• 20 Jul, 2024

Schools Cannot Prohibit Non-disruptive Cultural Activities & Symbols; why only Indian festivals targeted in Guyana; wearing raksha is not a disruptive

Schools Cannot Prohibit Non-disruptive Cultural Activities & Symbols; why only Indian festivals targeted in Guyana; wearing raksha is not a disruptive

Schools Cannot Prohibit Non-disruptive Cultural Activities & Symbols; why only Indian festivals targeted in Guyana; wearing raksha is not a disruptive symbol

Several Indian Guyanese within Guyana and the diaspora chastised me for not issuing a statement condemning the action of the school that penalized at least one student for wearing ‘a raksha’ (rakhi or a thread) on the wrist which was received on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan, an Indian festival that signifies kinship, love, and protection between brothers and sisters and between males and females. Such victimization pertaining to Indian cultural observances or targeting Indians cropped up every year and need to be addressed from the point of view of the law and as institutionalized by ignorant and arrogant enforcers at various institutions and in public. Why are festivals pertaining to Indians, and more specifically Hindus, targeted for restrictions and adherents to Hinduism harassed, intimidated, and victimized and facing all sorts of discrimination? And what has and will government do about it? It has been going on for too long and must end. The state must not promote discrimination against any ethnic group or faith. The state must be neutral and provide equal opportunities to all regardless of religious practices and race.

Raksha Bandhan is an extremely popular Indian festival observed annually and globally; this year it fell on August 30/31. It is celebrated with much enthusiasm by people of all cultures alike.  Hindus, Muslims, Christians observe it. It is an unstated national holiday in India; people traveled long distances for family get together for Raksha Bandhan.

Let me state unequivocally that the action of the school or its agent was unwarranted, and the action infringed on the constitutional right of students to wear or display (a small, harmless) paraphernalia (a thread) that does not distract from educational activities or learning. The action is akin to corporal punishment (which was banned a few years ago) as the educator demanded that the student remove the rakhi or face discipline.

Wearing a rakhi or raksha does not disrupt a classroom or a school or the educational process. It may draw curiosity in an alien environment. But Guyana is not alien to Raksha Bandhan. The festival has been celebrated for over 175 years. And if it draws curiosity, then a school should have encouraged a brief lesson in a social studies classroom about it.  In the US, it is policy to discuss cultural festivals in schools so others may be familiar with the diversity of an environment. One must not restrict cultural celebrations but encourage them. Let a million cultures bloom!

Rakhi, like the Tilak and Mehendi are decorative symbols that hold cultural significance. Rakhi is a decorative thread tied around a brother's wrist by his sister on Raksha Bandhan festival to celebrate the bond between the siblings. It is also tied on the wrist of non-blood related persons as a symbol of love and respect.  Tilak is a religious mark or symbol applied on the forehead that may convey one’s marital status or a person’s religious identity or for other reasons. Mehendi is intricate and decorative designs on the hands and feet using henna powdered paste especially during an Indian wedding or a festival.  Raksha Bandhan honors the sacred bond between and among kins. Raksha Bandhan transcends boundaries, bringing people together and reinforcing the significance of bonding with one another. The Indian High Commission tied rakhis on the wrists of Irfaan Ali, Bharrat Jagdeo, Mark Phillips, Collin Croal, Anil Nandlall, Bishop Edghill, Dr Vindya and other cabinet members. The HC did same when the coalition was in office; President Granger, Nagamootoo, R amjattan, Patterson, among other then Ministers and officials  sported a rakhi from the HC. Clearly, it brings different ethnicities together. It holds immense importance symbolizing deep-rooted affection for one another.  It strengthens bond between and among siblings, and it encourages trust and unity. The kins pledge to offer protection to one another.

On the legality of rakhi, in the US, where I taught for some forty years, students routinely wear religious symbols and other paraphernalia; restrictions are virtually non-existent. Guyanese American students freely displayed their rakhi up till now. As an educator, I still have mine and am teaching classes.  There is no classroom disruption. Students asked about it and given proper explanations. The problem in Guyana is that not too many non-Indians and even some Indians know so little about their culture. Also, there is also a lot of prejudice and non-tolerance in the society especially for things Indian and particularly Hindu. Cultural festivals like Raksha Bandhan and so many others should be a topic of education in schools. The society still adhere to colonialist, imperialist practices and de-emphasize their own. Indian culture historically has been marginalized. The mindset has not changed much after 60 years of freedom from colonial rule.

