Ten Christian denominations and the Nair Service Society of the Hindu Nair community came together last week to resist the Left Democratic Front government's plans for reform in Kerala's education sector.
Church leaders visited the NSS headquarters at Perunna, Changanassery, on Thursday, reportedly at the instance of Joseph M.Puthussery, a Kerala Congress (Mani) legislator.
A constituent of the opposition United Democratic Front, the KC (M) draws its support mainly from the powerful Syrian Christian community.
The Perunna meeting formed an action committee with Syro Malabar Archbishop Mar Joseph Perunthottam and NSS general secretary PK Narayana Panicker as chairmen and Church of South India bishop Thomas Samuel and NSS joint secretary G Sukumaran Nair as general secretaries.
The Churches and the NSS were together in the 'liberation struggle' that led to the Centre's dismissal of the first Communist government in 1959. The main provocation for that struggle, too, was an attempt at educational reform.
Christian missions were pioneers of modern education in Kerala. They received firm support from the rulers of the erstwhile states of Travancore and Cochin.
Official statistics show that private managements control 67.6% of the lower primary schools, 71.2% of the upper primary schools, 67.0% of the high schools and 58.0% of the higher secondary schools. Most of them receive grants from the State government.
Private managements dominate higher education too. They run 150 of the 189 arts and science colleges and 70 of the 84 engineering colleges.
Official documents do not indicate how many of the private institutions are under the control of the Churches. According to knowledgeable sources, different Christian missions manage more than three-fourths of the private schools. The NSS controls a majority of the rest. The Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam of the Ezhava community and the Muslim Education Society are among the other minor stakeholders.
All but a couple of clauses of the Kerala Education Act, which was enacted by the Communist government 50 years ago, survived the legal challenge mounted by private managements. The Kerala Education Rules framed in terms of that law still hold the ground.
A committee appointed by the present government, with retired Chief Secretary CP Nair as chairman, is now reviewing the KER provisions. It is expected to submit its proposals for changes in it before the year-end.
The day the bishops and the NSS leaders conferred in Perunna, Government School Teachers Union president K Vikraman Nair resigned from the committee to register his opposition to the draft proposals formulated by it. He was the only pro-UDF member of the committee.
Two proposals mooted by LDF supporters have invited the wrath of the private managements, particularly the Churches and the NSS.
One of them envisages transfer of supervisory control over educational institutions from the State governments to the panchayats in furtherance of the policy of decentralisation of power.
Opponents argue that this will enable local politicians to pressure school managements.
While the LDF and the UDF have been alternating in power at the State level, the LDF has been controlling a majority of the local self-government institutions continuously.
The other reform proposal envisages vesting of the power to appoint teachers in the State Public Service Commission. Supporters of the move argue that since the government pays the teachers' salaries the right of appointment must vest in it.
While the Christian missions and the NSS want to retain the right to appoint teachers, the SNDP Yogam favours entrusting the task to the PSC. It hopes this will make it possible to bring teachers' jobs within the purview of the reservation policy. CP Nair has indicated the possibility of creating an alternative mechanism for selection of teachers on the lines of the one in the banking sector.
A clash between the Church-NSS axis and the government on the reform proposals cannot be ruled out. However, much water has flowed under the bridge in the last half-century.
The political situation in the State and the nation as a whole has changed so much that any hope of repeating 1959 is a pipedream.
At the same time, the social and economic power of the forces ranged against the government cannot be wished away. They have enough clout to scuttle the government's plans. This is borne out by the way the managements of self-financing colleges have frustrated all attempts of the LDF government to rein them in. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 26, 2007.