In all this debate about St. Stephen’s College and its decision to go and have a Dalit Christian reservation, we have not taken time to unpack the concept of the minority institution. When the constitution guaranteed the minorities the right to start and manage their own institutions, they were not handing out freebies. The liberal climate that prevailed when the constitution was being drafted had the vision of a welfare state. They wanted the constitution to lay the foundation of a secular state where all sections of society would live with their identity and culture intact. It was such a benevolent gesture that made them reserve two seats in parliament for members of the Anglo Indian community, a practice that continues to this day, though the population of Anglo Indians might number in their thousands. Probably the two Anglo Indian members of Parliament represent their constituency more effectively than the elected members if the ratios and the representation formulae are taken into consideration.

The Minority institutions that were typically envisaged to enjoy the state’s protection were those which would actually serve to preserve minority languages, customs and traditions. The feeling was that minorities could get overwhelmed by the sheer mass of the majority community surrounding them and their culture and unique identity could just get subsumed into one large anonymous melting pot. So they needed a helping hand and the benign protection of the state. In this understanding of the concept, if a minority institution is not doing its job of preserving the ethos and culture and traditions and identity of a community, it is not really doing its job. A bunch of Muslims or Christians or Sikhs could get together and run a secretarial institute or a typing college or even a degree college running conventional BA and courses. Would such institutes qualify to be a minority institute ? Not really in the spirit of the constitution.

The ChristianMedicalCollege, Vellore has put it well. When asked to explain why it should reserve so many seats for Christians when it was just another medical college , it replied that it wasn’t just another medical college. It put forward the very correct argument that running hospitals and clinics and providing affordable health care to the poor was an important function of the church from its earliest history in India and Vellore was training doctors to continue and preserve that tradition of the church. It was not another commercial minded, doctor generating machine but an instrument to preserve the identity of the Christian community in India which has always been associated with a spirit of service and especially so in the fields of health and education.

Another example one could cite is that of the JamiaHamdardUniversity in Delhi. Run by the foundation associated with the makers of the famous sherbet Rooh Afzah, the campus has a distinctly Muslim feel to it. It teaches conventional courses all right , but also has an impressive array of courses relating to Islamic theology, Persian , Arabic , Unani medicine and other facets of liberal Islamic culture.

But not every institution is CMC Vellore or Jamia Hamdard. I know of many several church run institutions- (and this is very likely true in the in instances of other communities as well) where there is very little of Christ or His teaching to be seen or heard. What makes it a minority institution is that the Board of Management is headed by some Bishop or Priest or church official. The Bible is seldom referred to or opened, students go to tepid moral science classes and the morning assembly is anemic. When the church is persecuted from time to time , it is common to hear that many eminent people attended such and such Christian school. Well they might have done so but the moot question is whether they were exposed to the teachings of Jesus in their student days or it just happened that the school happened to be run by some religious order or denomination but beyond these legal niceties , it ran as any secular institution would do.

The plumb line to determine if any institution is a minority institution – be it linguistic or religious or ethnic is to examine what minority values and cultures are being imparted there. If after studying in a Christian school for ten years or more, a child comes out with negligible knowledge of the church, its contribution to nation building and the Bible or if a Sikh institution teaches little about the history of the community, the valor and sacrifices of the Sikh Gurus or the Guru Granth Sahib, then in what way is the establishment representative of the Christians or the Sikhs ? They are no more than secular institutes which just happen to be run by a group of people who speak a particular language or profess a particular religion.

Let me end with an example from my own life. I studied in a school run by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The Ashram management in no sense of the term attempted to” convert” any one to Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy but in every turn and gesture, they indicated in word and deed , that they cherished Sri Aurobindo and his successor, The Mother and their teaching wasn’t just lip service for them. Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy is not easy to understand ,but in the school assembly where his teachings were unabashedly taught , the school principal and other speakers made every effort to present them with passion and reverence and the atmosphere was live and electric and Sri Aurobindo’s thinking and influence was every where and it wasn’t phony.

My Ashram school of course wasn’t a minority institution of course, but to me it represents all that a minority institution should be. Its mandate was to promote the teachings and ideas of Sri Aurobindo and it did so earnestly and with compassion and grace. In the same way, the definition of what is a minority institution is not to be determined by who owns a piece of property or who sits in the board room but by the larger question —- is the institution fulfilling its mandate ?

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