Volume 24 - Issue 15 :: Jul. 28-Aug. 10, 2007
from the publishers of THE HINDU

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Battle cry

in Kottayam

The government’s attempts to prevent commercialisation of education touch a raw nerve among leaders of the Catholic Church.


A protest on July 22 by members of the Latin Catholic community, in front of St. Annes Church at Valiathope in Thiruvananthapuram, against the pastoral letter issued by Bishop Soosapakiam of the Thiruvananthapuram diocese.

LEADERS of the powerful Catholic Church in Kerala are up in arms once again over what they describe as the “anti-minority” provisions in the education policy of the communist-led government in the State. They have warned the government that if the offending provisions are not withdrawn, the Church, which runs the largest number of educational institutions in the private sector, will not hesitate even to re-enact the role it played in the “Liberation Struggle” of the late 1950s.

In 1957, an opportunistic coalition of established religious, social and political forces felt threatened by the progressive educational and agrarian reforms implemented by the first elected Communist Ministry and eventually engineered its dismissal by the Congress government at the Centre in 1959. “Theoretically, they [the communists] are against religion. They believe religion is the opium of the people. According to Marxist theory, religions are stumbling blocks to development…. The claim of political parties that they are protecting minority rights has to be tested in practical terms. In Kerala, our experience in 1957 and now is that they have worked against our educational interests,” Archbishop Mar Joseph Powathil, chairman of the Inter-Church Council for Education, told Frontline.

Pastoral letters were read out in many parishes under the Syro-Malabar Church (the larger of the two Oriental churches, which, along with the Latin Church, form the Catholic community in Kerala) exhorting its members to form “vigilance squads” and organise protest marches against the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government’s policies that went against “minority interests” in the education sector.

The Church’s campaign began on July 8 when the Syro-Malabar Archbishop of Thrissur, Andrew Thazhath, said at a “Minority Rights Protection Convention” that if the government continued “its attack” on Christian educational institutions, the Church would not hesitate to think about a “liberation struggle” yet again.

The reference was to the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led LDF government’s policies aimed at preventing profiteering and commercialisation in the self-financing professional education sector. These practices had become the norm in the State ever since many of the managements of self-financing institutions reneged on their promise, made in 2001 (to a Congress(I)-led government), of setting apart 50 per cent of the seats for students from the government merit list in return for sanction to establish self-financing institutions.

Seizing the opportunity

In Kerala, Christians traditionally have been in the forefront of spreading educational opportunities, a consequence of early missionary activity in the region. Perhaps, as a result, the community surged ahead of others in the economic and social sectors too. The majority of aided schools, too, have been established under Christian managements. It was natural that church managements seized the opportunity offered by the United Democratic Front (UDF) government in 2001 when it opened the doors to self-financing professional educational institutions.

Consequently, most of the post-2001 self-financing colleges were established by the Church or members of the Christian community, which constitutes 19 per cent of the population, and to a lesser extent by Muslims, who constitute 24 per cent of the population.

Today, in the self-financing sector in the State, 36 of the 49 engineering colleges, six of the nine medical colleges and the majority of colleges offering courses in branches such as dentistry, pharmacy, nursing, teacher training, Ayurveda and homoeopathy are run by minority managements.

Their minority status offered the managements of these institutions the scope to seek additional protection under the Constitution by claiming to be “minority professional college or institution” and escape attempts by the government to rein them in when some of them strayed into profiteering and exploitation of students. Article 30(1) of the Constitution guarantees minorities the right to “establish and administer” educational institutions “of their choice”.

Soon after it came to power in May 2006, the LDF government introduced the Kerala Professional Colleges or Institutions (Prohibition of Capitation Fee, Regulation of Admission and Fixation of Non-exploitative Fee and Other Measures to Ensure Equity and Excellence in Professional Education) Act. However, in January 2007 the High Court struck down many of the provisions of this law and the State government’s appeal in the Supreme Court for a stay was denied in May.

The Constitution does not explain the term minority and from various court rulings interpreting Article 30(1) it had come to mean that in order to claim minority status for an institution, a community needs to show only that (a) it is a religious or linguistic minority and (b) that the institution was “established and is administered” by it (the words established and administered having to be read conjunctively). (Article 30(1) says, “All minorities, whether based on religion or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.”)

