Catholic Church in Western India Challenges Minority Educational Rights Legislation

The amendment to existing legislation would restrict the authority of Catholic schools that receive state funds to hire the employees they choose.

Morning assembly at a Catholic school in Seppa in Arunachal Pradesh state.
Morning assembly at a Catholic school in Seppa in Arunachal Pradesh state. (photo: Anto Akkara)

GUJARAT, India — The Catholic Church in Gujarat, the westernmost coastal state in India, has demanded that the state’s highest court quash new legislation that cancels the fundamental right of minority-run educational institutions to make their appointments in schools without interference by the government.

The legislation “ flatly denies our right to make appointments in our institutions and discipline the staff in case of misconduct. It encroaches the fundamental right guaranteed under the Indian Constitution,” Father Teles Fernandes, secretary of the Catholic education network of the state, told the Register on June 15.

Article 30(1) under the Fundamental Rights in the Indian Constitution says, “All minorities, whether based on religion or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.” 

The amendment to the Gujarat Secondary and Higher Secondary Education Act, 2021, which took effect June 1, denies Christian and other minority-run educational institutions the ability to appoint non-teaching employees, faculty and administration. According to the new law, all such institutions that receive state financial aid can only hire employees through a government-approved process.

Following passage of the law, the Gujarat Educational Board of Catholic Institutions, headed by Father Fernandes, and other minority groups, demanded on June 7 that Gujarat High Court scrap of the amendment as “unconstitutional.” 

The legislation affects more than 400 minority-run high schools (grades 9 through 12), which receive grants from the government. 

Father Fernandes pointed out that minority institutions run by Jews, Muslims, Jains, other Christian denominations and the linguistic groups have endorsed the Catholic challenge to legislation enacted by the Gujarat government led by the Baharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which espouses a Hindu nationalist agenda.

“When we cannot appoint staff or cannot take action against erring staff, where is our fundamental right to administer our institutions?” asked Father Fernandes, who heads the Catholic educational forum with 181 registered Catholic schools from the four dioceses in Gujarat. 

In Gujarat, the home state of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Christians number less than 1% of the state’s 72 million people. 

“This is a worrying move. We cannot remain silent when our fundamental rights are taken away like this,” Father Charles Maria, secretary of the education commission of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), told the Register.

The CBCI commission, Father Maria said, is convening a major meeting next week to discuss the Church’s response to this legislation. Such encroachments are taking place in some other states too, he added.

Education has been the biggest social intervention of the Church in India, which is estimated to run nearly 20,000 educational institutions with more than 3 million students on it rolls.

“Gujarat has been a laboratory for the [BJP] dispensation. So if they succeed in Gujarat, they will try and implement it in the whole of India,” stated Father Teres in his message widely circulated across the nation over the social media. “So you better watch out and don't be complacent.”

A.C. Michael, a Catholic activist based in New Delhi, endorsed this concern to the Register. 

“We need to remember that Gujarat since 2002 has become a laboratory for Hindutva [the Hindu nationalist] agenda. If this is allowed to happen in one state, then slow and steadily such laws will be passed in others and lead to national law in Parliament,” remarked Michael, coordinator of the United Christian Forum, which documents atrocities against Christians. 

The amendment, Michael said, citing Article 30 of the Indian Constitution, was “a clear bid to scuttle through the back door the constitutional rights guaranteed to the minority educational institutions.”

Hindu nationalist groups led by the BJP have been frequently clamoring for end to “appeasement of the minorities” and abolition of the Article 30 that guarantees the special rights to them.

Michael expressed shock over the claim made by Gujarat Education Minister Bhupendrasinh Chudasama,  who said that by putting the selection process of principals and teachers of minority educational institutions on a par with government schools, these private government-aided school will ensure the best quality education system.

Contrary to the education ministry’s claim, Michael noted that private schools in India already provide the best systems of education in the country.

“It is a common knowledge that most of the parents want their children to study in schools run or managed by Christian nuns or priests to ensure quality education and discipline,” he said.

Mahendra Gupta, a Hindu who has endorsed the Catholic legal challenge, told the Register, “The government logic is puzzling.”

“The minority-run institutions are sought after for their value-based quality education. It is shocking that the government wants to deny us our fundamental right,” said Gupta, who runs a couple of schools under the category of “linguistic minority” in Gujarat.

“The appointments in the minority institutions are made according to government norms and standards. When the government makes its own appointments to these schools, it becomes unconstitutional,” said Gupta, adding that the new law “denies to minorities the fundamental mandate to ‘establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.’ We will oppose this legislation until it is quashed.”

Rohingya Muslim refugees gather during the Eid al-Fitr holiday inside their temporary settlement on May 14, 2021 in New Delhi, India. A lockdown is in effect as COVID-19 cases have surged in India, causing a shortage of oxygen supplies across the country.

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