THE issue has gone far beyond the mere teaching of tiny tots. The current tussle between the Shiv Sena-BJP government and Church-backed Catholic schools revolves around the issue of admissions. The state's stand: only half the little children admitted in pre-primary classes can be chosen by school managements, the rest must fall in line with the Maharashtra Pre-School Centres (Regulation of Admissions) Act, 1996.
The Act, which will affect admissions from this academic season, says that 50 per cent of the children must be chosen from the neighbourhood without considerations of caste or community. Selections are to be on the basis of a lottery system, not interviews.
Formulated by the Mah-arashtra Balshikshan Parishad, the Act was aimed at cleaning up pre-primary education which is swamped with donation demands and mushrooming schools. However, instead of knocking out irregularities and overnight operators, the Act—which makes registration of pre-schools obligatory—has succeeded in nettling minority institutions who see it as another instance of saffron prejudice.
"You are not giving me 50 per cent, you are taking away 50 per cent," says Father Denis Pereira, secretary of the Archdiocesan Board of Education. The 50 per cent "management quota" is a climbdown by the state government which had earlier set the cut-off point at 20 per cent. The government is not ready to concede further ground, and has referred the matter to state advocate general C.J. Sawant. "I'd say the state's move is loaded in favour of the children. There is nothing unfair in such a quota," says Sawant.
The Church has taken on the state government saying that its interference militates against the constitutional rights of minorities—with reference to Article 30 (1) of the Constitution which gives minorities the right to establish and administer educational institutions. Both sides dish out the Supreme Court's ruling in the case of St Stephen's College, Delhi, which allowed the management to select half the students. The Church argues that this is fine in the case of St Stephen's which is state-aided but not for pre-primary schools which do not receive government grants.
There are some 187 Catholic schools in the city, apart from schools run by other religious and linguistic minorities. While 60 per cent of the Catholic schools receive government aid, nearly all the pre-primary sections are unaided.
Yet, though the state government doesn't contribute to the running of pre-schools, it appears keen to assume some control. "It isn't a question of being aided or unaided. I'd justify the government's move as the state grants the schools recognition," says Sawant. The battle is on. And the Church has threatened to petition international human rights groups. "It is regrettable that the Maharashtra State authorities are unwilling to accept the expertise and international experience of certain minority educational institutions working here," says archbishop Ivan Dias. The Catholic Church, which represents nearly one million of the state's population, has established and administers some 800 institutions—with a total student population of over 4.20 lakh.
The archbishop, who led a delegation of the state's 12 Catholic bishops to chief minister Manohar Joshi in March, has long been trying to keep the state out of the Church's pre-school education. Efforts are now on by Anglo Indian MLA Desmond Yates to arrange a meet between the bishops and Sena chief Bal Thackeray in a bid to resolve the crisis.
However, the battle has turned bitter as Catholic institutions express fear of the Shiv Sena's strongarm tactics—the education portfolio is held by the Sena—that include gheraos and public humiliation tactics such as blackening of faces. Threats that convent schools which resist registration will run the risk of power and water cuts, have been attributed to state education minister Sudhir Joshi. This has brought the Opposition into the picture. "We did not want to politicise the issue. But it's a clear infringement of minority rights," says Mukesh Maru of the Congress, which is preparing to champion the Catholic cause.
For now, apart from protests, meetings, writing and demonstrations, Catholic institutions have decided to defer admissions till June. They hope that by then the state government will see sense and stop getting in the way of teaching tiny tots.