Whose holiday is it, anyway?

The decision to cancel the holiday on Muharram was neither oversight nor accident

PM Modi addressing the Akhil Bhartiya Shiksha Samagam at Bharat Mandapam in New Delhi, 29 July 2023. (Photo: PIB)
PM Modi addressing the Akhil Bhartiya Shiksha Samagam at Bharat Mandapam in New Delhi, 29 July 2023. (Photo: PIB)


On the day of Muharram, students, teachers and people at large were subjected to yet another lecture from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ostensibly to commemorate the third anniversary of the proclamation of the New Education Policy.

Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh cancelled the Muharram holiday, presumably because the prime ministerial address was considered holier than marking Muharram.

Some educational institutions made it compulsory for their students and faculty to watch the live-streaming of the PM’s speech, delivered at the newly constructed convention centre at Delhi’s iconic Pragati Maidan before an audience consisting of heads of educational institutions, teachers and students.

The Union ministry of education ‘requested’ the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan (KVS) and Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti (NVS) to ask affiliated schools to remain open on 29 July, the day of Muharram, and ensure that teachers and students were present to watch.

The governments of Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat independently issued directives to schools to remain open so that students and teachers could tune into the PM’s sermon. To ensure compliance, these institutions were also asked to submit to the ministry proof that teachers and students had indeed attended the event as mandated.

Not so long ago the University of Delhi did something very similar. The PM was to visit the university to deliver his lecture to mark the conclusion of the university’s centenary celebrations. It was happening a day after Eid-ul-Zuha.

The university felt that a day before the ceremony all members of the university community needed to be on campus. So, it declared Eid a working day. It did make a concession for those who wanted to celebrate Eid, and those people were allowed to take leave. The order was criticised widely but it didn’t move the university administration.

The BJP government, after 2014, has similarly tried to usurp Christmas by declaring that the day be marked as ‘Good Governance Day’; 25 December also happens to be the birth anniversary of late BJP leader and former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

It was sheer pettiness, and was called out as such, but the BJP government has persisted with the practice regardless.


It is impossible, however, to imagine that a Hindu festival will ever be hijacked in this fashion. Would the government issue a similar directive if Holi or Deepavali coincided with a certain key anniversary? Why, then, do BJP governments think they are entitled to deprive Muslims or Christians of their sacred occasions?

This is surely a way of marginalising Muslims and Christians, projecting their religious or sacred occasions as ‘disposable’ and, by extension, these communities as ‘second-class citizens’. This, then, is how they are to be ‘secularised’ or ‘nationalised’.

Such directives were unheard of in pre-2014 India. Central or state, governments never made participation in a ‘national occasion’ compulsory for any section of society. Yet, since 2014, we have seen the Union government forcing its institutions to ask affiliate bodies to work on holidays and Sundays just to satiate the ego of the prime minister.

The prime minister, of course, wants each and every word from his mouth to be delivered to all households and poured into every ear across India. He is not satisfied with his monthly broadcast.

So, from time to time, he delivers additional sermons and force-feeds his subjects the nectar of his wisdom. It has thus become the habit of this government to cancel holidays and conscript citizens—especially school students and teachers (because they are more easily available and can be mobilised at short notice)—to attend his long-distance sermons.

Never before has any prime minister of independent India tried to do this—to insist their people set aside everything to listen to them. None, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Manmohan Singh.

Not even Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was mythicised as a master orator. No mature nation does it. No country that calls itself a democracy forces its leaders on its people.

Sure it has happened before Modi, in other countries—leaders like Stalin and Hitler come readily to mind. They made sure their word reached all homes, every street through the radio and loudspeakers. People knew that not paying attention to the great leader was not an option.

In India, we thought people were sovereign. Now it seems we have another sovereign. What progress this great country has made! If this isn’t ‘development’…

(Apoorvanand is a teacher and political and cultural commentator)

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