Bara- In a defiant stand against conventional norms, Hemlata Bairwa, a government school teacher, has ignited a social media storm with her bold assertion that "Savitri Bhai Phule, and not Saraswati, is the Goddess of education." This resolute stand has thrust her into the spotlight after she courageously faced dissent from a group of men at Government School Lakdai in Nahargarh, Rajasthan, during a Republic Day celebration on January 26.
Bairwa's perspective has garnered widespread attention, prompting vocal support from numerous members of the Dalit community. Simultaneously, it has triggered a backlash from right-wing factions, who perceive it as an affront to their religious sentiments, leading to fervent calls for legal action. The incident has culminated in the filing of cross FIRs by both parties, and local police are now earnestly investigating the matter.
The clash of perspectives in this seemingly ordinary event has morphed into a contentious issue, emblematic of the delicate balance between freedom of expression and the protection of religious sentiments in contemporary India.
On Republic Day, Hemlata Bairwa, the teacher at the Government Higher Primary School in Lakdai was officially organising a cultural program by the students. She had put up pictures of Baba Saheb BR Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi on the stage. Two teachers reportedly forced her to keep Goddess Saraswati's picture on the table. Hemlata refused to allow the placement of Saraswati's image on the stage alongside those of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi. The teachers sided up with some villagers who exerted pressure on the teacher. " I asked them what is the contribution of Saraswati in the field of education? It is Savitri Bai Phule who is the Goddess of education for children and no one else. Moreover, it was the Republic day celebration and not any religious event. It is against the constitutional principles to observe any religious event in a government setup" Bairwa said to The Mooknayak.
The incident escalated into a verbal altercation, leading to an inquiry by the Education Department and local police. The ensuing uproar prompted the registration of three cases, with complaints lodged by the teacher, a villager, and other members of the school staff.
The controversy deepened when the teacher, belonging to the Scheduled Caste category, accused villagers of harassment and caste-based discrimination. The teacher asserted that during the Republic Day function, individuals from the village obstructed her official duties, harassed her for not keeping Saraswati image and used caste indicators, threatening her job security. The FIR further claims a violation of the teacher's fundamental right to freedom of expression and the desecration of women's honour.
In response, the accused villagers, including Hansraj Nagar, Phoolsingh Gurjar, Radheshyam Nagar, and Chandra Gurjar, filed a counter-complaint. They alleged that the teacher, Hemlata Bairwa, had removed the Saraswati picture from the program and made derogatory remarks, causing hurt sentiments. The villagers also accused the teacher's family members of threatening people of a particular religion.
Video footage of the confrontation has surfaced, showcasing the intensity of the argument between the villagers and the teacher.
Shahbad's Deputy Superintendent of Police, Hemant Gautam, leading the investigation into the incident, provided insight into the ongoing legal proceedings. Speaking to The Mooknayak, he disclosed that reciprocal First Information Reports (FIRs) had been lodged — one against the female teacher and another against the villagers involved. As the investigative process unfolds, Gautam emphasized that only after a thorough examination of the evidence would culpability be established, shedding light on the intricate details of the confrontation.
Bhim Army Baran District President Piyush Verma weighed in on the matter, condemning the pressure on the Dalit female teacher to place Saraswati image during the Republic Day celebrations in a government school. The Bhim Army asserts that Republic Day celebrations are meant to commemorate the Constitution's implementation, not to favour any particular religion. They have declared their opposition to the FIR against the female teacher, threatening protests if justice is not served.
In response to Mooknayak's discussions on the matter, most academicians opted for a neutral standpoint. They acknowledged that in the Indian mindset, it is deeply ingrained that Laxmi is the goddess of wealth, and Saraswati is revered as the goddess of knowledge. However, academics also pointed out the crucial fact that these designations are based on fictional stories with no concrete evidence.
Adding another layer to the discussion, the academicians highlighted the significance of Savitribai Phule, who is held in high regard for her sacrifices and efforts towards girls' education. In contrast to mythical goddesses, Savitribai Phule's contributions are grounded in historical records, making her an inspiring figure for her tangible impact on the advancement of education, particularly for girls. The nuanced perspective offered by academicians emphasise the intersection of cultural beliefs, mythology, and historical realities in the ongoing discourse surrounding the controversy.
As the legal proceedings continue and tensions persist, the case has become a focal point for advocates of constitutional rights, sparking a wider debate on the intersection of religious practices and the responsibilities of public servants within government institutions. The unfolding narrative encapsulates the delicate balance between individual freedoms and the adherence to constitutional principles in the vibrant tapestry of India's diverse social landscape.