A few months ago I attended an oath taking ceremony at a local government run educational institute. Around fifty well groomed, disciplined and bright girls took an oath to remain faithful to the principles and rules set for proctors by institutional think tanks. By all means it was an impressive ceremony and I have no doubt that even if not for long, the act of raising the right hand, repeating the select few words after the oath taker and cowering before the authority of God Almighty, is going to linger as a corrective stick for some time and help these girls perform their duties with honesty and commitment.

While still feeling the euphoric vibes created by the collective performance of all who attended the event, I find myself a little troubled and confused about the words and statements used in the oath itself. This confusion is further ignited by the fact that there is so much talk in the country today about religious tolerance, the rights of minorities, and provision of equal opportunities for all irrespective of religious, cultural and ethnic affiliation. To top it all the government is bent on taking special measures by sending directives to around twenty HEC recognized universities to adopt and devise activities to promote religious tolerance in the classrooms and universities in general.

The oath that I had the honour to hear consisted of two parts. The second part, a well worded declaration conveyed the essence of what is expected of a good proctor, that is, to pledge to perform truthfully and faithfully during one year tenure as a proctor. It clearly charts out the major responsibilities that the undertakers are required to fulfill during their one year stint in the verisimilitude of power. In the first section, however, lies the real problem – an oath in which the undertakers reiterate the fact that they are Muslims and they believe in the Holy Prophet (PBUH) being the Last Prophet and Messenger of Allah.  Now, the question is: are we taking an oath of allegiance from a representative group of girls or bringing the non-Muslims proctors into the folds of Islam?

The oath targets Muslims and clearly and categorically excludes non-Muslims. It implies that, first, all the oath takers were presumed to be Muslims. Second, even if they were not, they were forced to repeat an oath to which they would have no emotional or moral attachment. Third, the oath gives off a sense of bias against those who are outside the ecclesiastic boundaries of a privileged religion.

This to me is a very important and sensitive issue, that is, of forcing an oath from students who have no moral obligation to it. Imagine a Christian girl taking an oath to show allegiance to Islam and its basic tenets. She would either prefer to remain silent when the ritual is taking place or instead of repeating after the oath taker may create her own version of the oath. In the latter case she is justified since she is left with no choice than to manipulate the statement.  Although we all know how much these words affect the moral sensibilities of oath takers, did the girl/s who is/are a part of the ceremony actually take an oath then? The point leads us to another important issue – placing someone in a context that clashes with his/her moral obligations, religious principles and emotional affiliations and then expecting a certain commitment and loyalty towards a set of rules devised for all. Using Althusser’s terminology this ideological state apparatus can actually create social division and unrest and by all means misplaced in an institute of around five thousand girls which have a good number of girls from religions other than Islam, especially Christianity. Perhaps it is time to revise our notions of religious tolerance and create an equitable space with fair chances for all to preserve their identity.