 

On law, I also studied and taught American constitutional law. Matters pertaining to religious and other rights in a school were ventilated (prosecuted) in the US Supreme Court.  Students get their rights from the Supreme Court, not from a cabinet decision or a law. The court’s position (which is law even if not legislated by Congress and signed by the President) was (and still is) that schools had (have) a right to enforce discipline but that students also enjoy certain rights and freedoms. A student can display a symbol (religious or otherwise) as long as it did or does not disrupt the school’s purpose.  In America, the public is protected by free exercise of religion and free speech (inclusive of displays on body or garment). There must be least restrictive environment. No right can be restricted without compelling reason for a greater good. Schools cannot coerce individuals into acting contrary to their beliefs, practices, and culture.

In Guyana, cabinet and parliament need not address non-consequential school matters. Common sense will suffice in respecting people’s cultural practices. Schools cannot and must not punish students for wearing rakhi, tilak, mehendi, cross, crescent, or any other symbols in schools.  Students in all schools and public institutions enjoy such freedoms in America where more Guyanese live than in Guyana. No child should be harassed and discriminated against by school authorities on account of the celebration of the Raksha Bandhan festival or any other festivals. Students should never be subjected to physical and mental harassment for wearing non-disruptive items or observing religious festivals. Any cabinet or parliamentary intervention should be to issue directives to ensure that schools do not encourage discrimination and further that Indians and others must not be prohibited from observing their festivals. Schools must maintain an inclusive environment for all cultures. 

Wearing a raksha is not a disruptive activity.

Dr Vishnu Bisram

Dr Vishnu Bisram is Guyanese born who received his primary and secondary education in Guyana and tertiary education in the US and India. He is a fourth generation Indian. His great grandparents from both his mother and father’s sides were born in India -- Gurbatore from Ghaizpur, Amru from Azamgarh, Sau from Chapra, Mangri from Mau, Bhuri and Bhura Singh from Bharatpur, among others. They all came at different times to then British Guiana (1880s and 1890s) to work on sugar plantations as indentured laborers. After serving ten years, they were freed laborers. They remained on the colony rather than returned to India, married and had children. They used the savings from indentureship to purchase landholdings to cement their ties to their adopted land. They were not given free land. Vishnu Bisram is ninth of twelve children of Gladys and Baldat, rural farmers, she also was a seamstress and he a taylor and they attended to a kitchen garden as well. Vishnu attended the St Joseph Anglican (called English) primary school from 1966 to 1972. In 1972, he passed the annual nationwide Common Entrance exam winning a scholarship place to attend the government Berbice High School in New Amsterdam, some 17 miles from his home village of Ankerville, Port Mourant. He declined the placement scholarship and opted instead for the private Chandisingh High School to which his family pad to pay a tuition. He entered for eight subjects at the Cambridge University Exam in 1977. Vishnu migrated to the USA in 1977 to further his studies. He enrolled at the City College of City University of New York September that year at age 17, studying Bio-Chemistry and also completing a major in Political Science. After his BSc in Bio-Chem, he pursued graduate studies in International Relations earning a MA. He went on to complete multiple post graduate degrees including doctorates in Economics, Sociology, History, Political Science and Educational Administration. Dr Bisram taught for over forty years in various subjects in the US. He also served as a newspaper reporter and columnist for over four decades and is a well-known pollster in the Caribbean region. He is a specialist on the Indian diaspora traveling extensively around the globe to research and write about Indian communities. He published countless articles on various subjects in the mass media, journals, and books. He also organized international conferences on the Indian diaspora and presented papers at many conferences. He was a guest lecturer at universities in Mauritius, India, Fiji, South Africa, Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname, USA, and other countries. He is a well regarded political analyst on American and Caribbean politics. He makes him home in Guyana, Trinidad, and America and travels frequently to India.