The minorities (especially Christians) were all along in the forefront of expanding educational opportunities in the State and until the advent of the grand profiteering opportunities in self-financing, no one had really bothered about claiming “minority status” for their institutions. All that changed in 2001 when they realised that claiming minority status was a sure-fire way of guarding against government intervention in a self-financing institution, even when it indulged in shameless profit-making through the sale of professional education.

Therefore, as Education Minister M.A. Baby explained then, the government, stung repeatedly by the runaway court victories of profit-seeking managements, decided that there ought to be a clear distinction between the rights of “minority communities to establish and run institutions of their choice” and “an institution run by such a community getting minority status”.

Therefore, the new law set forth three conditions of “demographic equivalence” between “the minority community to which the college or institution belonged” and “the non-minority community of the State taken as a single unit” to decide “minority status” of professional colleges.

They included, one, that the population of the “linguistic or religious” minority that runs the college should be less than 50 per cent of the total population of the State; two, that the number of professional colleges or institutions run by the minority community (to which the college seeking minority status belongs) should be proportionately smaller than the number of professional colleges run by the non-minority community in the State; and, three, that the number of students belonging to that particular minority community in all professional colleges in the State should be smaller than the number of students belonging to the non-minority community studying in all professional colleges in the State.

Matters of concern

Archbishop Powathil said it was a matter of concern that despite the High Court striking down several provisions of the Act, the government had decided to pursue the case in the Supreme Court and that some of the provisions had the effect of denying minority status to all professional colleges run by minorities, of denying the minorities their constitutionally guaranteed right of “conserving the culture attached to their religion”, and the right to “establish and administer educational institutions of their choice”.

A second important concern of the Church leaders was that despite the courts repeatedly denying the government’s arguments in a series of cases against the managements, the government was forcing the managements into a mutual agreement through which they would have to set apart 50 per cent of the seats in their colleges as government seats and implement a fee structure that has higher fees for management quota seats and lower fees for government quota seats.

Church leaders said if they agreed to this, it would be tantamount to surrendering “forever” their constitutionally guaranteed right to admission to all the seats and imposing on students of the minority community the burden of educating “rich students” admitted under the government quota.

All court verdicts so far had declared such “cross subsidy” and two types of fees as illegal. The pastoral letters read out in many parishes declare that this is an obvious pressure tactic on the part of the LDF government “to squeeze the Christian community financially and destroy it”.

Church leaders said they were also worried that the government was trying to “encroach politically” into the school education sector, where the community had a leading presence. Many bishops had expressed concern at the proposed school curriculum reforms, the possible introduction of an “atheist agenda”, the proposals to involve local bodies in the running of schools and to entrust the appointment of teachers (including in aided Church-run institutions) to the Public Service Commission, and so on.

Powathil said: “The intentions of the government in the school sector is indeed a major concern. Communist ideology is like that. They have to control everything, only then will the system run well. That is their idea. Everything should be under party control, including the curriculum.”

In a Sunday circular read out at the parishes under the Kanjirappally diocese, Bishop Mar Mathew Arakkal said the government was trying to “impose its suzerainty over all institutions run by the Church, not just the schools and colleges alone. Efforts are on to interfere in the day-to-day affairs of aided schools run by the Church. The Catholic Church has the wisdom to understand the deceit and the ill-intention of a government that forgets the fall in standards in its own schools but seeks to interfere in private schools that are running well. No move that would deny us our right to appoint teachers is acceptable to us.”

“Merit, the basis”

On July 23, even as the first conciliatory gestures were being made, Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan said in Thiruvananthapuram, while inaugurating a programme to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Communist Ministry, that Church leaders should not try to whitewash commercialisation of education with threats and propaganda meant to create misunderstanding. He reiterated that the government policy was that social justice and merit should be the basis for admission in self-financing colleges and that its policy had gained wide acceptance among the people. But the government was ready to address any genuine grievance of the minorities, he said, and cautioned community leaders against inflaming passions as this could lead to a dangerous situation in the State.

The church’s sudden call to believers to organise themselves against the government has come, surprisingly, at a moment of quiet triumph for it, soon after it had won almost all the legal battles on the issues of self-financing institutions and minority rights. Also, the government’s initiatives to improve school education should not have caused such over-reaction, according to LDF leaders.

