The Mamata Banerjee government was on Friday at the centre of a huge political firestorm over a directive to build dining halls in state-run schools with more than 70 per cent minority students, drawing accusations of 'religious discrimination' from the Bharatiya Janata Party and other opposition parties.
The chief minister, however, insisted it was an old circular that was long withdrawn but was 'dredged up' by an 'errant officer'.
The matter was brought into public domain by the BJP's West Bengal unit president Dilip Ghosh who took to Twitter to slam the government for its directive, calling it a move driven by 'mala fide motive'.
He uploaded a copy of an order issued by the District Officer of Minority Affairs of Cooch Behar dated June 25 to the district inspector of schools seeking details of facilities with more than 70 per cent minority students.
'In reference to the no:1173-MD/15011/10/2017: dt:14/06/19 received from the Special Secretary, MA and ME Department, Government of West Bengal. You are requested to send the names of the government / government-aided schools having minority students more than 70 per cent as per format given below within June 28 positively.
'This is for sending a proposal to the aforesaid department for construction of dining hall for mid-day meal in schools,' the officer wrote.
The BJP, which has been persistently attacking the Trinamool Congress government for alleged appeasement of Muslims, panned the government over the move, which, it claimed, was aimed at securing the ruling party's vote bank.
'Why this discrimination between the students on the basis of religion? Is there some other mala fide motive behind this segregation? Another conspiracy?' Ghosh tweeted.
Later, talking to reporters, Ghosh alleged the TMC government was only interested in working for the development of the minorities in order to secure its vote bank.
"What wrong have Hindu students done that they can't avail of the facility of dining halls?" he asked.
Pushed on the defensive, Banerjee claimed it was an old circular that had already been withdrawn.
"This is an old circular which has already been withdrawn. I think some errant officer dredged out an old circular and issued it without the government's knowledge," Banerjee told journalists in her chamber in the state assembly, which is in session.
Though she said she had no recollection of exactly when the circular issued by the Minority Affairs and Madrasa Education Department was issued and withdrawn, Banerjee insisted it was non-discriminatory.
She said it was aimed at figuring out where the minority students were in large numbers so development funds could be canalised there.
"That's the government of India guideline. We are following that. It's a technical matter, nothing more," she said.
"It was not supposed to divide students in any way. This was supposed to be for schools which don't have dining halls, for schools where students have to eat in the open. It was meant for all," she insisted.
The government later issued a statement dubbing as 'distorted and wholly untrue' the purported directive by Cooch Behar Minority Affairs department.
"This is in reference to some distorted and wholly untrue stories on social media on the alleged instruction of state government to provide mid-day meal dining halls for only those schools having 70 per cent or more minority students," the statement by the West Bengal department of Minority Affairs and Madrasah Education, said.
It said, in order to implement the mid-day meal scheme successfully, and to create the related infrastructure such as hygienic cooking shed and dining hall in state-run schools, the state government pools funds from the budgets of various education-related departments.
This year, the state's school education department has allocated approximately Rs 200 crore for construction of dining halls under the mid-day meal scheme to cover 4,647 primary, and 1,524 upper primary schools, it added.
"However, there is still a huge demand for dining halls under mid-day meal in schools and this is why the minority affairs and madrasah education department sanctions funds to eligible state-run schools for construction of cooking shed and dining halls," it said.
Similarly, for schools with substantial number of scheduled caste and scheduled tribe students, the critical gap funding is provided for by the backward classes welfare department.
However, the assets and facilities so created are open to all, irrespective of which community they belong to.
"...similar critical gap funding for, inter alia, infrastructure development of schools in areas with more that 25 per cent minority population is also provided by the GOI's Ministry of Minority Affairs," the statement said, adding the issue of such dovetailing of funds needs to be seen in the 'right context'.
Giasuddin Mollah, Minister of State for Minority Affairs, however, did not say that the circular was withdrawn, but claimed the government's move did not discriminate between students on ground of religion.
Mollah said his department was upgrading infrastructure of minority-dominated institutions 'for overall development of all students'.
"The dining halls for mid-day meals will benefit all students, and not just Muslims. Funds have been sanctioned. So we sought to have a list of such schools," he said.
Union minister Giriraj Singh latched on to the raging row, calling the West Bengal government's action 'extreme appeasement' (tushtikaran ki parakashtha) of the minority community.
"What Mamata Banerjee is doing is extreme appeasement of the minority community. She cannot tolerate those who chant 'Jai Shri Ram' but Rohingya infiltrators are acceptable to her," he told a TV channel.
Leader of the Opposition in the West Bengal Assembly Abdul Mannan of the Congress also criticised the government, saying it cannot segregate students on the basis of religion.
Communist Party of India-Marxist's Sujan Chakraborty said, "Students cannot be discriminated on the basis of religion. If a dining hall is being constructed, it should be for all. We condemn this move."