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Northeast Echoes
CRADLE OF KNOWLEDGE: Don Bosco School in Guwahati

Education & secularism

Following the inauguration of Don Bosco University some strident voices expressing dissent on the Assam government’s enthusiastic support for what they felt was a Christian initiative became part of the media blitz. The dissenters were apprehensive that a Christian university would be propagating Christianity among students.

Christian values and ethics are those very values embodied in all religious texts. They are values which even a hardened agnostic who is a good human being and citizen is expected to live by. Truth, justice, mercy, honesty, compassion for the poor et al are universal human values which every institution needs to proactively promote, not by pontification but by the living examples of the leaders of the institutions and their faculty. Millions of people in this country have been educated in Christian institutions but rarely, if ever, has one heard them complaining of being indoctrinated in the Christian faith. As minorities with a less than three per cent population in this country, Christians promote education mainly to allow access to the most deprived sections of the community especially the Dalits, Advivasis and tribals.

Pious platitudes

These three categories would not have been able to move up the social, economic and educational ladder had it not been for Christian educational institutions. This affirmative action is absent on the part of the state. The Directive Principles in the Constitution which says that education is to be free and compulsory up to age 14 is only a pious statement. Even today, education is neither free nor compulsory.

On a recent visit to Khat-ar Shnong village near Cherrapunjee, for an interface with the local women’s organisations, one was appalled to learn that under the much-publicised Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan scheme whose noble intent is to bring all children to school, textbooks were distributed in the breach. Out of a class of 12 students, books on a particular subject were distributed to only four students. To balance the equation, textbooks for a different subject were given to another four and the rest were given books for a third subject. How on earth can education be imparted judiciously in such a situation?

Missionary schools have been known to have a bias for the poor though there are a few elite Christian institutions in some of the metros of the country catering to the upper crust of society. But in a country like India with a very diverse wealth ranking, it is not morally off-beam to cater to people of all categories. What Christian institutions have done and continue to do is to charge fees from the affluent and plough that back into a fund meant to provide educational access to those who cannot afford a similar type of education within the same ambience.

This is one way of bringing about societal parity. If the poor are never able to move around with the affluent, how would they ever develop an ambition in life or a healthy self esteem? As one who has had the benefit of Christian education, I can say with certainty that these institutions are inclusive not only of class and caste but of religion and economic strata as well.

One has grown up studying with children from all economic backgrounds without once being made to feel there was any difference. Some of us had a problem paying the mandatory fees but the nuns never made us feel we were under any kind of pressure. It was more than education that we were given. It was a comprehensive life skill which stands us in good stead even today.

Political victims

No Christian institution has ever taught its students to demonise any faith or demean and rewrite the histories of this country in a manner that certain personalities belonging to a particular religious sect are glorified while “others” are vilified.

That these hate texts should even form part of our national curriculum is a shameful indictment of the politicisation of education. The only counterpoint came from the Congress which ostensibly professes to be a secular party. That schools in Gujarat have prescribed highly communal and inflammatory textbooks does not seem to raise the kind of flak that Christian universities attract. Why? Is it not because Christian institutions have doggedly pursued their agenda of providing quality education without getting drawn into any kind of political controversies? Is it also not because Christian institutions are perceived to be soft targets because they do not have the political clout of the BJP/Bajrang Dal combine?

Those who raise questions about the inability of the State to promote its own educational institutions and for veer towards an overt support for private institutions must do some introspection. Look at the manner in which some of our prominent state institutions in Assam are doing. Is it only about money? Is the basic sanitation on the campus also linked to money or the lack of it? Why does one get the feeling that there is no stakeholdership by students and faculty in State-owned institutions? Why do they wear such a decadent look?

If students and the faculty have even an iota of pride in their institution, that pride would have translated into a visual impact on the visitor. But one comes away from such institutions with a feeling of dismay at the sheer lack of cleanliness and a bout of depression that an institution of learning cannot even inspire a sense of hygiene in the teacher and the taught.

Futile research

Those who fund institutions are neither deaf nor blind. They, too, would like to see their money’s worth. But if there is lack of transparency in the management of funds and a never-ending moan and groan for more and more funds which obviously are not put to good use, then even the funding agency begins to develop a compassion fatigue.

Let us also look at the scholars that some of our state-funded institutions have produced over the years. Yes we have read reams of lengthy, arcane and impenetrable prose instead of research findings expressed pointedly and concisely and in terms that the ordinary citizen can comprehend and be moved by. What is a research paper if it does not build a coalition for reforms and move policy makers to bring the desired policy changes?

Institutions where indigenously developed views do not receive encouragement but where every theory is tested against Western social and political thought without examining the context of their derivation cannot claim to be the harbingers of social transformation.

Liberal and analytical thinking which infuses in the learner a desire to change the status quo is the goal of all universities. This is more true of Christian universities because their objective is to liberate the underdog, the social outcasts, the blighted of this earth into what Tagore has rightly proclaimed is “that heaven of freedom” into which all Indians must finally awake. We need path-breaking institutions to bring about transformational leadership and I am afraid that most universities today have sunk into mediocrity. No wonder over 20 per cent of our students from the Northeast migrate to Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai and Chennai even for simple courses in journalism. Why then is there heartburn when somebody tries to set up a world class university in this part of the world?

(The writer can be contacted at patricia17@rediffmail.com)

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