India's education ministry has issued a lengthy clarification after widespread outrage erupted on social media protesting its reported decision to celebrate Christmas Day as good governance day to commemorate the birthdays of former Prime Minister and BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Hindu Mahasabha founder Madan Mohan Malviya.
On its front page on Monday, The Times of Indiareported that the government wants the Central Board of Secondary Education to ask all the schools under it to celebrate 25 December as good governance day through a number of activities, including an essay competition.
The report said that already a circular had gone out to the government-run Navodaya Schools about an essay competition to be held on December 24 and 25.
The circular, dated December 10, has also asked for a "consolidated report" from all these schools detailing the specific activities that have been carried out in each school. Details of these activities have to be submitted to Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti (NVS) office, "along with photographs/video recordings," says the circular signed by the NVS commissioner G.S. Bothyal.
As the decision came in for widespread criticism, the minister took to Twitter to counter the TOI report saying there was never any intention to keep the schools open on Christmas, and that the essay writing competition was meant to be online and voluntary.
Later in the day, the education ministry issued a press statement saying the TOI report has given a "distorted impression" that schools will be open on Christmas Day.
The press statement says the CBSE has not asked schools to be open on Christmas and the CBSE office too will be closed on December 25. The ministry has explained the Navodaya circular saying the celebrations will take place only in those schools where there is no winter break. Even in such schools, participation in the celebrations will be voluntary, the ministry said. "No child or student will be deprived of celebrating the holiday or vacations or participating in their own festivals and religious festivals whole-heartedly," DKD Rao, Deputy Secretary at MHRD, says in the press statement.
Ministry's clarification stands at odds with the Navodaya circular, issued on 10 December without any such caveats. There is no mention of winter breaks or voluntary participation.
The circular, which was sent to all Navodaya school principals, say that there has been a decision to celebrate the birthdays of Vajpayee and Malviya on 25 December. The circular lists a number of activities apart from the essay writing competition, which were clearly not meant as online activities.
"In order to mark this occasion in its true spirit, it is decided to have the following activities in JNVs:
1. Declamation competition on topics related to Good Governance.
2. Quiz competitions.
3. Screening of documentaries and films on best practices in Good Governance—organisation of various activities through Child Cabinets in the schools.
4. Innovative programmes pertaining to problem solving relating to day to day functioning of the school." (sic)
Irani on Monday morning sent out a series of angry tweets, claiming that the essay competition was completely voluntary, and schools will not be open on Christmas Day.
Dear @timesofindia deliberate mischief by ur reporter on the front page today. All schools closed for XMas, essay competition only online.— Smriti Z Irani (@smritiirani) December 15, 2014
The author of the TOI story responded on Twitter:
This isn't the first time that BJP has courted controversy on education. Earlier in September this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had given a speech for several hours on Teachers Day after school-hours which was mandatory for all students. However Irani at that time had clarified that it was voluntary as well. In November, a controversy broke out over the third language options in Kendriya Vidyalayas.