Labelled terror camp over misleading NIA tweet, Pune school struggles to carry on

As parents demand leaving certificates and education department considers action, school points to ‘fake’ media reports.

WrittenBy:Prateek Goyal
Date:
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Labelled as a breeding ground for “terror” and linked to the banned outfit Popular Front of India, the Blue Bells School in Pune’s Kondhwa locality is struggling to carry on with the academic calendar as usual.

Around 50 students want to leave the school, and the Maharashtra education department wants to cancel its clearance to the institute alleging that the management had forged papers to claim official approval. However, the school’s owners say that’s only because of the relentless media coverage following a tweet by the National Investigation Agency. 

On April 17, the NIA tweeted that the fourth and fifth floors “of the Blue Bell School building were used by PFI to plan and prepare for carrying out terrorist activities with the aim of endangering the unity, integrity and security of India”. The agency had attached two floors of the “Pune school building” after a search in September last year amid a nationwide crackdown on PFI. 

But the school is located only on the second and third floors of the KZ Knowledge Centre building in Ashraf Nagar locality. The fourth and fifth floors mentioned in the NIA tweet, in fact, house the locked office of an NGO named Dignity Foundation – which was searched and attached by the NIA in September last year.

Education department action, parents anxious

It was just the beginning of a nightmare for the school management as a flurry of news reports relied on the tweet to propagate various theories, including one claiming that the school gave shelter to PFI members.

Reshma Shaikh, the school’s principal, said that 50 parents have demanded school leaving certificates for their wards over the incident. “Parents got worried…they got concerned whether police will come to school or their children will be troubled. Some even say that their children will not get admission to a good school in future.”

The school, with 380 students from nursery to class 10, is run by Shaikh and her husband Fazle Kareem Shaikh – who have rented two floors of the building to run the facility since 2019. The management asserted that it was recognised by the Maharashtra State Board of Secondary and Higher Secondary Education, with a clearance from the Pune Zilla Parishad.

However, Fazle Kareem Shaikh said that the state education department is trying to shut down the school “after” the PFI tag, and that officials from the department visited the school and checked all documents days after the NIA tweet. “The next day, they sent us a notice that all our documents are bogus and they are going to shut down the school. If our documents were bogus, then why did the department give a clearance to the same papers in 2019? They are saying that we have forged signatures. They had signed the documents but because of the panic created by the fake news, they wanted to hide their role in granting us permission.”

Newslaundry reached out to Audumbur Ukirde, the Deputy Director of the state education department’s Pune division. “They have made fake documents of approval and we are planning to file an FIR against them.”

Asked how the school received approval from the education department if the documents were fake, Ukirde said, “Generally, government documents  are not checked much as it is assumed that they cannot be fake. Maybe that’s why their documents were cleared by the education officer of Pune Zilla Parishad.”

Pune Zilla Parishad education officer Sunanda Wakhre did not respond to Newslaundry’s request for comment. This report will be updated if a response is received. 

“We opened the school in 2019. Most of the children who come here belong to lower middle class families. Their parents work as auto-rickshaw drivers, labourers, vendors and porters. The monthly fee is Rs 600 and every year we waive it for at least 25 percent of the students whose families are facing financial constraints…the news spread by media channels has devastated us. It has tarnished our reputation and now the education department wants to shut down our school stating that we don’t have proper documents,” alleged Fazle Kareem Shaikh.

Principal ‘threatened’

Recalling the series of events, Reshma Shaikh said a team of officials on April 16 pasted a notice on the fourth floor which was previously occupied by Dignity Foundation. “Summer vacations are on so only the staff was at school to check papers. The next day, I started receiving calls from reporters…they were saying the NIA has released a press note.”

Shaikh said she has received several threats. “Unknown people were messaging on my number  asking why I have been training terrorists in the school. Some were threatening to attack the school, whereas some were saying that the school should be bulldozed. Everyone was terming Blue Bell as a training center for terrorists. Whether in my neighbourhood or my social circle, everyone was asking about the NIA press note and the stories published in the media. Even my children were asked by their friends about the school. Wherever I went, people shot queries at me and were suspicious about me. It was mental harassment. I was unable to decide whether I should file a case against the media or write to the NIA and PMO.”

Four days after the NIA’s tweet, the Pune Police issued a press release clarifying that the NIA has not acted against the school and that the institute is not involved in any illegal activity. However, fake news surrounding the school continues to be circulated on social media.

Aqueel Ahmad Siddique, a 49-year-old businessman who owns the building, claimed he had asked the Dignity Foundation to vacate the premises a month before the NIA raid last year as the school wanted to expand its premises. “The fake news spread by the media has tarnished the school’s image,” he said, adding that while the ground floor of the building was rented by an Urdu primary school, Blue Bells “was the only English medium school in the area which was so cheap and was helping to educate the children of the poor”.

‘Media needs to mend its ways’

When the NIA searched the Dignity Foundation’s office in September last year, the school management had faced similar concerns, but this time its reputation has been “totally ruined”.

“It was the first time I came to know about the PFI. For at least two weeks, police personnel were stationed outside the school. Parents and students were concerned, but when we informed the police about the situation, the security detail was trimmed to two constables. Police had looked into the rent agreement and did a thorough check. But what happened this time has totally ruined our reputation,” said Shaikh.

A substantial chunk of the population in Kondhwa and Ashraf Nagar is from the Muslim community, and the school is the only affordable English medium institute in the neighbourhood, with most students from lower middle class families. The area has two other private schools.

In the comments sections of news reports about the school’s “PFI link”, users called Kondhwa a “mini-Pakistan” and promoted content that depicted students with skullcaps, carrying firearms. Hindupost, a right-wing Twitter handle with more than 37,000 followers, claimed the PFI was “running training camps for targeted attacks on Hindu outfits” at the school.

Sardar Mehtab Sayyad, a 59-year-old resident of Kondhwa whose grandson studies at the school, said, “The media didn’t even verify the facts or bothered to find out whether the school was involved in such activities…they didn’t even call the school authorities and ran the entire story on the basis of NIA’s press release. They could have spoken to parents…because of the media reports, an atmosphere of uncertainty and suspicion has been created.”

Sayyad said classes continued even during the NIA search last year. “Which parents will send their seven- or eight-year-old children for terror training? The media needs to mend its ways.”

Newslaundry reached out to Pune (East) Additional Commissioner of Police Ranjan Sharma, whose office had put out the clarification about the school after the NIA tweet. This report will be updated if a response is received.

Newslaundry has also mailed a query to NIA PRO D Sudarvizhi. This report will be updated if a response is received.

School’s version missing

While most news outfits that reported on the NIA tweet attributed the claim to the agency, they did not carry a response from the school. 

Zee 24 Taas pointed to an “extremely shocking news” from Pune, where “terror training” was being carried out at a school, according to the NIA. Marathi channels Saam TV and News18 Lokmat reported on similar lines, pointing to “terror activities” at the institute while quoting the NIA statement. ABP Majha also relied on the NIA statement to report that students were allegedly trained to use “rifles”.

Similar reports, based on the tweet, were carried by India Today, Times Of India, Navbharat Times and Amar Ujala.

Local tabloid Pune Mirror, citing unnamed sources, even claimed that PFI members used to stay at the school.

While the Indian Express initially reported on the NIA statement without a response from the school management, the paper carried a detailed story the next day after talking to the school authorities.

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