Mumbai: The Bombay High Court has held that a teacher cannot be forced to fold his hands while standing in the school prayers or hold his hand in the front while taking oath of the preamble of the Constitution.
"Forcing a teacher to do so will be a violation of the fundamental rights conferred on him under the Constitution," observed a bench of Justice Abhay Oka and Revethi Mohiti-Dhere on October 29 while hearing a petition filed by a teacher professing Buddhist faith.
Though the petitioner is bound by the discipline of the school, during the prayers sung at the beginning of the day of the school, he cannot be forced to fold his hands, the judges said.
Sanjay Salve worked as a teacher in Matoshri Savitribai Phule Madhyamik Vidyalaya in Nashik town of Western Maharashtra. The school authorities did not give him higher pay-scale after observing that he had indulged in "indiscipline" by not folding hands while standing for school prayers and holding out his hand at the time of taking oath.
However, the teacher took the stand that he did not show any disrespect to the prayers as he stood along with others. He felt that the prayers were religious and hence did not fold his hands. Also, at the time of taking oath of the preamble of the Constitution, he stood with other teachers and took part in the exercise, but did not hold out his hand.
"We have perused the confidential reports of the petitioner (teacher) for the relevant year. His Reports show that his performance as a teacher is excellent. However, the authorities have found fault with him for not maintaining the discipline when the prayers are being sung," the judges said.
"We concur with the findings recorded by Education Officer that the petitioner fulfils the criteria for granting higher pay-scale. In the confidential reports, it is noted that as the petitioner was not folding his hands when the prayers are being sung, his behaviour is not proper," the bench noted.
The education officer is right in holding that the petitioner cannot be forced to sing the prayers and fold his hands. At the same time, the latter will have to ensure that the school discipline is maintained, the judges said.
The court ordered the school and the head master to implement the education officer`s order of October 16, 2010, granting higher pay-scale to the teacher within two months.
The court said the teacher had completed 12 years of service in June 2008 and he should therefore get higher pay-scale since then. The judges ordered the school to fix the revised pay of the petitioner and pay arrears up to November 30, 2013. This should be paid on or before January 31, 2014.
The court warned that if the school authorities failed to comply with this directive then the Deputy Director of Education in Nashik would be asked to take action against the school management.
The teacher, working in the school since 1996, had argued that he has freedom of expression as per the Article 19 of the Constitution and, therefore, he cannot be forced to stand with folded hands at the time when the prayers are sung.
He alleged that singing of prayers amounts to imparting religious education which is not permissible under Article 28(1) of the Constitution.
On December 12, 2007, the head master issued a letter to the teacher saying that he was indulging in indiscipline by not folding hands at the time of prayers and holding out his hand while taking oath.
In another letter dated February 11, 2008, the head master informed the petitioner that after having accepted a job of an Assistant Teacher, he was bound by the conditions of the service and those are nothing but reasonable restrictions on his fundamental rights.
The petitioner replied that the prayers were religious in nature and he did not want to impose his opinion on other teachers, but he should not be asked to stand with folded hands. He said the school was being run in the name of a great personality like Savitribai Phule, for whom he had the highest respect and he had no grievance against the school.
The aggrieved teacher filed a complaint in August 2009 before the education officer who passed an order on October 16, 2010 asking the school to grant a higher pay-scale to him.
However, the school did not follow the order and the teacher filed a petition in the High Court. The school also filed a petition challenging the education officer`s order.