How seriously should we take comments by the president or a governor? It's an odd question, I admit, but one that was poignantly posed last Saturday when, first, Margaret Alva, governor of Uttarakhand, and then Pratibha Patil, our dear president, advised Doon School to turn co-educational.
An appreciative titter ran through the listening school boys. The thought warmed the very cockles of their hearts. But few others were amused. And some found it a trifle odd. I'm part of the latter group.
First, Doon School considers itself India's premier boys' boarding school and many would agree. I dare say the Gandhi family is part of that consensus. So, to turn up at its 75th Founder's Day and proffer such advice is a touch peculiar. It's hardly the right occasion and makes the chief guest sound a little combative or, at least, unsympathetic.
But that's not my real reason for objection. After all, chief guests have a right to say what they want even if it's disagreeable. And both ladies made their point very pleasantly and inoffensively.
No, my concern arises out of the suspicion that this was a knee-jerk Pavlovian pronouncement made in the pursuit of gender equality misapplied in this instance. It's the sort of thing you expect women in power to say and, regrettably, they often do.
Were the two ladies simply responding to a general expectation or do they really believe in campaigning for co-education? Let me answer by asking if they would have offered similar — but opposite — advice to Welham Girls' or Maharani Gayatri Devi or all the different Loreto Convents that exist in India? After all, if boys' boarding schools should be told to give up decades of tradition and admit girls why shouldn't girls' boarding schools, some almost a century old, be told to take in boys? I'm sure the response from the little girls would be as welcoming as the one the president and the governor received from 'doscos'.
The truth is I've never heard a single advocate of co-education call upon girls' schools to admit boys. It's usually, if not always, the other way round. Why? My answer is beguilingly simple although you may not agree with it. It's acceptable to knock bastions of male prerogative but no one feels the same need to tackle women's-only institutions.
If I'm right, this means the pursuit of gender equality is opening doors for women but not necessarily for men. The fact convents remain closed to boys doesn't offend gender equalisers.
Now, as a convent school boy (!) — I was in kindergarten at Tara Hall, Simla — I can add that I had no wish to study in the subsequent classes of this or any other Loreto Convent. Let them continue their glorious tradition of keeping out boys. I applaud and will readily defend it.
Similarly, I'm all for the Doon School and any other boys' boarding school keeping out girls. No doubt we need and must have co-educational schools. Not for a moment would I disagree. But, equally, we need and should have schools only for boys or only for girls.
India needs the Doon School to keep getting better but Doon also has a right to continue as a boys' boarding school. Even if Mrs. Patil and Mrs. Alva don't like that, they have to learn to live with and accept this fact. But to be honest, I think they do. Which is why their comments don't need to be taken seriously.
The views expressed by the author are personal.