Bombay High Court Recognizes Atheist Teacher’s Rights to Not Pray at School

Bombay High Court

Sanjay Salve is a 41-year-old English teacher in a state-funded school in Nashik, a town in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Salve joined the school in 1996 and received excellent marks in all annual Confidential Reports until the 2008-09 report when he was accused of “indiscipline”. He had been denied a pay increase and claimed he was being punished for taking a stand against imposition of school prayers.

A Defiant Stand Against Religious Instruction in a State-Funded School

“Only the national anthem should be played in school,” Salve stated. The situation started in 2007, when Salve stood with his hands behind his back during prayers which were being conducted on the playground. The headmaster, Madhukar Bachchav, took immediate notice, and demanded that Salve issue a written apology. “I told him I am an atheist and cannot participate in prayers to any god, that such compulsion violates the Constitution,” says Salve. Bachchav stated, “Had we overlooked this indiscipline, it might have spread to others. It was on this ground we did not find his work satisfactory. Hence, he was denied the higher pay grade.” Salve lodged several complaints to government authorities, but the school management was unrelenting, despite multiple letters from the education authorities, under the direction of a Division Bench of the Bombay High Court.

Salve then escalated his case to the Bombay high Court again, reporting noncompliance with rule 45(9) of the secondary school code. His petition cited Article 28(3) which states that “No person attending any educational institution recognised by the State or receiving aid out of State funds shall be required to take part in any religious instruction that may be imparted in such institution or to attend any religious worship that may be conducted in such institution or in any premises attached thereto unless such person or, if such person is a minor, his guardian has given his consent thereto.”

The Court Protects the Atheist

At the September 6 hearing, the Division bench of the Bombay High Court asked, “How can a state-funded school term this indiscipline?” The Bench comprised of Justices Abhay Oka and Revati Mohite Dhere, and was of the opinion that the case would stand only if Salve had shown disrespect during prayers. The next hearing was scheduled for September 20, and thereafter, the management of the school agreed to pay Salve his wages, and allow him to stand with his arms unfolded during school prayers.

Salve reported that he faced severe criticism for his stand, and lost the support of many friends. Even his family and relatives, he said, pleaded him to let the case go.

It appears the verdict has enforced no restrictions against compulsory prayers in the school.

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