India's constitutional twist as panel backs school yoga

Delhi, India - DE RIGUEUR among celebrities and the fashionably rich from Hollywood to Hong Kong, yoga now looks set to become compulsory in Indian schools despite objections from Muslim and Christian groups that say it is a Hindu practice.

A powerful parliamentary committee, including the son of Sonia Gandhi, leader of the ruling Congress party, has recommended that all schoolchildren aged six to 18 should attend obligatory yoga classes.

"Yoga helps one to achieve all-round development. Considering the immense potential of this ancient knowledge of India, the committee recommends that yoga be made compulsory for all schoolgoing children in the country," the 32-member panel said.

The recommendation carries considerable weight because the committee is chaired by a senior Congress leader and includes Rahul Gandhi, who is being groomed as a future prime minister.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development, which oversees Indian schools, made physical education compulsory in 2005 but did not specify what sort of exercise should be done.

A spokesman told London's The Times newspaper that the committee's recommendation would most likely be adopted.

Muslim and Christian groups vowed to fight the proposal through the courts, arguing that it contravened India's secular constitution.

"Making yoga compulsory is a step in the wrong direction," said Abdul Rahim Qureishi, of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board.

"Yoga is directly connected to the Hindu religion and, in many exercises, scriptures have to be recited.

"If you want school children to be physically fit, you can make them take any form of exercise - but not yoga."

The controversy highlights the often-fuzzy interpretation of secularism in India.

The constitution says the Government must not favour or discriminate against any religion and that no religious instruction can be given in state schools.

Yoga falls into an ambiguous bracket because it is based on Hindu philosophy but is practised by many non-Hindus and does not necessarily incorporate Hindu chants.

Some critics accuse politicians of using the issue to garner Hindu nationalist votes in elections next month in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous and politically important state.

Mr Gandhi, whose constituency is in the state, is overseeing the Congress campaign for the poll, which is seen as a bellwether for national elections in 2009.