Christian mission to educate in the changed Indian political climate

9 May 2019

Christian mission to educate in the changed Indian political climate

There are sixty Anglican colleges and universities in India where the rights of “religious and linguistic minorities to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice” has been protected by the constitution since Independence. Post the 2014 general elections, however, these minority colleges have come increasingly under assault. The Revd Dr Valson Thampu, former president of the pre-eminent Saint Stephen’s College in Delhi, which Mahatma Gandhi made home when he visited Delhi in the early years of India’s struggle for freedom, has been an outspoken advocate for the independence of minority colleges. CUAC's General Secretary Canon Callaway noted, "Valson was chaplain, besides being Vice Principal and Head, Dept. of English, at Saint Stephen’s College in 1997 at CUAC’s first Triennial, which he organized, attended and chaired. Despite daily pillorying in the press, I find him a powerfully focused leader of calm conviction. Now retired to his native Kerala, his prophetic voice remains clarion."

The current Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) wire-pulled, Central Government is hostile to the religious and educational freedom that religious minorities have enjoyed in India since 1951. As per the RSS ideology, which BJP is mandated to implement, religious communities that have their holy lands outside India are ineligible to be full-fledged citizens. They cannot, hence, enjoy the rights and protection enshrined in the Constitution of India.

The BJP has registered a meteoric rise, beginning with just 2 seats in 1984, out of a total of 545, in the lower house of the Indian Parliament. By 2014, it went up to 282, which is above the simple majority mark. The mandate of the BJP is to establish Hindu Rashtra, or a Hindu theological state ruled by, and for, the Hindu upper castes. The RSS ideology does not accept the idea of India as a ‘socialist, secular, democratic republic’. It is committed, hence, to amending the Indian Constitution to align it with the Hindutva ideology. In successive election manifestos, the BJP has reiterated its intention to abrogate minority educational rights as per Article 30(1) of the Indian Constitution, which empowers religious and linguistic minorities to ‘establish and administer educational institutions of their choice’.

In December of 2014, the year the BJP came to power, and I was the principal of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, a directive was issued by the Ministry of Human Resource Development that the college should work on the 25th of December -Christmas day- and celebrate the day as ‘good governance day’. Details of how the celebration should be conducted were also prescribed. I was directed to submit a ‘compliance report’ to the ministry. I overlooked the directive. A couple of weeks later I was asked to file the compliance report. I furnished a report to the effect that ‘good governance’ was observed by St. Stephen’s College by respecting religious freedom under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which conferred on all citizens the right to ‘practise, preach and propagate’ their faith. The matter rested there.

Subsequently, attempts were made by Delhi University, to which St. Stephen’s is affiliated, to override the minority rights of the college in several ways. Each time I resisted and prevailed. I was determined to live by the Constitution of India, and not by the whims and fancies of those in power. My experience proves that it is possible to do so, provided one is ready to face such consequences as might arise therefrom.

It is misleading and dishonest, however, to paint a picture of the constrictive pressures on minority educational rights as stemming entirely from hostile political dispensations. In my experience as the principal of St. Stephen’s, it was from the Church of North India, Delhi Diocese -whose bishop is ex-officio chairman of the Governing Body and Supreme Council of the college- that I faced extreme harassment. Most churches in India see educational institutions as milch cows. Bishops in particular assume that they have a right to extract mega illicit income from them. Barring rare exceptions, church hierarchies neither understand, nor care for, education. Their interests are limited strictly to extracting money and peddling influence. The nine-year-old woe I endured in my struggle to keep St. Stephen’s clean and spiritually robust is documented in my memoir tilted On A Stormy Course (Hachette India, 2017) which is available on

Institutional heads, to avoid privation, cave in and collude with the church hierarchy. It is assumed as axiomatic that no principal can survive, if the chairman of the governing body (ex-officio the bishop of the concerned diocese) turns hostile. In doing so, they mortgage their freedom to implement their spiritual vision in their domains of stewardship. This proves a formidable hindrance to the pursuit of excellence in education. Mediocrity, not excellence, is the fruit of corruption. Pursuit of excellence is possible only in a matrix of spirituality. This, incidentally, is basic to the ‘Anglican’ vision for education.

