In these communally sensitive times, a government official naming the religion of a person even without a negative connotation can jeopardise her career, as is being observed in West Bengal where political and religious organisations alike have called for the removal of the state’s Council of Higher Secondary Education (WBCHSE) head Mahua Das for mentioning the faith and not the name of the Class 12 state board exam topper.
“The highest marks obtained this year is 499. A Muslim girl secured the marks. She is a Muslim lady from Murshidabad,” said Das the day before yesterday.
“I do not want to be known by my religion, I want to be known for my merit,” Higher Secondary topper Rumana Sultana said on 23 July after a controversy broke out due to the WBCHSE chairperson’s choice of words.
The Kanyashree recipient was felicitated by the Murshidabad district administration and police. “I want to study medicine. Doctors inspire me,” Rumana said.
Das’s comment led to protesters gathering at the council’s Salt Lake office, demanding her resignation. They clashed with police and some were detained. But urging everyone not to read anything more into what she had said, Das pointed out, “I got emotional. It is not often that a girl battles to the top. When asked about the topper, my mind had gone back to Begum Rokeya. It is perhaps the best result in the council’s history. She is a jewel. Memories flooded and I said that in an emotional moment.” State education minister Bratya Basu said, “It is true merit matters, nothing else. But perhaps she (Das) was emotional. For the past decade, this government, led by Mamata Banerjee, has been striving to bring girl students to the fore. These are leading to these results.”
Yesterday, the West Bengal State Trinamool Chhatra Parishad of the ruling party staged a protest against Das. A scuffle broke out between the police and another set of protesters outside Das’s office.
In a statement, the Bengal Imams Association said: “It is very shameful and unfortunate. We condemn this. Instead of naming the student, she chose to highlight her religion.” The association has urged chief minister Mamata Banerjee to remove Das.
Tapas Roy, a ruling Trinamool Congress spokesperson, said this could have been avoided. “She could have referred to the girl as a candidate or a student.”
The student wing of the INC has demanded an apology from — or transfer of — the official.
BJP sees Bengal official’s comments from a different angle
BJP’s state spokesperson Shamik Bhattacharya questioned whether the reference to religion and not merit was a subtle attempt at appeasing a community. BJP IT cell chief Amit Malviya tweeted, “In Mamata Banerjee’s Bengal, appeasement politics has hit a new low when a board official reduced academic achievement of a Class 12 girl student to her religious identity…”
Rumana’s father Rabiul Islam, a headteacher, said, “It would have been better if such things were avoided. We have taught them to be good human beings first. Rumana follows in the footsteps of her grandfather who topped philosophy UG exams in 1962. She worked hard to achieve what she did.” State minister Firhad Hakim said introducing Rumana by her religion could have been avoided.