Christian schools – the dilemma between rights and responsibilities
About a couple of decades ago, a judge of the Supreme Court of India in the course of a ruling on a case before him described schools run by minority religious groups, specially the Christian Church, as “crucibles of nation-building”. The word were little salve to the India’s then five religious minorities – the Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Zoroastrians – who have been locked in legal combat with the courts and the federal and provincial governments to safeguard the statutory rights the Indian Constitution gave them in 1950 to run educational institutions to preserve and nurture their culture.
In two judgements early this month [May 2014], a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court upheld these rights as inviolable which even the revolutionary Right to Education Act enacted by Parliament cannot encroach upon. This comes as a huge relief to the religious groups, and specially to the Christian community which runs thousands of schools and colleges in India, from some of the oldest and prestigious institutions patronized by the social elite in metropolises to tiny schools and hostels in remote forest villages for the young of the indigenous Tribals and Dalits, the people of the once untouchable castes.
But even as they revel in these reaffirmed safeguards of their statutory rights, the Christian Church, and the Catholic religious leadership in particular, finds itself under considerable moral and social pressure. It would have to see how it fulfills its responsibility to the country’s poor whose children are yearning for quality education to meet the challenges of the highly competitive aspirational milieu in an India of the twenty-first century.
The Right to Education Act, 2009, which became operative on 1 April 2010, provides for free and compulsory education of all children in the age group of six to fourteen years as a Fundamental Right. This brings to fruition the hopes of the founding fathers of the free Indian nation that every child has a right to full time elementary education of satisfactory and equitable quality in a formal school that satisfies certain essential norms and standards. To make it operational, the government decided that every school would have to reserve 25 per cent seats for the children of economically weaker section, and not charge them fees.
Although its medical and engineering graduates are now so visible in the United Kingdom, Europe and especially in the United States of America, India does not have a wholesome education system despite massive investments in the public educational sector over the last sixty years.
At one level are government schools, run both by the federal and the provincial administrations, which lack basic infrastructure, and, for the most, do not have even adequately trained teachers. Many schools have no blackboards and seating arrangements, almost all face a shortage of textual material. An index of the abysmal standards is the absence in many of them of toilet facilities for the children, specially their students. No wonder dropouts from school number in the tens of millions.
At the other extreme are schools run by the corporate sector, by big businessmen and professional groups that have chains or franchises of their high profile schools. The current craze is to set up “global schools”, or “international academies.” They are well beyond the reach of the poor, of course, but also of many in the lower echelons of the middle class. These schools have centrally air conditioned buildings, informational technology compliant class rooms and provisions to teach swimming in Olympic sized pools, horse riding, and sometimes, golf in their own hitting and putting greens. The fees can run up to a million rupees a year.
Most Christian, and specially Catholic, schools do not have campus golf courses or horse stables, and they are not air conditioned, but still they firmly form part of the elite circle. They cater to sections of the social and political group –the power elite, so to say.
It is no wonder that the management of these schools run by commercial interests and the church, resent any interference by the government into their affairs, especially on such a critical issue as giving up a quarter of their revenue earning assets to the have-nots. They have therefore vigorously and some would say viciously, challenged the government on the Right to Education Act provisions for free education. The Church has joined the corporate sector in this challenge.
The church has another grudge with the government. It has accused the government of a sustained effort to erode its statutory right to administer its institutions. There is much truth in this allegation. Governments cutting across ideologies and political hues have sought to interfere in the management of minority-run, especially Christian, educational institutions. In Kerala, the Church antagonism towards the Marxists is based not on any ideological principle but because the first elected communist government in the state wanted to run the church school managements. Other governments, including those of the New Delhi National Capital Territory, have wanted to appoint managers, or force the schools to take government permission before recruiting teachers. Church schools have had to go to the courts several times to keep governments off their collective backs.
The Right to Education Act was therefore a special red rag to school managements. And they fought it through till victory was achieved this month in the Supreme Court for them. The victory, of course was only for the parochial schools. But not for the corporate sector which will have to find the heart, and the seats, for the poor.
This is where the moral dilemma comes for the Church. Will it celebrate the Supreme Court verdict, or see it as an invitation to help the poor but without the coercion of the state. Church schools face many charges. Catholic parents in just about every one of the 170 dioceses charge that their children have been denied admission in these schools while wards of the rich have been enrolled. The Dalit leader Udit Raj, before he joined the right wing Hindu nationalist political group, the Bharatiya Janata party, articulated the anger of the Dalits against church-run schools. On more than one occasion he told the church hierarchy “You have taught the children of the rich and the upper castes, and they have watched in silence as your community was attacked, your nuns raped, your churches burnt. If you had educated the children of the Dalits, they would have run to your rescue.”
Udit Raj exaggerates. Many of the church schools are indeed for the poor, the Tribals and the Dalits. But the visibility is of the elite and the Ivy league schools and colleges that the Church runs in New Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore, which are out of reach for the common people.
The church would have to find in its conscience measures to reach out to embrace these children in these schools too. It retains its right to manage them as it will. But this is its moral mandate in the preferential option for the poor it proclaims.