Whether the hindrance to being spiritually robust and administratively transparent in the sphere of education administration comes from hostile governments, or from corrupt religious enclaves, the result is the same: it is desperately difficult to be Christian in the sphere of Christian education in India. Institutions do preserve vestiges of their religious identity. But bringing their life and witness into sync with biblical principles and universal values is another matter altogether. It becomes more harrowing when your own ‘fellow believers’ turn tormentors and collude with anti-Christian elements to break your spirit or, as was said in my case, to smoke you out.

It is important to reckon this reality, though it is neither pleasant nor politically correct to do so. When I review the history of Christian education in India, I see a vast panorama of wasted opportunities. Barring the early missionaries -many of them being overseas servants of God- the Indian Christian community has been found wanting in the practice of Christian education at all levels. On a rough estimate, 80% of India’s leaders and bureaucrats have been educated in Christian institutions. But a vast majority of them are hostile to the Christian cause today. Surely, this says something!

Going by biblical spirituality, what others do to us is nowhere near as important as what we do to ourselves by our sins of omission and commission. In a historical sense, the latter provokes the former. Of late, the hierarchies of several Christian denominations in India have been rocked by scandals ranging from rape, sexual abuses of diverse kinds, collusion with land mafia, fraudulent deals, financial frauds, and so on. The respect that Christian educational institutions used to command is all but lost. Even as we become like other institutions, the rationale for enjoying special rights under Article 30(1) begins to blur. It makes no sense that we need special rights to do what others are doing without them!

The most distressing thing about the Indian Christian community is its stubborn unwillingness to confront realities and to think spiritually through the significant events of our times. So, events come and go, leaving us just as we were. Even today, there is no sign that any meaningful effort is made to reckon where we have reached and how we may prepare ourselves for the difficult days ahead. It is those who are most reluctant to undertake this urgent exercise that are the loudest in bemoaning that evil days have descended on Christians.

‘The truth,” Jesus said, “shall set you free”. For that to happen, the truth must be sought and found! There is no indication that this is happening. Instead, voices crying in the wilderness are mistaken for pestilences and efforts made to silence them.

The Indian Christian community is desperately under-developed, all the more so in the North. Yet, there is no sense of purpose or urgency in developing and empowering them through the vast educational assets at our disposal. The irony is that the community, which provides quality education to the rest of the society, is now becoming educationally backward. An under-developed community will only be seen as a parasitical liability. The valid spiritual response to hostility is development. At any rate, excellence is basic to biblical spirituality. The children of God cannot be second rate. “Be perfect,” Jesus said, “even as your Father in heaven is perfect”.

The outcome of the on-going general elections in India (April-May, 2019) is crucial. There is a likelihood that BJP lose grounds. In that case, the RSS ideology will not descend on religious minorities in its full, crushing weight. But if the results prove otherwise, I’d worry for my community; for it is utterly underprepared to face the heat that is sure to mount. Irrespective of the outcome, it is high time the Indian Christian community emerges from the morass of moral and spiritual degradation to which it is sunk at the moment. That, and not elections results, is the key to the future. If we go from bad to worse, which too is a possibility, we shall poison ourselves to death, irrespective of how benign or malevolent ensuing dispensations are.

The strategy followed so far -of surviving somehow, drifting from day to day, combining the best of both worlds compromising spiritual integrity- is no longer feasible. The wind has already risen in the east and it is rumbling behind the backyard. It will separate the chaff from the grain. Between being persecuted by hostile political forces on the one hand, and slowly perishing through a metastasis of spiritual decay, the former looks preferable for being healthier. One can only hope that the Christian community in India wouldn’t come to such a pass.

Photo:  Samuel John Sekher