The real test of a civilized society, it has been argued, is how it treats its minorities. This is important to remember in a pluralist society like India which is in fact dominated by one religious community. Protection of minorities has always to be balanced with the danger of creating special enclaves for them with the inherent dangers of ghettoization. In India, this is a challenging task before the society and the state since Muslims, the largest religious minority, have, for reasons rooted in history, been laggards in literacy, education and therefore in the employment bazaar. The special privileges and protection granted to Muslims and to some of their socio-religious practices have always been a subject of controversy in a country which is democratic and secular. The latest judgment of the Supreme Court reducing drastically the right of the minorities to administer their educational institutions can be read as an attempt to create a level playing field for all schools. The judgment also marks an enormous expansion in the interventionist powers of the Indian state. Such an expansion is fraught with dangers for every realm of society, more so in the field of education. The political party in power invariably uses the state machinery to impose its own views on history and culture by manipulating syllabi and textbooks. This passes in the name of nationalization of education. The apex court, with all its good intentions, has created a space for this kind of ominous intervention.
The enormous increase in the state’s powers is indexed by the Supreme Court’s opinion that the state can interfere even in those educational institutions which do not receive any aid or subsidy from the state. The court grounded this decision on “educational excellence”. Nobody denies that excellence in education is a very laudable goal. But there is no ready consensus on what constitutes this excellence. It is unlikely that such a consensus will ever emerge. By this judgment, the Supreme Court has in fact allowed the state to interfere in and regulate the affairs of any school which does not meet with the state’s approval. There can be some reasons for accepting that those schools that receive financial subventions from the state should be open to state regulation and monitoring. But to argue that all schools are liable to state intervention is to see the state as being more powerful than civil society and its institutions. In a democracy, the state is the instrument of civil society and not the other way round.
It can be argued, of course, that civil society in India is so fragile that it needs to be fortified by the state, especially by the judiciary acting as a surrogate for executive failure. This propensity upsets the balance between the three arms of the state and in an indirect way perpetuates the fragility of civil society. A move towards a minimalist state and a judiciary restricted to strictly legal matters may augur well for both democracy and civil society in India.