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Published in the 16-31 May 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition


Route to empowerment

By Khwaja M Shahid

The Milli Gazette Online

The one billion-plus population of India consists of six main ethnic groups and 52 major tribes, six major religions and 6,400 castes and sub-castes, 18 major languages and 1,600 minor languages and dialects. Each of the people of India has an important place in the formation of the nation. The essence of secularism in India is the recognition and preservation of the different types of people, with diverse languages and different beliefs, and placing them together so as to form a whole and united nation. The Constitution recognizes the differences among the people of India, and gives equal importance to each of them in order to usher a unified secular nation. Recognizing the need for the preservation and retention of diversities that go into the making of a whole nation, the Constitution while maintaining, inter alia, the basic principle of equality, contains adequate provisions that ensure the preservation of these diversities.

In particular, Articles 29 and 30 of the Constitution seek to preserve the diversities that exist, and at the same time, unite the people to form one strong nation. Article 30 contains a special right conferred on religious and linguistic minorities because of their numerical handicap. These special safeguards are provided to the minorities and they are made as a fundamental right to instill a sense of confidence and security in the minorities. Incidentally, some important members of the Constituent Assembly, including G.B Pant, wanted to give these securities to the minorities as part of the Directive Principles of the State Policy, which are not justifiable. But with the intervention of persons like K.M. Munshi these special treatment clauses of the Constitution were made fundamental rights. These articles of the Constitution strengthen the Nehruvian philosophy of unity in diversity.

A lot has been written about the reservations in minorities’ educational institutions. The Supreme Court of India has also deliberated upon this issue in many cases and finally in the TMA Pai foundation case of 2002, the apex court laid down certain guiding principles and clarified the rights of the minorities to give reservation in minority educational institutions. Chief Justice of India B. N. Kirpal (in TMA Pai foundation case 2002) said that "India is a land of diversity of different castes, peoples, communities, languages, religions and cultures. Although these people enjoy complete political freedom, a vast part of the multitude is illiterate and lives below the poverty line. The single most powerful tool for upliftment and progress of such diverse communities is education. The state with its limited resources and slow-moving machinery is unable to fully develop the genius of Indian people." He further said, "It is in this scenario where there is a lack of quality education and adequate number of schools and colleges that private educational institutions have been established by educationists, philanthropists and religious and linguistic minorities." 

The Supreme Court has observed in the earlier Unnikrishanan case that "the hard reality that emerges is that private educational institutions are a necessity in the present day context. It is not possible to do without them because the Governments are in no position to meet the demand particularly in the sector of medical and technical education which call for substantial outlays. While education is one of the most important functions of the Indian state it has no monopoly therein. Private educational institutions including minority educational institutions too have a role to play". 

It has been observed that the number of the government-maintained or government-owned educational institutions is not increasing as rapidly as private educational institutions are growing. According to one estimate, in Karnataka there are 19 medical colleges which include only four Government medical colleges. Similarly only one out of 14 technical colleges has been set up by the Government and only 12 out of 51 engineering colleges were established by the government. 

Article 30 of the Constitution gives right to the minorities to establish and administer their educational institutions. The right to admit students is an essential part of the right to administer the educational institutions given under Article 30. The colleges, particularly professional colleges, will fail in their special objectives if they are not given the freedom in the admission of their students. The Supreme Court in St. Stephen's College case has accepted the right of a minority institution to have a rational admission procedure of its own. There should not be any interference in this right to give admissions so long as the admission process is transparent and takes care of merit and other broad/important educational and national concerns about the standard of education, security, professional ethics etc.

The Supreme Court of India has also made distinction between Government-aided and unaided educational institutions and then went on to say that in the unaided minority educational institutions, admissions cannot be regulated by the state or university except for providing qualifications and minimum conditions of eligibility. Thereby it gave almost full freedom to give admission to minority students by reservation or preferential treatment.

In case of aided educational institutions the right to give admission to students from the minorities is also recognized by the Supreme Court but with the provision that they would be required to admit a reasonable extent of non-minority students. What is the reasonable extent? The St. Stephens case provided that 50% reservation can be given to minorities. But in TMA Pai Foundation case, power is given to each state Government to notify the percentage of the non-minority students to be admitted, keeping in view the type of institution, educational needs of minorities, etc. In other words, no predetermined fixed percentage can be stipulated. It has also been stipulated that in the case of aided professional institutions, passing of the common entrance test held by the state agency is necessary to seek admission. The Supreme Court has also stated that merit may be determined either through a common entrance test conducted by the concerned university or the government or an entrance test conducted by individual institutions, the method to be followed is for the university or the government to decide. 

The previous government tried to enforce this observation of the Supreme Court without realizing its adverse impact on minority institutions right to give admission to achieve their special objectives as enshrined in Article 30.

Protection of the right to give admission and to provide reservation to minorities as provided in Article 30 is important for the peaceful and stable growth of different groups of the nation and the progress of the country. This is also important for the preservation of freedom and security of our country. President Wilson of USA had said in 1919 that nothing is more likely to disturb the peace of the world than the treatment meted out to minorities. Similarly Lord Acton of Britain was of the view that the most certain test by which we judge if a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by the minorities.

Undisputedly, any right is linked with the corresponding duty on such institutions to provide quality education, fairness in admissions, treatment meted out to its students, staff etc. This puts a greater responsibility on these minority institutions to provide a fair and merit-based admission, to give admission to meritorious students from the minorities and to provide a very high quality of education. This issue should be dealt with immediately on priority as most of minority institutions, particularly Muslim ones, are suffering from the malice of bad management, inferior infrastructure facilities and poor quality of teaching and research. 

The effective performance of minority institutions is essentially linked with the utility and efficacy of the right to give preferential admission to minority students or our demands for reservation in educational institutions, even in government jobs. We have no option but to justify setting up of minority educational institutions or demand for reservations by better output with high quality education and matchless performance. This is the only viable and sure route for empowerment. 

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