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'Harassed Because of My Caste,' Says Dalit Govt Teacher Suspended Over 'Saraswati Worship' Row

The suspension of Hemlata Bairwa has led to state-wide protests by Dalit groups, who are demanding its revocation and the resignation of the state education minister.
Hemlata Bairwa. Photo: X/@jitu_rajoriya.

Jaipur: Last month, a video of the Republic Day celebrations at a government upper primary school in Rajasthan’s Baran district went viral on social media, where a group of men could be seen arguing with Hemlata Bairwa, a 40-year-old teacher of the school.

Bairwa belongs to a Dalit community.

A month later, Bairwa has been suspended by the state education department on the instructions of minister Madan Dilawar, and asked to report to duty in Bikaner, more than 600 kms from her home. The suspension of Bairwa has led to state-wide protests by Dalit groups, who are demanding the revocation of Bairwa’s suspension and resignation of the minister.

In the video from January 26 this year, Bairwa can be seen standing in front of garlanded photos of Mahatma Gandhi, Savitribai Phule and B.R. Ambedkar while a group of men are confronting her.

Bacchon ki devi to Saraswati hai (the goddess of children is Saraswati),” the men are heard saying, to which Bairwa replies, “Bacchon ki devi toh Savitribai Phule hai (the goddess of children is Savitribai Phule).”

When the men insist that Bairwa do a puja of the Hindu deity Saraswati, she is seen refusing. Thereafter, the men assembled in front of the school are seen challenging her to go ahead with the programme. One of the men asks why there was no lamp and whether Bairwa is ignorant of Hindu traditions.

“What is the meaning of Hindu? Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isai sab barabar hai (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian are all equal),” Bairwa is heard saying in the video.

Also read: Kota: Three Muslim Govt School Teachers Suspended Over ‘Forced Religious Conversion’ of Students

Two FIRs lodged

Following the incident, two FIRs – one by Bairwa against the men who had confronted her and the other against her for hurting religious sentiments – were registered.

“On Republic Day, 26 January 2024, while discharging my duties as a government servant, I was working in the school to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the implementation of the sacred Constitution of India. Hansraj Nagar, Radheshyam Nagar, Bharat Nagar, Kishan Nagar and other members of a same family of the village and teachers Hansraj Sain and Bhupendra Sain of the school staff started harassing me for Saraswati Puja in a public place,” says the FIR registered on the basis of Bairwa’s complaint at the Nahargarh police station in Baran.

“I am a female public servant from the Scheduled Caste (SC) category. Hansraj Nagar, Bharat Nagar, Radheshyam Nagar used casteist slurs and said that we will see you outside…I have been feeling mentally scared since this incident disrupted the celebration of the national festival Republic Day,” says the FIR.”

The FIR lodged by Bairwa adds that there is no mention of Saraswati Puja in Article 28 of the Constitution of India.

“According to the Indian Constitution. 51(a) Imaginary things are prohibited from the scientific point of view….my fundamental right to freedom of expression has been publicly violated…The dignity of women has been violated. I demand strict action against anti-social elements, unconstitutional elements, anti-constitutional elements, elements against the father of the Constitution of India, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar. The applicants are feeling unsafe after this incident,” reads the FIR lodged by Bairwa.

Those named in the FIR registered by Bairwa belong to various OBC caste groups.

The FIR lodged by Bairwa has been registered under sections 506 (punishment for criminal intimidation) and 504 (Intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace) of the IPC along with relevant provisions of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

Deputy Superintendent of Police and Circle Officer (CO), Shahbad, Baran, Hemant Gautam told The Wire that an FIR was also registered against Bairwa by locals in which she has been accused of hurting religious sentiments by her opinion on goddess Saraswati.

“The FIR against government teacher Hemlata Bairwa has been lodged by locals under sections including sections 153A (Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence) and 295A (Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs) of the IPC. They have accused her of hurting religious sentiments. Investigation is being conducted for the FIR registered by Bairwa and also the one registered against her. No arrests have been made so far in either of the FIRs,” said CO Gautam.

Suspension after education minister’s public declaration

After the January 26 incident, senior BJP MLA and Rajasthan Education Minister Madan Dilawarhad had said that an inquiry will be conducted into the incident. Bairwa was suspended last week.

“People have got so pricey that even now they have not changed their ways, they say what role does Saraswati ma have in school. The person who has said this in this region, I suspend that person and make Bikaner that person’s office. I have given instructions to officials one hour back to suspend that person and make Bikaner the headquarters,” Dilawar had said in a public meeting in Baran last week as the people assembled at the event hailed the decision with chants of Bharat Mata ki Jai.

