Kolkata, Jun 28 : The Mamata Banerjee government was 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 BJP 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The chief minister, however, insisted it was an old circular that was long withdrawn but was "dredged up" by an "errant officer".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 "malafide 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 malafide 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Pushed on the defensive, Banerjee claimed it was an old circular that had already been withdrawn.
"This is an old circular which has already been withdrawn.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of exactly when the circular issued by the Minority Affairs and Madrasa Education Department was issued and withdrawn, Banerjee insisted it was non-discriminatory.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.
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.
CPI-M'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."