On March 25, it was a friend who came rushing to her with news of the “viral video” – shot only a few hours earlier, it had the 22-year-old offering namaz in an empty room at Dr Harisingh Gaur central university in Madhya Pradesh’s Sagar district. The video, shot secretly and in complete breach of her privacy, annoyed her but she wasn’t scared. “Why should I be scared? I was confident that I hadn’t done anything wrong,” she says.
That day, as right-wing social media handles began working themselves up into a lather, with the Hindu Jagran Manch giving a written complaint to the university officials demanding action against her, the university set up a six-member internal inquiry committee. The university later issued a statement saying she said she was “unaware that one should abstain from religious practice in the department building”.
Now back home in Damoh, the woman who hopes to be a teacher and is in her final semester of BSc-BEd — a four-year integrated course offered by the university’s Department of Education – is preparing for her final exams that are due soon . Her family and teachers say she has always been among the toppers.
Hijabi girl offering Namaz Inside Classroom in Dr. Hari Singh Gaur Central University of Sagar, Madhya Pradesh.
Why can’t they just Concentrate on Studies?pic.twitter.com/npEps5omPS
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In the recently held Common Entrance Test conducted by the Professional Examination Board (PEB) for recruitment as a Trained Graduate Teacher (TGT), she topped her class with 127 out of 150 marks.
She is also among the six meritorious students who have been selected by the university for a teaching internship at the government-run Kendriya Vidyalaya in Sagar Cantonment. Having scored 86 per cent in Class 10 and 85 per cent in Class 12, she had also received Rs 25,000 under the CM scholarship scheme for meritorious students.
The woman’s father, 50, who lives with his wife, son and the 22-year-old in Damoh’s Hatta tehsil, says that despite his middle-class background, he enrolled his daughter in Bundelkhand Public School — then the only private, English- medium school in Hatta.
“It didn’t matter if we ate less a certain day but I ensured I never delayed paying her school fees. She has always been a meritorious student. Throughout school and college, every time we entered her class for parent-teacher meetings, we would look for her name on the board as she was always among the rank holders,” he says proudly, adding, “She secured 93 per cent in class 11, but her Class 12 percentage fell as she had to undergo an elbow surgery.”
Recalling the day she was filmed offering her namaz, the 22-year-old says the department was holding elections for class representatives for the student council – she was one of five candidates in the fray. One of her teachers said that since the pandemic had disrupted last year’s student union elections, they were held this year, though the academic session was almost winding up.
The woman says that from the time she joined the university in 2018, she has been regularly doing her namaz, something her batchmates and the faculty were aware of, but no one had ever raised an objection.
“When we enrolled here, we were given a detailed orientation about the rules governing the institute. No one told us offering prayers while in the department or the university wasn’t allowed. And no one had a problem anyway,” she says. “But that day, because of the elections, students across batches were milling around.”
The following day, as newspapers and television channels reported on the video and the Hindu Jagran Manch’s demand seeking action against her, the inspector of a local police station called to ask her if she needed protection – a group of over 50 members associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Hindu Jagran Manch had descended on the campus and started chanting the Hanuman Chalisa.
“My daughter called me up and told me all this. I told her not to be scared and said she must stay put in the hostel. She was only offering her prayers. How is that wrong?,” says the woman’s father, adding, “Unlike me and my wife, my daughter is very punctual about doing her namaz five times a day.”
With right-wing groups descending on the campus, on March 26, the university issued a notification “barring religious activities or activities that promote communal tension” within the university premises. It further advised students who wanted to perform their religious activities to do so in the privacy of their homes or in places of worship.
When asked whether students were barred from praying or engaging in other religious activities, Vivek Jaiswal, the university’s media officer, said, “No university per se issues any such notification barring religious practices. It was issued in the university under special circumstances… Students are permitted to perform their religious practice in their hostels, but they are advised to refrain from doing it during classes in the department building.”
A member of the inquiry committee set up by the university pointed out to The Indian Express that secretly shooting a video of the student is a cyber offense in itself. “We asked the student if she was wanted to file an FIR, but she refused to pursue the case,” the member said.
Her father says they didn’t want to pursue the matter because there were careers and reputations at stake on the other side too. “Just as I have sent my daughter there to study, the student who made the video was also sent there to study. We do not want to punish the student’s family for his or her mistakes. Hum maaf karke aage badhne mein vishwas rakhte hai (We believe in forgiving and moving on).”