The West Bengal government has at long last decided that a personís religion is of no relevance for admission into educational institutions. The decision needs to be applauded ó not without raising certain questions. The Left Front government has been in power in the state uninterruptedly from 1977. In this period it has instituted many changes, some of them bordering on the ridiculous, like changing the name of the city, of streets and so on. All this was done in the name of removing the colonial hangover. Yet, this simple thing on the admission-forms of schools and colleges did not attract its attention. Even though this item is very much a carry-over from the days of the British raj and its divide-and-rule policies. To pursue that policy, this religious enumeration was important. But the left, despite its professed anti-colonialism and its much-flaunted secularism, chose to ignore this small but offending item. Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the chief minister who initiated the removal, was a student of Presidency College and he must surely remember that the collegeís admission-form asks for the candidateís religion and caste. But this knowledge did not drive Mr Bhattacharjee to bring about a change. It needed the efforts of an ordinary woman who had faced discrimination and had lost nine years of her working life to awaken the official mind. The applause for the chief minister carries with it an enormous amount of collective shame.
The real credit for the decision should go to Ms Tehmina Khatoon. She had chosen not to mention her religion in the admission form given to her by the Gandhi Memorial College in Habra. She chose to take the matter to court. It took her nine years to get a verdict to allow her to join the B.Ed course. She has forced the chief minister to alter a small piece of history, but this will not help her since, when she gets a B.Ed degree one year from now, she will not be eligible for a job in a government school. The cut-off age for such a job is 35. A stupid rule about religion has effectively closed a career avenue for her. But this is more than a story of an individualís sorrow and struggle. It is a story of official prejudice, negligence and hypocrisy. There is no sign that the authorities of the Gandhi Memorial College will be asked to explain their prejudice and their stupidity. What is more important is that there are other government institutions, from hospitals to crematoriums, which demand similar information. One wonders when the Left Frontís attention will be drawn to such gross transgressions of the principles of secularism enshrined in the Constitution.
The Left Frontís belated removal of instances of such transgression points to the extreme fragility of secularism in India. There are too many areas of national and public life and official policy which are imbricated one way or another with religion. The very intrusion of religion into the public and official domain constitutes a violation of the most fundamental principles of secularism. The West Bengal government has taken a small step to get rid of such anomalies. There are many more steps to be taken, more promises to keep.