Under Attack from Hindutva Forces, 'Convent' Schools Fight for Survival

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Under Attack from Hindutva Forces, ‘Convent’ Schools Fight for Survival

| Updated: April 8, 2024 13:36

Under the cumulative strain of last 10 years of the BJP rule, Catholic Bishops Conference of India recently issued guidelines to church-run schools that could well change the nature of their operations, and could affect their standing.

Well into the liberalised economic order, matrimonial advertisements in north Indian newspapers had parents of eligible men seeking brides who were fair, accomplished, homely and ‘convent educated’.

The last qualification was an omnibus one, ensuring that the young woman was not only presentable and spoke English as it ought to be spoken with a neutral All India Radio accent, but would be rooted in values.

The unspoken guarantee was that she would be ‘chaste’. Not like those who went to “international” schools. And if boys, they would possibly turn out as good as Shah Rukh Khan or the late Arun Jaitley.

Till the turn of the century, this ensured that even super-rich parents, who could afford to buy a seat in an American college, preferred Catholic convents in their city.

Politicians, IAS officers, businessmen, professionals, and even academics queued up at Loreto Convent, St Columba, Xavier’s, Jesus and Mary, and La Martiniere. Every self-respecting town had a convent. Some of these were even run by Hindus, for such was the USP of the word.

This could well change, many fear, with indications that the church in India was succumbing to the cumulative strain of the last ten years – its personnel victims of violence by political cadres, and its social action throttled and starved of money from international religious donors by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.

A saddening indication of this is reflected in a set of comprehensive guidelines issued by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) in the backdrop of “emerging challenges due to the current socio-cultural, religious, and political situation” in the country.

At the core of the guidelines, which run into 13 pages and 3,591 words, are directions such as “don’t force Christian traditions on students of other religions”.

This is when, for over 150 years, church-run institutions have maintained that they do not force Christianity on students, do not convert anyone and have been alive to the nation’s political sovereignty and cultural diversity. Several colleges in Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Madurai and Mumbai have nurtured freedom fighters and pioneers in the sciences, arts, bureaucracy, judiciary and the military.

The Catholic church runs 14,000 schools, 650 colleges, seven universities, five medical colleges and 450 technical and vocational institutions. The protestant churches and Christian individual groups perhaps another 30,000, making a total close to 50,000.

How morning assemblies will change in these schools and colleges after guidelines remains to be seen, but an important part will be a collective reading of the Preamble to the Constitution of India.

The irony is not lost. Freedom of faith figures in the Preamble and the constitution’s list of articles spell out this freedom in detail. Article 30 allows all religious and linguistic minorities to run educational institutions to nurture their core values, including faith, for future generations.

The church has since independence spent a vast fortune on lawyers to defend this right all the way up to the Supreme Court, and almost every year, as governments seek to erode constitutional guarantees, one rule at a time.

Representative image of a Christian cross. Photo: M./Unsplash.

The guidelines otherwise seem harmless, even very pragmatic, and which every school in the country, especially those run by the Union and state governments, should follow. Who can cavil at words such as ‘respect all faiths and traditions’, ‘don’t force Christian traditions on students of other religions’ and ‘have a separate ‘inter-religious prayer room’ (sarvadharma prarthanalay) on the school premises’?

With these guidelines is also a companion checklist of documents that educational institutions must keep and files they must maintain to meet the requirements of national, state and even municipal education departments.

But in its micro details, the CBCI advisory is a response to the demands that have been made on institutions by state governments and non-state actors such as the Bajrang Dal, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and many other “rakshak” groups in the countryside.

There seems to be a pandering to the more political notes of the New National Education Policy, which will encourage local Sangh groups, among others, to send nominees to management committees.

The guidelines came on the day the media reported that the government allotted a significant number of its new Sainik Schools, which groom future military officer cadets, over to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

In many states, the Sangh runs its own schools at various levels, from one-teacher village schools to high-end secondary schools. The government defended the process of selection as non-partisan but did not deny that the RSS had been allocated a large number of schools.

