On Teachers and Politics

By Batskhem Myrboh

I am on the same page with the state government in its efforts to improve the quality of education in the state but I beg to defer on the method that is recently being adopted i.e., barring teachers in aided educational institutions from participating in political activities. In this piece I am not going to dwell on the positive contributions of teachers towards the political life of the state simply because, unlike in the past, we hardly have, at present, teachers who being in politics make any qualitative difference politically. Rather, a close look will be taken on the issue from other perspectives.
It was vide notification No. EDN.49/2015/Pt.1/504-A dated 23.03.2021 that the state government amended Rules 6 and 7 of the “Rules regarding Conduct and Discipline of the Employees of Aided Educational Institutions, 1961” (hereafter Rules 1961). According to the amended rules employees in aided educational institutions are barred from (i) holding offices of political organisations, (ii) offering as candidate in election to a legislative body, but they are not barred from any other political activity like joining a political organisation and even participating in election activities such as campaigning/canvassing. However, the circular issued by the Deputy Secretary, Education Department dated 17.11.2021 addressed to the Registrar NEHU, Deputy Commissioners, Director DHTE etc went a step further and beyond what the amended rules provide stating that all employees in aided educational institutions “are not allowed to hold office in political organisation or Local Bodies, or take part in any election activities”. Therefore, there is lack of concurrence between these two documents of the same government. One may even wonder at the source of authority of the deputy secretary to bar employees from all election activities. Instead of focusing on their incongruence, it is better to look into their complementary roles. When they are read together, teachers are required to maintain political neutrality.
In the above mentioned notification, there was no justification for bringing the above amendment. But from utterances of its architects and proponents, it is learned that teachers are barred from joining politics in order to ensure their attendance in educational institutions which is important for enhancing quality education. This argument is seriously flawed on two grounds; first it is based on conjecture and not on facts, and second it is self-contradictory as such employees are permitted (verbally) to hold offices of local durbars. To be a headman is taxing- mentally, physically and also by way of time – perhaps much more than what involvement in politics entails. At the college level which I am conversant with, there is already a rule/instruction from the government that teachers in aided institutions need to adhere to UGC workload whereby they are required to work 40 hours in a week with a minimum of five hours a day. Moreover, assistant professors and associate professors/professors are required to engage 16 and 14 hours of direct teaching in a week respectively. Out of 40 hours in a week teachers are supposed to spend six hours for research activities. However, in order to enable teachers to perform their duties efficiently, putting in place required and supporting infrastructures is of great importance. I am sure effective enforcing of this rule will definitely bring about certain improvement in the quality of education but I am skeptical that barring teachers from engaging in political activities will bring any change. As long as a teacher can perform his/her duties what warrants the government to interfere in the activities which can be performed outside the working hours/days/weeks/months? In fact, if there is any teacher who fails to perform the duties, rules are already in place on which disciplinary action can be taken against such a teacher. Instead of taking necessary action against the defaulting teacher, the government is targeting every employee. This is an infantile overreaction.
Indian citizens enjoy, according to Article 19 (1) of the Indian Constitution, inter alia the right to freedom of speech and expression, the freedom to assemble peaceably without arms and the freedom to form associations or unions. No doubt, these freedoms are not absolute but their restrictions have to be reasonable. The question that arises is whether the restriction imposed by the government on teachers’ right is reasonable or not. To test its reasonableness one may ask a question whether it serves the purpose of education and public interest. The answer is NO. There is no established correlation between political neutrality of an employee and quality of education. Had it been so, government schools and colleges whose employees maintain political neutrality would have been way ahead of aided institutions but the ground reality is completely different. When it does not serve its intended purpose, the act therefore, is unreasonable and liable to be declared unconstitutional.
So what hampers education? The answer to this is poor administration which is responsible for the non-implementation of the already existing rules one of which was already highlighted before in case there have been cases of it being breached. Besides, proper implementations of the pre-amended rules 6 and 7 of the Rules 1961would have already served the purpose of education without needing to take away the Fundamental Rights of the citizens. These rules while allowing an employee to hold office of political organisations or local bodies or offering himself as candidate in elections to legislative bodies, is required to take “compulsory leave without pay from the date of filing his nomination till the end of the next academic session or till the termination of the term of his office to which he is elected as the case may be”. It is further provided that such employee cannot hold his post on lien beyond a period of five years.
It may be noted that the Supreme Court in the State of Assam and Another vs Ajit kumar Sharma and Others (27.10.1964) observed that the Rules 1961 was notified by the State of Assam (of which Meghalaya was a part and later adopted the Rules) on 29.03.1961 only after consultation with all the stakeholders, i.e, the Governing Bodies of all the affected colleges, Gauhati University and the Assam College Teachers’ Association (ACTA). But when the Government of Meghalaya brought this amendment, it was unilaterally and dictatorially done without consulting the stakeholders. I have been an active member in the central body of the Meghalaya College Teachers’ Association (MCTA) for nearly a decade now, but I am not aware of the government’s consultation for bringing the amendment.
The fundamental considerations of barring a teacher of aided institutions from active engagement in politics are (1) whether he/she is a government employee and (2) whether his/her post constitutes an office of profit under the central government or state government. It has been maintained by the state government that employees in aided institutions are employees of the private managements and not of the state government and this has been upheld by the Division Bench of the Honorable Guahati High Court in Writ Appeal No. 14 of 2001, dated 07-12-2005. When they are not government employees they are not part of the state bureaucracy and therefore, they are not required to maintain political neutrality.
A government servant needs to maintain political neutrality and refrain from engaging in political activities other than voting and executing election duties not on the question of his/her ability or inability to make available for duties but to prevent the breakdown of administration that may occur due to his/her disloyalty to the government of the day and also to prevent him/her from misusing his/her official position and public resources for influencing elections. Again, it may be noted that teachers in aided institutions, unlike government employees, do not draw salary from the state government, rather they do so from the fund of the respective colleges; the government simply provides aid to the institution for which the colleges have to pay to the government 60 per cent of the tuition fees paid by students. The fund of the college is different from the fund of the government; it is not a public but a private fund. Therefore, it cannot be stated that teachers in aided institutions are holding offices of profit as mentioned in Articles 102 and 173 of the Indian Constitution which deal with disqualifications of the Members of Parliament and Members of the State Legislature {For more information see Joint Committee on Offices of Profit (Sixteenth Lok Sabha) Fourth Report, 2015}. When they are not government employees and are not holding offices of profit or in other words when they are not government servants, it is an arbitrary act to impose prohibition on them from having political affiliations and engaging in political activities including election activities after performing their duties.
The people of Meghalaya are not lacking in education and logical reasoning. Therefore, we deserve to hear a better, more convincing and logically sound argument when any measure is taken that affects our rights. But rules are valid unless legally challenged.
(Batskhem Myrboh teaches Political Science for the under-graduates in Synod College)

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