language, religion, etc., but the more subjective components such as ‘glories or sufferings of the past’ and the ‘present will to create new glories together.’ This suggests that national feeling is not a natural instinct in humans but is consciously cultivated in their formative years. In this respect, the most dominant role of sculpting national consciousness is played by the schools. As argued by Rudolf de Cilia, “….it is to a large extent through its schools and education system that the state shapes those forms of perception, categorization, interpretation, and memory that serve to determine the orchestration of the habitus which are in turn constitutive basis for a kind of national commonsense.” Other than morning assembly, schools adopt various other mechanisms that play an important role in building national consciousness, for instance, the curriculum, celebration of national days, etc.
Analysis of school assembly in Indian schools
Perhaps, the least controversial components of morning assembly in India is the ‘pledge’. The National Portal of India does not mention the ‘pledge’ as part of national identity elements and symbols. However, in popular usage, it is time and again referred to as ‘the National Pledge of India.’ As far as its history is concerned, it was first written in 1962 by Pydimarri Venkata Subba Rao (District Treasury Officer, Vishakhapatnam) in Telugu. He presented it to the education minister of erstwhile Andhra Pradesh PVG Raju, who then directed all the schools in Vishakhapatnam to make the students take the pledge. Thereafter, the Government of India translated it into seven different languages and directed all the schools in the country to take the pledge every day.
In the survey, 100% of respondents who studied in government schools agreed to taking the pledge. The number plummeted in the case of respondents from private schools at 84% while it further dropped in case of respondents from minority schools at 55%. This figure shows the inclination of government schools towards orchestrating national consciousness of unity and brotherhood.
The text of the pledge necessarily invokes the idea of ‘unity in diversity.’ The phrases such as “All Indians are my brothers and sisters……., and I am proud of its rich and varied heritage” celebrate the feeling of oneness and unified India. It creates an imagined community which is though diverse in varied heritage belongs to everyone equally. Here, it is important to mention the analysis of Srirupa Roy. She argues that the narrative of diversity is central to the post-colonial Indian nation-building. The post-colonial state emphasized sub-national diversity to assume the ‘managerial’ responsibility of ‘infantile’ citizens of India and its diversity (which, in the absence of state protection, may become ‘unruly’). Her analysis is exceptional, however, when seen teleologically, the performances of ‘unity in diversity’ narrative makes children more tolerable towards differences. The pledge gives an important message of national integration in early childhood days, and it is probably one of the very few performances, which is secular and national in true sense.
The second component of morning assembly consists of a ‘prayer.’ Before the article delves into this aspect, there is a caveat for the readers. Although prayer is the most universal aspect of school assembly in Indian schools, it is indeed complex to unfold its nature. In the survey, 100% of respondents from the government schools agreed that they recited a prayer containing verses from Hindu scriptures. In the case of private schools, 48% of respondents recited a prayer from Hindu scriptures while 20% had a prayer devoted to Hindu gods/goddesses. Thus, private schools also exhibit propensity towards prayers involving Hindu traditions. Only the respondents from minority schools (Christian) stated that they did not have a morning prayer drawn from Hindu scriptures or a prayer to the Hindu god. This shows that irrespective of the nature of the school, government or private, there is a tendency towards imparting Hindu cultural identities on children. The construction of such an identity is so subtle that it often goes unnoticed. The petition filed by Veenayak Shah challenges this convention.
At the behest of morning assemblies dominated by Hindu heritage, the state tries to build a national conscience where one religion subdue the others. It is because the state’s imagination of ‘community’ necessarily dominates the Hindu way of doing things. A child imagines India as a land of great sages, Upnishads, Vedas, the great language Sanskrit, etc. No doubt that taking pride in one’s cultural heritage should be a part of building national consciousness, however, the state should steer away from selective pride, especially a secular state like India. When school assemblies are influenced by only one religion, it manifests the intentions of the state. The selective pride is then etched in the memory of the child.
