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Religion off Bengal education forms

Calcutta, Aug. 30: Taking note of the public outrage over the Tehmina Khatoon issue, the government has decreed that no education institution in the state will ask applicants to declare their religion.

Nine years ago, Tehmina, now 36, was asked to name her religion in a college admission form. But she chose to seek legal redress against the “unjust demand”.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, after reading newspaper reports on the nine-year legal battle and the public debate that followed, reportedly got in touch with lawyers close to the CPM to find out if the religion column was “legally necessary”.

After getting to know that it was redundant — that people could leave it blank if they wanted to — he ordered that the column be scrapped.

The relevant departments then got down to work. It ended in an order, issued on Thursday, that the column would henceforth be absent from admission forms of all state-run education institutions.

A circular to this effect has been sent to all institutions under the West Bengal Primary Education Board, the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education, the West Bengal Council for Higher Secondary Education and the West Bengal Madarsa Education Board.

Academic heads have welcomed the order. Calcutta University pro-vice-chancellor (academic) Suranjan Das said religion could not be anyone’s primary identity. “It may end up as a source of discrimination,” he added. The university, in fact, did away with the column five years ago, informed former controller of examinations Arun Kiran Pal.

Jyotiprakash Mukherjee, president of the higher secondary council, agreed that the order was long overdue. “In today’s communally-charged atmosphere, such identification on the basis of one’s religion may lead to more harm than good,” he said, adding that the council would ask all affiliated institutions to take note of the order. The head of the secondary board, Haraprasad Samaddar, also welcomed the idea.

“There was a time when surveys used to be conducted on the basis of one’s religion,” he said. “But such things are frowned upon now.”

So far, so good. But what about the “offensive” column that still exists in hospital forms, Tehmina has asked. Or forms that people have to fill up at hotels and lodges. The tenacious woman, who set the ball rolling by going to Calcutta High Court after the Gandhi Memorial College, Habra, asked her to denote her religion, recounted “equally bitter” experiences at places other than academic institutions.

In 1994, she was treated at Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College and Hospital as a “nastik (non-believer)” after Tehmina refused to fill up the column earmarked for religion.

But the worst of her travails — that ranks after the college imbroglio — came when she travelled to Sandeshkhali, in the Sunderbans, a year later. “We kept our luggage at Panthanibas before going out,” Tehmina said, recounting her July 29 ordeal. “We came back in the evening and proceeded to fill up the check-in forms.”

The problems began when she and her husband, Sukumar Mitra, wrote down their names. “We were turned out of the hotel that night and had to spend it outdoors as our surnames did not match,” Tehmina said.

That case, however, ended in a victory for them when the hotel owner, Prasad Mandal, paid a token fine of Re 1 and apologised.

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