Why did the Ramakrishna Mission say they are not Hindus

A couple of months ago I had a very interesting discussion on Karma Yoga with a friend Anil. Somewhere along I spoke of the super Karmas of Swami Vivekananda and the   Ramakrishna Mission. That’s when Anil asked me a question. ‘Do you know that the Mission had declared themselves to be non-Hindus and asked for Minority status’? I was shocked! How could the followers of Ramakrishna Paramhamsa say they were not Hindus! There is no effect without a cause! Why did they say so?

I kept on posing this question to a number of friends but none could help with an answer. I had put the issue on the backburner when in the midst of discussions on the legal status of Jammu and Kashmir Arvind told me of constitutional provisions that grant special rights to minorities in managing educational institutions. I remember having read an article in the Times of India on how the West Bengal government was trying to exercise control over the Mission schools. Therefore I guessed that these provisions must favor minorities to the extent that forced the Ramakrishna Mission to apply for Minority Status.

What are these provisions? Article 30 of the Indian Constitution is the main article on this topic. However, one needs to read and understand articles 25 to 29 for a complete understanding of the subject. The article is a combination of law, history and philosophy. Since the premise for availing benefits under art 30 are key I have discussed them in detail i.e. What is Religion/Secularism/Minority? Referred to five books namely Indian Constitutional Law by Shri M P Jain, Introducing the Constitution of India by Dr Durga Das Basu, Minority Educational Institutions and Law by Shri Mihir Desai, The Constitution of India by Shri P M Bakshi & Secularism Revisited by R.A. Jahagirdar. Legal aspects are borrowed verbatim from these books with my analysis / comments.

I would like to thank Sandhya for sending me the relevant case laws, Madhuji, Arvindji for going through the manuscript and guiding me thereafter, Sucheta for pushing me to compile this piece earlier than planned, Parag and Sasha from Germany for providing information on tax paid by the Germans to the Church and Jayant from London for his insights. This article is dedicated to Veda Vyasa – the Guru of all times, Chanakya for his Arthathasastra, Swami Dayanand Saraswati for awakening India in the 1870’s and starting the Arya Samaj, Sardar Patel – the one who unified India as none other, Sri Aurobindo for helping me understand Bharat and the much respected Dr B R Ambedakar.

While I have tried my best to be as accurate am willing to stand corrected. The article is divided into twelve chapters.

1.    Background to Case - This chapter briefly tells you about the facts of the case involving the Ramakrishna Mission and the State of West Bengal that led to this matter being referred to the Supreme Court. Does there exist a Ramakrishna religion? Are they are a Minority under article 30?

2.    Bare Act - This chapter gives you Articles 19 and 25-30 as they appear in the Constitution. The intent is to enable a simple reading of these provisions.

3.    Historical Background - The object of this chapter is to give you pre-Independence events that forced the makers of the Constitution to provide for minority rights like art 30. The chapter starts with the various Acts passed by the Brits from 1858 to 1947. Next it tells you why/how the Brits encouraged separatist tendencies amongst Muslims, creation of separate electorates that eventually led to the Partition of India & the Minority problem thereafter.

4.    Meaning of Secular - It starts with the Preamble of the Constitution as written in 1950 and amendments of 1976. Next it attempts to define Secularism by referring to Supreme Court judgments and compares with U.SA. Britain, Germany, France, Turkey and Islam. It ends with an analysis on the subject.

5.    What is Religion? -  Have quoted Sri Aurobindo on religion. What is the Indian equivalent of religion? Dharma! Have defined the term thereafter. Ended with a Supreme Court judgment on the subject.

6.    Who is a Minority? - The chapter answers four questions namely, who is Minority & a linguistic minority? Issues arising out of denominations and sects? Are Jains, Buddhist and Sikhs minorities for the purposes of article 30 (1)? Have referred to various Court judgments on the subject. Inputs from Germany too.

