Tuesday, 12 May 2015

MISSION SCHOOLS, SECULARISM, AND HINDUTVA



A month ago, news broke in the national press that Lata Dhavalikar, the wife of Dipak Dhavalikar, State Factories and Boilers Minister, had exhorted all Hindus in the name of Indian culture to not send their wards to convent schools. As many would remember, boycotting Christian educational institutions was part of a longer list that Mrs. Dhavalikar urged Hindus to adopt, including sporting tilaks and bindis, and greeting each other with ‘namaskar’. Mrs. Dhavalikar’s comments, or rather hate speech, only seemed to fuel the already existing suspicion about Christian educational institutions as promoting Western culture and even of forcible conversion amongst a large number of Indians, not necessarily confined to those who support the Hindu Right. However, by mid-April, a video also started circulating of Piyush Goyal, Minster for State (Independent Charge) for Power, Coal, and New and Renewable Energy. This was a video of a keynote address delivered on 6 November, 2014 on the occasion of the 3rd National Education Conference of Don Bosco Schools, at his alma mater, Don Bosco’s, Matunga, Bombay.

The said keynote address has been available for viewing on YouTube since 7 November, 2014. In brief, Goyal’s keynote address can be seen as a testimony of the good intentions of Christian mission schools, and hence it can be suggested that the video was circulated from April 2015 as a counter to the wild allegations that were rampant on social media against Christian educational institutions.

What is interesting about this keynote address by Goyal is that it was largely a recollection of his school days some forty years ago. He seemed to be transported back in time to the days when he was a school boy and, as such, was giddy with excitement. In a sense it was like homecoming for him. While Goyal’s keynote address raises many issues that are problematic, it is also closest to a testimony by a person in the current government in favor of Christian schools, asserting that they did not have an agenda limited to forcibly converting Hindus and imposing Western culture on them.

Goyal first credited the immense role that his teachers and the Salesian priests played in shaping his personality. He stressed the values of forgiveness and patience that his teachers practiced. Narrating an incident of indiscipline he was involved in, Goyal said that he should have been rightly suspended or rusticated for a misdemeanor during a school picnic. However, the principal of the school, Fr. Bonnie, did no such thing. Rather, Fr. Bonnie told him where he went wrong, and “held his hand”. Goyal, not being able to hold back his emotions, suggested that if he was not given an opportunity to reform and was not counseled, then his life could have gone down a different path altogether.

Another important point that Goyal made in his keynote address is the values of secularism that are nourished in an institution like Don Bosco’s. Goyal recollected that never in all the years that he spent at Don Bosco’s was he or any other non-Christian student made to “compulsorily” attend church. In fact, Goyal emphatically said that he had attended church several times, but always “voluntarily”. It is this experience that forms the basis of Goyal’s assertion that he learned true secularism in the course of his schooling at Don Bosco’s from the Salesian priests.

The problem with Goyal’s assertion is that although he may have experienced secularism in flesh and blood in his school, the party that he belongs to has consistently made sure that the rights of the minoritized groups in India are denied. The problem lies not so much in the fact that a person who learnt secular ideals is part of a government that came to power on the basis of Hindu majoritarianism, but that secularism in India has always meant that the wishes and whims of the majority become the ‘national’ norm that everybody must follow. Isn’t it rather disturbing to note that those non-Christians who have been educated through Christian institutions never openly protest when Christians or their property – religious and other – are attacked? November-December 2014 was also about the time when the attacks on churches and the threats of ‘ghar wapasi’ had intensified, and any condemnation of such acts from those within the present government came after a lot of delay. Such are the limits of Goyal’s Don Bosco-created secularism. What this anecdote thus actually indicates is not how Christian schools have boosted Indian secularism, but how they have actually compromised with dominant norms of Indian nationalism that produces the hegemony of the majority.

This is so because if one looks at some of the top Christian schools and colleges in India, one realizes that these institutions have been supremely elitist spaces, dedicated to nurturing the children of the rich and the mighty. Though it is also true that a large number of children from the marginalized sections have been served by Christian educational institutions, such educational institutions have not managed to change the oppressive power relations in India. Which is why when Goyal talks about his school upholding “merit”, “fairness”, and “equal opportunity for all”, one wonders if the ideal of charity and service or caritas embodied by Christian educational institutions is really responding to the social reality in India.

Goyal said that if Don Bosco’s took education to the poorest of the poor, it was because it came from the heart and was not out of “compulsion”. What he meant by it was that one could not be coerced into reaching out to the poor and marginalized in the society. But the truth is that in India, resources like education need to be compulsorily made available to the marginalized and the oppressed, whether one likes it or not; whether it comes from the heart or not.

This is an area, I think, where Christian educational institutions need to give out of “compulsion”. In other words Christian educational institutions have to specifically reach out to groups that are oppressed due to caste, gender, and religion. I admit that this is happening in many parts of India, but one does not see a systematic policy and its implementation emerging from the Church leadership in India. Of late Christian institutions have been needlessly demonized. If at all they need to be criticized, it is because they have failed in their Christian duty to reach out to the poorest of the poor. Christian institutions have not always worked against oppressive structures, but oftentimes have compromised with them.


So while Goyal’s testimony and his heartfelt recollection of his schooling days need to be welcomed, it also should make us ask what role Christian educational institutions played in past and what role they should play in the future.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 13 May, 2015)

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