The news of the impending departure of Reverend Thampu from St. Stephen’s College was met with a degree of scepticism by those who have seen the man get an extension on his tenure in the past, after having publicly declared that he was about to leave. However, the advertisement by St. Stephen’s College in all major national dailies seeking applications for the post of principal came as a confirmation that it is indeed time for the man to leave. But, as the Reverend often used to say, controversy and St. Stephen’s are never too far. For a change though, this time the controversy has nothing to do with the person.
The advertisement sought applications from all those who meet the necessary qualifications in order to be eligible for the position of principal of a college, under the University Grants Commission’s (UGC) guidelines. This was however, restricted to only Christian applicants. This was received in social media platforms with an outcry against the right of a minority institution to only appoint followers of its religion as the principal. Many felt that the principal should be appointed on merit without consideration for the religion of the applicant. This has reignited the debate on the legal as well as moral aspects of the rights of minority institutions.
It is important to understand that the Constitution of India safeguards the rights of minorities in order to protect them from the possibility of persecution by the majority. Under article 30(1) of the Constitution of India, “All minorities, whether based on religion or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.” This provision of the Constitution is all that needs to be looked at, in order to determine whether or not the restriction for the position of principal to only Christian candidates is an unfair or illegal restriction.
Article 30(1) has been explained thoroughly in various judgements of the Supreme Court of India. However, ambiguity remains with regard to the scope of the said provision, as in some cases it is attempted to be used as a justification for exempting all administrative decisions from scrutiny in the garb of rights of the minority institution. In St. Stephen’s College v. University of Delhi (1992) 1 SSC 558, the Supreme Court upheld the right to manage and administer the educational institution as a fundamental right while deciding that separate admission criterion and procedure for St. Stephen’s College as compared to the rest of Delhi University was constitutionally valid. However, the Hon’ble Court emphasised the need to strike a harmonious balance between the right of minority institutions and the governmental need to maintain academic standards, and in doing so restricted the ability of the college to admit only students of their own community to a cap of fifty percent, attempting to juxtapose the collective right of the community with the individual right to non discrimination on the basis of religion. There seems to be no clear position as to which decision of a minority institution is covered by its ‘right to administer educational institutions’ and which decision shall have to bow to the mandate of governmental intervention.
Udit Bhatia, in his unpublished M. Phil thesis for the University of Cambridge, makes an attempt to explain the Supreme Court’s approach to the rights of minority educational institutions by suggesting the existence of the use of two readings of the same provision, a broader reading and a narrower reading, which the Supreme Court has used differently in different cases. Bhatia explains, “A narrow reading of the right would be that minority educational institutions are entitled to exemptions necessary for the preservation of their religion or culture. A wider reading of the right to administer educational institutions would give the management autonomy regardless of whether it was exercised for any such purpose. Under this broad right, minority educational institutions need not argue or demonstrate that particular departures from the state’s norms are necessary for them to preserve their culture, but merely urge that such norms contradict their management’s decision over an administrative affair.”
It is this distinction between the broader reading and the narrow reading where the true essence of article 30(1) lies. If a minority institution wishes to seek the safeguard of this provision, it must first establish that the administrative decision under review is of a nature which is integral to preserving the religion or culture of the community. The assumption that every administrative decision can be autonomous simply by virtue of being a minority institution is not based on a sound understanding of art. 30(1).
Having understood the soul of the constitutional provision, it is now time to test the appointment of principal against the provision of article 30(1). In Ahmedabad St. Xavier’s College v. State of Gujarat & Anr. 1974 AIR 1389 the Supreme Court has conclusively answered this question by stating that, “It is upon the principal and teachers of a college that the tone and temper of an educational institution depend. On them would its reputation, the maintenance of discipline and its efficiency in teaching. The right to choose the principal and to have the teaching conducted by teachers appointed by the management after an overall assessment of their outlook and philosophy is perhaps the most important facet of the right to administer an educational institution.” Since the appointment of the principal has a direct connection to the manner in which the institution functions, it definitely passes the test of a narrow reading of article 30(1) as an administrative decision which is well covered by a constitutional mandate.
Some critics of the advertisement seeking applications also questioned the provision in the constitution itself as they consider merit to be a better standard for selection of principal. It has to be understood that the state cannot appoint candidates to the post of principal in any educational institution which is run in an autonomous or semi-autonomous or private manner, but can only regulate the necessary qualifications in order to ensure academic standards. That is the harmonious balance sought by the state. Once a candidate meets the necessary qualifications, every institution uses its discretion to choose the candidate who best fits the needs of the concerned institution. Since the needs of a minority institution definitely include among other things the preservation of its religion and culture, it is understandable as to why the provision to apply for the position is restricted to those who are Christians provided that they possess the necessary qualifications as prescribed by the UGC.
Not everything that has been justified in St. Stephen’s as a right of the minority institution is correctly done. The compulsory attendance in religious instruction classes for Christian students is certainly not fit to pass the narrow reading of the constitutional provision and is something that has been challenged by sections of the student community for quite some time. There are other aspects of this esteemed college which could be considered to be wrongly or undeservingly benifitting from the protection of article 30(1), but that is a discussion for another day. For now, the appointment of the principal of St. Stephen’s College should be considered a non controversial topic, based on sound provisions of law and with no mala fides. Now is time for change in St. Stephen’s, and change brings with it hope for a new beginning. As for me, Maa Durga has just taken Mahishasura away and we Bengalis are ushering in the festivities. Here’s hoping St. Stephen’s ushers in happiness too.