Most government schools follow the instructions of the political bosses and while political heroes such as Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel and Subhas Chandra Bose will be part of the visuals, the RSS’s own host of heroic figures and religious imagery will form much, if not all of the photos and words illuminating classrooms and school walls.

Pragmatism or capitulation to the Sangh’s aggressive coercion?

The persecution of Christians in India peaked last year and shows no signs of retreating. Over 600 incidents of violence against the community last year set a record, eliciting concern from international and domestic human rights groups. The first three months of this year, with an election campaign of 100 days, raises fear that the number will be far higher by the time the year ends.

In February, Bajrang Dal activists staged a protest after a teacher of a private Christian missionary-run school in Tripura allegedly prohibited a student from wearing a “Hindu” wristband.

In Assam, a local Hindutva group told Christian schools to remove within a fortnight Christian symbols.

In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, local political musclemen have told priests to put up statues of Saraswati at the gates of schools.

Political observers and Christian activists are dismayed. “So why run schools and colleges at all?”, asked Professor Shamshul Islam, a noted academic, researcher and author.

CBCI secretary for education and culture, Charles Maria, was quoted in the Indian Express as saying: “Given the political and social situation, which is emerging these days, I think we need to be more sensitive as Catholic schools. It is also a reminder to the principals to be more sensitive, because the majority of our students and teachers are always from other faiths.”

The CBCI is the apex body of Catholic bishops, but its choices are often followed by every other Christian denomination in the country.

Some believe the guidelines, innocent though they seem, mark a retreat by the church, which had claimed to be a major player in the development of the country.

The CBCI guide may be pragmatic, but its core suggestions unabashedly pander to the dictates of the Sangh Parivar and local administrations. It can easily be construed as a capitulation to Sangh’s aggressive coercion.

But more acute are fears that the guide seemingly concedes that Christian traditions were being “forced” on students. Jesuits, Salesians and various orders of nuns have for years been harassed, sometimes beaten up and often jailed on false allegations of conversion and alluring students to turn to Christ. Activists have asked if they were all wrong in their behaviour or pedagogy.

The church leadership perhaps is seeking time to chalk its way through the surge of Hindutva as it nurses the deep wounds inflicted in recent years by large-scale cancellations of its licences under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act and other restrictions on its advocacy and outreach programmes, especially among Dalits and Tribals, and in urban clusters.

Both Catholic and Protestant bishops have been conciliatory, even friendly, towards not just Prime Minister Narendra Modi but BJP leaders at all levels.

The occasional bishop has even joined the Sangh cry against Muslims perpetrating love jihad and some have made overtures to the Sangh hierarchy. And while a section of the clergy and laity have been active in training citizens on aspects of securing their vote, the church as a whole is not an enthusiastic participant in the election mela. Kerala remains the exception.

It is regarding the church’s participation in civil society movements on democratic and constitutional rights, especially those relating to the poor, that activists wonder if the leadership is resigned to an inevitable erosion in the post-election era of the guarantees of Article 30, which were the bedrock of its educational work in the country.

Any backsliding by the Christian community on this will have major repercussions for other religious minorities, including both Sikhs and Muslims.

There has been no consultation between the five recognised religious minorities since the implementation of the National Education Policy.

Whether the Sikh Gurudwara Committee, which runs many excellent schools in northern India, be at ease with the core suggestions of the CBCI guidelines remains to be seen. The Muslim community is seeing the outlawing of its madrasas in various states, apart from the restrictions faced in its religious practices.

A mark of unity among religious minorities and the secular civil society is an important bulwark against any erosion of the constitution, and with it, the messaging that India is a secular country in a subcontinent of majoritarian regimes.

But reciting the Preamble is a great idea that the government and Hindu schools should also follow instead of religious morning assembly.

This article was first published on The Wire on April 7, 2024.

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