Wednesday, July 16, 2008

MISSIONARY EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTIONS: NEW RELIGIOUS STRATEGY

Things have changed drastically now but for the first couple of decades after Independence, Christian missionary schools and colleges were the best and often the only English medium schools and colleges available in most parts of the country. Naturally, progressive parents chose to send their children to these institutions. Due to a combination of many factors, some such institutions, like St Stephen’s College in Delhi, have become iconic national centres of excellence, attracting some of the brightest students from diverse backgrounds.

The purpose of setting up missionary schools and colleges was never to build national institutions of academic excellence. In the ‘Face the Nation’ program hosted by Sagarika Ghose on CNN-IBN on July 15, 2008, Father Dominic Emmanuel reminded everyone that in these institutions “if there has to be excellence, it has to be in following Jesus Christ and his commands.” That about sums up what these excellent schools and colleges were set up to achieve.

After long experience, the church has probably woken up to the fact that although these institutions have been attracting the best non-Christian students who have gone on to excel in all walks of life, they have failed miserably in propagating the religion to them. The conversion rate, at least in the metros and other prominent cities and towns, has been close to zero, despite the subtle and not so subtle measures taken by the missionaries to expose and draw students to Christianity.

That is probably why the church now wants to reclaim these institutions and get them to focus on the original objective for which they were set up.

Since conversions from the elite, modern and empowered sections of the society have not been successful at all, the new strategy being implemented by the church is now on empowering Christians and possibly winning over to the religion the un-empowered of other religions by letting them into these institutions with far lower marks than regular non-Christian students.

St Stephen’s College recently announced an increase in the quota for Christian students to 50 per cent. This was followed by a lowering of the cut-off percentage to Christian students to as low as 60 per cent, against the above 90 per cent for others. Not satisfied with that, the college went a step further towards preserving the Christian character of the institution by announcing a quota for Christians in the teaching faculty as well.

Media personalities like Sagarika Ghose are very proud products of St Stephen’s College. She, like others, is quite upset with the ‘back to Christ’ changes that are being pushed through in the college. There is a fear that this is a major mistake which will turn this excellent institution and others like it into centres of academic mediocrity. That is something they cannot reconcile to, having seen the institution at the pinnacle of academic excellence.

The one real justification that is being quoted by those who do not want such missionary institutions to carry their minority identity too far is that they are 100 per cent funded by public money. That, as Father Emmanuel has observed, is a privilege that has been given to religious minorities by the country’s constitution. As per law, minority institutions can establish and administer educational institutions the way they choose to. “All this while, when we were teaching everybody else, nobody had raised any objection, but the moment Christians want to empower their own community, there is a lot of noise.” Father Emmanuel is convinced that the changes being sought to be made are fully justified.

Clearly, the argument to preserve the largely ‘secular’ character of minority educational institutions is based more on individual emotion and identification than on real merit. If we accept the provisions made in the constitution for such institutions and the fact that the fundamental purpose of missionary activity is to preach and propagate Christianity, then there can be no argument against the steps being taken to restore the Christian character of such institutions. Previous deviations from this objective cannot form the basis of a justification for their continuation.

The only surprise is that it has taken so long for the church to realise that its elitist and largely non-discriminatory approach has yielded virtually no religious dividends till now. The doubt is whether the proposed changes will actually bring about the empowerment that the church thinks they will or whether they will wind up encouraging and perpetuating mediocrity among Christians.

The real danger is that the new strategy being adopted by the church for running missionary educational institutions will encourage more rigid religious insulation, not something that secular Indians would want to see in a liberal 21st century society. That is perhaps why 93 per cent of the Indians who responded to the question raised by Sagarika Ghose in her program believe that minority institutions have taken minority identity too far.