India's Christian schools face a tough dilemma
Elite colleges must acknowledge their social responsibility
India’s religious minorities have been locked in legal combat to safeguard their statutory right to run educational institutions to preserve and nurture their culture.
In two judgments early this month, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court upheld these rights as inviolable. This comes as a huge relief to the religious groups, especially the Christian community which runs thousands of schools and colleges in India.
These include some of the oldest and prestigious institutions patronized by the social elite in big cities, to tiny schools and hostels in remote forest villages for the indigenous and “untouchable” tribals and Dalits.
But even as they rejoice, the Christian population -- and the Catholic religious leadership in particular -- finds itself under considerable moral and social pressure.
It will 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 a highly competitive aspirational milieu in 21st century India.
The Right to Education Act, 2009, stipulates that free and compulsory education for all children aged six to 14 is a fundamental right.
To do this, the government decided that every school would have to reserve 25 percent of its places for poor children, and not charge them fees.
Although its medical and engineering graduates are now visible in Europe and especially the United States, India does not have a comprehensive education system despite massive investment in the public education sector over the last 60 years.
At one level are government schools, run by federal or provincial administrations, which lack basic infrastructure, and, for the most part, adequately trained teachers.
Many schools have no blackboards or seating arrangements, and almost all face a textbook shortage.
An indicator of the abysmal standards is the absence in many schools of toilet facilities. No wonder tens of millions drop out of school.
The other extreme are schools run by the corporate sector, by big businesses and professional groups that have school chains or franchises.
The current craze is to set up “global schools”, or “international academies”. They are well beyond the reach of the poor and also many from the lower middle class.
These schools are air-conditioned, have information technology compliant classrooms and can provide swimming lessons in Olympic-sized pools, horse riding and sometimes even golf on their own putting greens. Fees can be up to 1 million rupees (US$16,600) a year.
Most Christian schools do not have golf courses or horse stables and are not air-conditioned, but still form part of the inner circle as they cater to sections of the power elite.
It is little wonder that these schools run by commercial interests and the Church resent interference by 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 governments on the Right to Education Act provision for free education. The Church has joined the corporate sector in this challenge.
The Church has another grudge. It has accused governments at state and national levels of trying 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, Church antagonism towards the Marxists is based not on any ideological principle but because the first elected communist government in the state wanted to manage Church schools.
Other governments, including that in the New Delhi National Capital Territory, have wanted to appoint managers or force schools to seek their permission before recruiting teachers.
Church schools have had to go to court several times to keep governments off their collective backs.
The Right to Education Act was therefore a red rag to school administrators. And they fought it till victory was achieved this month in the Supreme Court.
Victory, of course, was only for the parochial schools, not for the corporate sector which will still have to find places for the poor.
This is where a moral dilemma confronts the Church. Will it celebrate the Supreme Court ruling, or see it as an invitation to help the poor but without the coercion of the state?
Church schools face many accusations. Many Catholic parents in almost all India’s 170 dioceses say their children have been denied admission in these schools while wards of the rich have been enrolled.
Dalit leader Udit Raj, before he joined the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, articulated Dalit anger at 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 Church schools are indeed for the poor, the tribals and the Dalits. But attention is on the elite 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 needs to examine its conscience and reach out and embrace these children in these schools too, while retaining its right to manage these institutions.
John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council.
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