Cathedral Administrator Fr Martin Sirju considers the legacy of Sat Maharaj and what Catholic education can learn.
Sat is dead. Long live the Bengal tiger!
Bengal tigers are an endangered species and it would be hard to find someone as visionary as Sat in denominational education.
Of course, many Catholics will respond we had/have our own visionaries in education. When denominational education was threatened by the then Eric Williams government, it was Fr Pedro Valdez CSSp and Sr Francis Xavier SJC who sought to take charge of matters educational ultimately resulting in the Concordat of 1970.
Catholic secondary schools, the large majority owned by religious congregations, had their own visionaries and shakers. But there were differences.
Christian education was the staple offering. It received the support of the government of the day as the people of power in the society were Christian, as they still are today.
It was considered elitist education and to some extent still is.
Hindu education had to start from scratch and fight for government approval and funding. Sat did not wait for that funding. As he always said, “Hindu schools started in cowsheds.”
Like the boiling water that is needed for good tea, so too persecution brings out the best in religious adherents. Persecution brought out the best fighting skills in Sat as he envisioned carving out not merely a new terrain in education but a Hindu terrain that he confidently felt would match the Christian one in time.
History proved him right. In that short space of time, Lakshmi Girls Hindu College (LGHC) has copped the President’s Medal for five successive years.
At his funeral, it was mentioned he told the Maha Sabha Principals Association, “after five is six, and after six is seven”. That is visionary language.
LGHC also amassed 40 scholarships this year, the most for any secondary school. Several of these winners are from humble backgrounds indicating that class is not necessarily a competitive advantage in education.
Parental support, determination of the student and religious commitment are also crucial, and here Hindu schools shine brightly.
It is not at all my intention to reduce success in Catholic education to scholarships nor to minimise the calibre of non-scholarship winners. I am looking overall at what a man has achieved in 42 years.
Hindu primary schools are among the most sought after right now. They have produced more than their fair share of top SEA performers.
These achievements do not happen by chance. They come with data, strategy, implementation, evaluation and re-visioning. Have we done this for our schools over the past 40 years? I hardly think so. I am only now seeing some corrective measures, and these are bearing fruit.
Sat also had another quality that Catholic education sorely needs: courage. Catholic education has no Bengal tiger. Catholic educators are too intimidated by government. Sat took on governments.
Some might say that Sat had fewer schools so he could have afforded to mount a stronger challenge. Well, the schools are not so few: 40 primary, 20 Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) centres and 5 secondary schools. That is not a small number. Note also his focus on ECCEs—he wanted to monopolise their minds from young. This is excellent planning.
Let’s look at how things are set up in our schools. Some years ago, Archbishop Joseph Harris was going to celebrate Mass in my parish. There was a large turnout and I needed parking. We sometimes used the school for parking, so I went across to the security guard and told her to open the gates for people to park.
She said she could not do so as she had no word from the principal. I told her I was the manager of the school and have the authority to instruct her to open the gates since this is a Sunday. She declined and said her supervisor told her she must do so only at the request of the principal.
I pleaded with her to open insisting it is the manager’s privilege outside of school hours. When she said she could not do so I told her I was going for a bolt-cutter (I was dead serious!) to cut the lock and then let me see what anyone would do about it. At that point she looked a bit frightened, called her supervisor who reluctantly told her to open the gate. Would this have prevailed in a Hindu school?
Sat did what I think no successor of his would do: he personally interviewed each Hindu teacher; he knew their family; and where they lived.
I was listening to him speak on education once. I’m paraphrasing: “When you come to teach in my school I don’t want to see your qualifications. I want to know something about you. I want to know where you live, who are your parents; tell me which is your mandir and who is your pundit; I want to see what you are doing for your community. I am putting the minds of my children in your hands. I want to know the kind of person you are.” This is what Catholic education ought to be about.
It is not surprising that Sat was the one to affirm the constitutionality of the Concordat by taking a Hindu principal to court and winning. The judgement was never appealed.
The Catholic Church took the initiative to bring about the Concordat and Sat defended it in court. Sat also said in that same radio programme that when he opened a school, he looked for Hindu millionaires in the area. Once there was a Hindu school, they had an obligation to support it.
I don’t think we in Catholic education think like this. Our millionaires have done less than their fair share to support our Catholic schools.
Mr Sat Maharaj was no saint. He never claimed to be. It was said at his funeral he had a tender, compassionate, grandfatherly side that he showed to children. A fighter cannot afford to show that side in public. He had his weaknesses, but the nation is better because of his struggles. We should mourn his loss.