In a landmark judgment, an eleven-member bench of the Supreme Court headed by the chief justice, B.N. Kirpal, has observed that all minority institutions receiving government aid would have to abide by its regulations. This judgment follows on the heels of the Gujarat pogrom and the Tamil Nadu government’s ordinance banning forcible conversions. Expectedly, it has invited a strong reaction from the minorities.
West Bengal has at present 1,566 registered minority governed and run-educational institutions. These are mostly primary and secondary schools as well as undergraduate colleges. In other states, minorities also run engineering and medical colleges. These institutions are dependent on the government to the extent that they receive 80 to 90 per cent of their annual budgetary allocations from the state coffers. These institutions were established with the aim of providing education to children from minority communities, and they continue to do so. But they are governed by their own set of regulations and guidelines, which are not always in consonance with the fundamental rights and directive principles enshrined in the Constitution.
If political parties did not override or at least question the constitutional validity of such minority administrative bodies, it was because they were scared of losing the minority vote bank. The Supreme Court judgment will now enable state governments, including the government of West Bengal, to introduce changes in the administration of minority-run-educational institutions.
On the surface, this judgment seems logical and fair. A large percentage of seats in these institutions are reserved for minorities, thereby depriving more eligible candidates from the majority community of an opportunity to study in these institutions. Since these institutions are heavily dependent on government doles, it is the taxpayer (mostly from the majority community) who ends up paying for an education which will not benefit his children.
Moreover, even if a government claims to strive towards becoming a welfare state, individual freedom should not encroach upon the sovereignty of the state. Minority institutions have on occasions taken policy decisions that undermine the sovereignty of the state. There is nothing wrong with the state deciding to take pre-emptive action to prevent this.
There is however another side to this issue. In West Bengal for example, the Left Front government has largely politicized education. State control over education ensures that an infinite number of dedicated party members can be provided with secure government jobs as primary and secondary school teachers as well as non-teaching staff. Until now, minority-run educational institutions have refused to toe this line by accepting candidates recommended by the ruling party. The proposed reforms might give the ruling party in West Bengal a chance to extract its pound of flesh.
State control over education invariably brings with it an access to funds, which gives the state as well as the party cadre scope to armtwist the educational authorities. It also empowers the state and the party to doctor syllabi. The fracas of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) with the Ramakrishna Mission-run institutions led the latter to contemplate acquiring minority status.
In Tamil Nadu, however, by banning forcible religious conversions and promulgating the Prevention of Terrorism Act, J. Jayalalithaa has sent signals that she can keep the minorities in their place without help from court.
The judgment has however clarified that no state control can be exercised on those minority-run educational institutions which do not accept government grants. This means that in order to retain their independence, such institutions would have to survive on donations and charity or else turn private. This could only end up making education more expensive for the weaker sections.