Sixty-four-year-old Dilawar, who has been given the important portfolio of school education in the Bhajan Lal Sharma-led BJP government in Rajasthan, himself belongs to the Dalit community and is one of the most firebrand Hindutva faces of the saffron party in the state. He is often in the news for his statements. Ever since he has taken charge as education minister, he has been grabbing headlines for reasons such as his insistence on Surya Namaskar during morning assembly, calling Mughal emperor Akbar a ‘rapist’ and with his statements against wearing Hijab in schools.

On February 23, the office of the District Education Officer (headquarters), Elementary, Baran issued an order, which said that it has been decided to initiate disciplinary action against Bairwa and she is being suspended with immediate effect, with her headquarters being changed to Bikaner.

‘I am being targeted because of my caste’

Speaking to The Wire, Bairwa said that she is being harassed only because of her caste and that she will not be going to Bikaner.

“It was Republic Day and I was doing my duty as per the constitution. At first two teachers of the school, Hansraj Sain and Bhupendra Sain pressurised me to worship Saraswati. Then they left and returned later with more villagers who started harassing me. They abused me with casteist slurs. Now, I have been suspended and have been asked to report at Bikaner, which is 600 kms away from my home. I have decided not to go there as I cannot accept this injustice. I am being harassed only because of a casteist mindset as I am from the scheduled caste,” Bairwa told The Wire.

Bairwa also slammed minister Dilawar for announcing her suspension at the public meeting.

“How is it fine to threaten me on a public stage? I filed an FIR and yet, no arrests have been made till now. Instead, I have been suspended. Some of the accused regularly display casteism at the school where Dalit children face harassment,” alleged Bairwa.

“Savitribhai Phule opened schools for women. How many women were literate before her?” she added.

Bairwa stood by her actions, and said that religious beliefs are personal and she only followed the Constitution.

“Religious beliefs are personal. Be it the Constitution or a place such as schools, religious beliefs have nothing to do here. How can the minister deliver a speech from a public stage saying that he is suspending me? This is a matter of a woman’s respect. Are we his servants that he can announce our suspension from any place? I have done my work within the ambit of the Constitution. I want justice and action against the accused.

Dalit groups protest, lock school, allege police action

Ever since Bairwa’s suspension, Dalit groups across the state have been agitating, demanding that the decision be revoked. Members of Dalit outfits also held a dharna in front of the government upper primary school, Lakdai in Baran district, where Bairwa was posted.

Dalit groups alleged that on Tuesday, February 27, that some protesters were injured after police allegedly used force on agitators sitting on dharna in front of the school. The Baran police denied the allegations.

“Schoolchildren and Bhim Army members had locked the school gates and sat on dharna. Police beat the protesters with lathis which resulted in injuries to some of the agitators. We stand with Hemlata ji. Till the time her suspension is not revoked, we will hold more protests. Ever since the BJP government has come to power, officials from the SC and minority communities are being targeted. Education minister Madan Dilawar, who himself belongs to a Dalit community, has been given the ministerial post to target his own people…We demand that Dilawar be removed from his ministerial post,” said Anil Dhenwal, Rajasthan in-charge of the Bhim Army.

The Baran police denied the allegations of lathi charge and said that the protesters were dispersed from the dharna site on Tuesday to avoid a law and order situation and the school was reopened.

“It’s not exactly lathi charge that has taken place. Certain people had locked the door of the school and they were agitating over why the teacher Hemlata Bairwa was suspended and her headquarter changed to Bikaner. But their procedure of protesting was against law. They also misguided some students who said that the school should not be opened. Later, another group, who were in favour of opening the school also reached the site. They said either police should open the school or they themselves would. It resulted in a tussle between the two groups and a law and order situation was about to arise as the two groups were about to fight,” Baran SP Raj Kumar Chaudhary told The Wire on Tuesday.

Chaudhary added that after trying to convince the two groups, the police had to intervene.

Dalit rights activists say that the suspension of Bairwa has been done with malice.

“The government’s decision to suspend Hemlata Bairwa and to change her headquarters to Bikaner is unjust. The education minister, instead of answering her question about what contribution Saraswati had in education, took this action. If they felt bad, or took it as a challenge, they should have countered it by answering and not by taking action. Hemlata didn’t say anything wrong as even the Prime Minister, who belongs to the same party as the education minister, too pays his tribute to Savitribai Phule,” said Bhanwar Meghwanshi, Rajasthan president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).

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