There were some immediate provocations, perhaps. One was the disruption of a separate entrance examination conducted by a few minority medical college managements by activists of the Student Federation of India (SFI), the CPI(M)’s student wing. Another was the proposal of CPI(M)-controlled universities to cancel the affiliation granted to colleges that did not reserve 50 per cent seats for students from the government merit list. Church leaders also said the reactions of some leaders of the ruling party and student organisations only heightened their concerns.

But in the three weeks since the July 8 call made by the Archbishop of Thrissur, pastoral letters have been read out widely, several publications have reproduced the contents of the church circulars, church committees have been set up in most districts to mobilise believers, and there have been reports of a plan by the Church to mobilise and train a “protection army”.

The reasons for the Church leaders going on an overdrive would perhaps be known fully only later. It is indeed a game of wits and threats that Kerala is witnessing, with the government trying (so far unsuccessfully) to include the principles of equity and social justice in admissions to self-financing professional colleges and the church seeking shelter under minority rights and court orders after brushing aside as illegal the original understanding it had with the government.

Divisions within Church


A youth rally organised by the Catholic Church in Thrissur on July 21 to protect “fundamental rights”.

But even as the Catholic Church launches an emphatic campaign against the government, it is being forced to face some hard truths from within. Joseph Pulikkunnel, director of the Kottayam-based Indian Institute of Christian Studies, who has long been campaigning for democracy within the Catholic Church, told Frontline:

“The current struggle of the Catholic Church has to be understood in the proper historical perspective. At the time of the first Liberation Struggle in 1959, local parishes owned the Catholic educational institutions in a locality.

The Liberation Struggle of 1959 was an unfortunate event in history that was triggered by creating an impression that the first Communist government may interfere beyond limits in such institutions built up over the years with the sweat and money of the common believers. The community as a whole was concerned about government interference in their schools and colleges.

“But after 1959, dramatic changes happened in our educational sector. Educational institutions that were once the property of local parishioners came under the Church’s corporate control and literally became the property of priests. Under the Canon laws that came into being in the early 1990s, ignoring the tradition of Catholics of Kerala, priests were made the sole owners of churches and church property.

“Catholic educational institutions today are governed by a minority of priests within the Catholic community who, no doubt, accept money for appointments and admissions. The Catholic community should first examine the circumstances that have led to such corruption before taking up arms for yet another liberation struggle.”

On July 19, in a statement, 12 prominent members of the Catholic laity, including Joseph Pulikkunnel, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cochin M.V. Paily, professor and writer P.T. Chacko, and former Ministers K.J. Chacko and N.M. Joseph, pointed out that Catholic educational institutions were being run today under the protection granted by Article 30. But the fundamental right to establish and administer educational institutions under this Article is a right granted to the minority “community” as a whole and not to individuals in that community, they said.

The way the educational institutions were brought under the administration of priests, without any participation from the laity, is therefore against the aims envisaged in the Constitution and is the basic reason for “the corruption and favouritism” that have seeped into Catholic educational institutions in general, though there are some exceptions, they added.

“It is therefore natural in a civil society that legal measures are initiated when corruption and favouritism are as rampant as [they are] in the Catholic educational sector. The statements that pastoral letters and protection armies would be organised against the government move is not a permanent solution to the real problem and would only lead to a long-drawn crisis in society,” they said.

Protest against clergy

By July 22, even as elders of the Latin Catholic Church joined fellow clergymen in reading out pastoral letters against the government, unusual scenes of small groups of believers protesting against the clergy could be witnessed in front of some coastal parishes in Thiruvananthapuram.

The Kerala Latin Catholic Association, among other organisations, said it was rejecting the pastoral letters as in its opinion “the clergy had appropriated minority rights to themselves for their own benefit”.

Perhaps much to the discomfiture of the clergy, their call for a struggle against the government on the issue of self-financing professional education and minority rights has also revived a fledgling movement within the Catholic community for a law under the Constitution to govern the vast properties of Christian churches.

“Christians today run the strongest chain of institutions in the education sector. Today there are established laws to govern the properties of other religious minorities like Muslims and Sikhs as well as that of the majority Hindu community. But there is no law to monitor the vast properties owned by the Christian community, which today is being run only on the basis of laws formulated by the clergy,” Joseph Pulikkunnel said.

However, Archbishop Powathil dismissed such statements as “those of people who have no followers” and said they did not represent “the majority of the Christian people”.

But even as Catholics in the State are being mobilised by the Church “to fight” for minority rights”, such “minority opinions” from within the community too seem to be slowly taking centre stage.

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