7.    Establish and Administer - The chapter covers the meaning of ‘ right to establish and administer educational institutions’. Examined the relationship between articles 29 & 30. Then there is the Benefit Debate. Must the majority of students in a minority institution be from the minority community or! Have quoted various Supreme Court judgments that are contrary to each other. It ends with an analysis of the issues involved.

8.    Administrative Issues -  covers affiliation and recognition, practical issues and rights of employees, students, and management.

9.    Hindu Schools - have listed down various legal provisions and showed how they are applicable or not applicable to Hindu and minority schools. Next, Do Non-minorities have a fundamental right to establish and administer an educational institutional that is secular in nature?

10.    Legal View - have quoted Shri M P Jain and Dr Durga Das Basu on various aspects of articles 26 to 30, their implications on the nation.

11.    Summary - have summarized chapters one to ten with analysis.

12.    Way Forward - suggestions on where do we go from here.

Background to Case     

Sandhya sent me Bharat Digest (a summary of Supreme Court Cases) that contained the relevant case law. Bramchari Sidheswar Shai and Others vs. State of West Bengal 1995 4 SCC 646: AIR 1995 SC 2089. What are the facts of the case? Briefly –

As the writ petition filed in the Calcutta High court, which has led to the present appeals related to the Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda Centery College at Rahra – Ramakrishna Mission College it would be useful to know how the college was set up. Based on a Central and State govt grant on mission land was constructed the said college. The Deputy Secretary to the Govt of West Bengal wrote to the Registrar of the Calcutta University intimating him of the three-year degree college to be set up under the auspices of the Ramakrishna Mission and its readiness to manage to the college through a Governing Body to be constituted by it. The University granted affiliation to the proposed college but also accorded approval to Governing Body of that College as constituted by Ramakrishna Mission. Thereafter, the Governing Body of the College as constituted by the Mission from time to time with special approval obtained from the State Govt and University, continued to administer the affairs of the College. The Mission did not have a governing body modeled on the common pattern of governing bodies of sponsored colleges. However, in 1978 the Deputy Secretary to the Govt of West Bengal stated that the govt was feeling the need for revising the existing pattern for composition of Governing Bodies of govt sponsored colleges on a standard pattern excepting where the college concerned had a special constitution on the basis of Trust Deed or where the college was run by Missionary Societies on the basis of agreement with respective Missions.

In 1980 when a new principal Swami Shivamoyananda was appointed the Teachers Council went on strike, took over the management of the College and prevented the new principal from functioning but also made Prof A.R.Das Gupta to function as principal. The Mission and Secretary instituted a civil suit seeking a declaration that the functioning of Shri Gupta as principal and 14 professors was illegal.

The teachers etc in the High Court sought for the issue of a writ asking the West Bengal govt to reconstitute the governing body according to the standard pattern referred to above, a writ restraining the new principal from acting as principal of the Mission college & a writ declaring that the Mission college is governed by the W.B. Act of 1975 & 1978.

The Mission resisted these writs. Meanwhile the Calcutta University sent the Mission notices for reconstituting the governing bodies of three other colleges run by the mission. A learned single Judge of the High Court dismissed the notices issued by the Calcutta University on the premise that the Mission comprised of followers of the Ramakrishna Religion and were thus protected under article 30 (1) of the Constitution. The aggrieved parties i.e. the teachers, Calcutta University and West Bengal govt filed appeals but a Division Bench of the High Court dismissed the appeals agreeing that the followers of the Mission were a minority based on religion and entitled to protection under article 30 (1) of the Constitution.

The matter went to the Supreme Court. Swami Ramananda set out the features of Ramakrishna religion. The Court held that Ramakrishna Religion was very much part of Hindu religion and thus could not like Christian colleges, avail of Constitutional benefits granted by article 30 (1). However, the Court said that considering the special circumstances in which the College at Rahra came into existence, ‘we feel the interests of Justice may suffer by directing the State Govt to constitute its own governing body on standard pattern of the usual sponsored colleges, as prayed for by the writ petitioners. But, the view expressed herein shall not come in the way of the State govt wanting to change their earlier arrangement with the Mission college.

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