A few days ago, a senior Catholic priest explained to me why he had decided to step down as the manager of a parish school in Jacob Circle after running the institution for more than five years. Father Joseph D’Souza had run schools in New Marine Lines and Mankhurd for nearly 10 years before moving to St Ignatius High School at Jacob Circle.
“Politicians are always after Catholic schools. Parents do not want to even pay computer fees and take every little dispute with the school to politicians who use the complaints to terrorise us. Everybody is fed up; I wanted to step down and do something less stressful,” said D’Souza, who is now waiting for the city’s archbishop to give him his next assignment.
Gordon D’Souza, president of community group Bombay Catholic Sabha, said that while politicians have been an old source of trouble for their schools, the menace has been growing lately.
“Politicians want to win popularity in their areas, and schools run by us are an easy fodder,” said D’Souza.
For a group that forms around two per cent of the population, the Christian community provides education services in a scale much disproportionate to their numbers.
Though, with the corporatisation of education, many private-run schools have now moved into the elite space once occupied largely by Christian-run schools, the latter are still thronged by aspiration-driven families seeking ‘convent’ education for their children.
“It [the harassment] happens across the country. There are schools that are run by corporate groups, but our schools are targeted because we provide a value-based education accessible to every income group,” said Father Joseph Manipadam, secretary for education in the Delhi-based Catholics Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), the apex decision-making body of the Catholic Church in India.
In Mumbai, apart from the Jacob Circle School, Canossa Convent High School, Mahim; Holy Cross High School, Lower Parel; and St Joseph High School, Umarkhadi, have been recent targets of politicians who have tried to meddle in trivial disputes over fees between parents and school managements.
Father Constancio Noronha, manager of Holy Cross High School, said, “This is a problem we face every year. There is a lot of pressure on us, as we cannot take in all the children who apply. Those who do not get admissions go to politicians who try to find some loopholes in law to target us,” said Noronha.
In case of Noronhna’s school, a local politician warned the school against implementing the Right to Education (RTE) Act which they said was snatching seats from local students.
“The act requires us to reserve 25 per cent seats for poor students, but the politicians wanted these seats to be given to local students. It is a pathetic situation,” said Noronha.
The RTE Act, with its objective to help children from poor families, has noble intentions. Unfortunately, in many cases, said Manipadam, it has become another tool to bully schools run by the community. The CBCI is now seeking an amendment in the act to get all schools run by minority groups exempted from the act.
“The act now says that only unaided minority institutions are exempted from provisions (to reserve 25 per cent seats for children from poor families) the act. We are saying that by denying us complete freedom to manage our educational institutions, the government is violating our constitutional rights as minorities,” said Manipadam, who added that they are in the process of preparing the draft of a memorandum that they plan to submit to Parliament.
“We are not saying that we do not want to take in poor children; we do that anyway. We are asking for protection of our constitutional rights as religious minority,” he said.