Constitutional perspective on ‘prayer’ in government schools
Article 28 of the Constitution prohibits religious instructions in ‘educational institution wholly maintained out of State funds’. The question is, what constitutes religious instructions? To be specific, whether prayer containing Hindu scriptures or devoted to god/goddesses amounts to ‘religious instructions’, even if they preach universal values? The constituent assembly debate is silent on the interpretation of the term ‘religious instructions’ rather it leaves it for the determination of the courts.
In Aruna Roy v Union of India, the Supreme Court observed that ‘Religious instruction is that which is imparted for inculcating the tenets, the rituals, the observances, ceremonies and modes of worship of a particular sect or denomination.’ Given the fact that Rule 92 of Education Code requires students to recite the prayer by Hindu mode of worship, that is, to fold the hands and close the eyes, it should fall within the category of religious instructions. As regards to reciting the verses from Hindu scriptures, the Supreme Court of the United States in Engel vs. Vitale held that prayer of any kind (even voluntary) would allow favouring of one religion over the other. It observed that ‘since Americans adhere to a wide variety of beliefs, it is not appropriate for the government to endorse any particular belief system.’ Though American secularism differs from the Indian one, the judgment offers valuable insights on the role of state and religious instructions in schools.
In addition to this, Article 28 also prescribes that no one shall be compelled to attend any ‘religious’ instruction’ or worship that may be carried out in such institutions. The compulsion to recite the prayer in a particular mode also violates this provision.
The above discussion shows that except the national pledge, morning assembly in Indian schools creates national consciousness favouring Hindu religion. Apart from the prayer, the supplementary performances in the schools (except minority schools) consist of lighting the lamps, displaying portraits of Hindu gods and goddesses especially Saraswati Mata. These supplementary performances may not necessarily take place during the assembly, however, they denote an inclination of the state to create ‘selective pride’. It is indeed surprising that these practises continued till now, without anyone questioning its constitutional validity, especially in case of government schools where the constitutional provision specifically debars such activities.
The Veenayak Shah case calls for an in-depth interpretation of Article 28 and more specifically of the term ‘religious instructions’. However, as shown above, the mere textual reading of the Article clarifies two things, one, religious instruction cannot be imparted in government or government-aided schools and two these instructions if even carried out cannot be made compulsory. Though the Supreme Court attempted to interpret the Article in Aruna Roy’s case, it did not deal with it extensively. Moreover, the judgment did not contain any legal principle to fall back upon. At the time when the country is experiencing complete chaos, it will be interesting to see what approach the apex court will adopt. Undoubtfully, the judgment will serve as the most important precedent on Indian secularism.
The author is a recent graduate from Azim Premji University (Master of Laws in Law and Development), and is currently working as a Law and Policy intern in the Office of Member of Parliament, Mr Gajendra Singh Shekhawat.
 English translation is as follows;- Om, (O Lord) Keep me not in the Unreality (of the bondage of the Phenomenal World), but lead me towards the Reality (of the Eternal Self) (O Lord) Keep me not in the Darkness (of Ignorance), but lead me towards the Light (of Spiritual Knowledge), (O Lord) Keep me not in the (Fear of) Death (due to the bondage of the Mortal World), but lead me towards the Immortality (gained by the Knowledge of the Immortal Self beyond Death).
 The questionnaire comprised of the following questions:
- What is the name of your school?
- Did you have Morning Prayer in your school?
- If yes, what was your prayer name?
- Did you portraits/sculptures of Hindu gods/goddesses in your school?
- If yes, which ones?
- Did you take the national pledge?
- Did you witness the ceremony of lighting the lamp?
 The revised rules of Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangthan under Article 92 make it mandatory to take the pledge after the prayer.
As a former student of Kendriya Vidyalaya, the author was always intrigued to inquire about the constitutionality of a prayer drawn from Hindu scriptures. The purpose of the survey was to identify similar practices in other public and private schools. It was conducted using google forms and 44 respondents were selected randomly. The survey is only for indicative purposes and is not a serious statistical survey.