July 04, 2020
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St Stephen's: Murder In The Cathedral?

Narrow religiosity is contorting the grand ethos of a capital college

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St Stephen's: Murder In The Cathedral?
Tribhuvan Tiwari
St Stephen's: Murder In The Cathedral?
Somewhere in India, there is a virtual graveyard of once great educational institutions destroyed by the petty vanities of men. The corpses it contains come from all over the country, and bear identities that are secular as well as denominational. Among the residents of this kabristan are the Isabella Thoburn College, Lucknow; Elphinstone College, Mumbai; Queen Mary's College, Chennai; Presidency College, Calcutta; Patna College; the Aligarh Muslim University; and the Banaras Hindu University.

The keeper of this graveyard might soon receive a new body, whose name (and fame) dwarfs all the others. This is St Stephen's College, Delhi. That the applicant has been ailing has been known for some time. Hope lingered that its illness might be reversed. However, news has just come in that the college authorities plan to inject a poison that would, in effect, kill off the patient. When that happens, the corpse would command the largest tombstone in what is already a well-populated graveyard.

St Stephen's College was founded in 1881 by a band of priests from Cambridge. For the first few decades of its existence, it was not much more than a mofussil college. Then, in 1911, the British decided to shift the capital of India to Delhi. Now the influence of the college grew, and grew. In the years after Independence, it came to be primus inter pares among the colleges of the University of Delhi, itself India's first truly national university.

I speak as a Stephanian, but even the unprejudiced historian can make the case that this college has contributed as much as any other to the making of independent India. From its ranks have come many of our finest public servants, academics, writers and artists. From a list that can run into the hundreds, a few contemporary names must suffice: Shiv Shankar Menon, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Barkha Dutt, Kaushik Basu, Ketan Mehta, I. Allan Sealy and Amitav Ghosh.

There remains the feeling that this is an elitist college. The impression persists because St Stephen's has also produced hundreds of snobs and bores, who flaunt the fact that they once studied there. However, the tag of elitism can be repudiated by the names of the remarkable social workers who have passed through the college. Among the Stephanians who have lived their lives for and with the poor of India are (the late) Jugnu Ramaswamy, Mihir Shah, Rukmini (Rinki) Banerji and Sanjit (Bunker) Roy.

We know what these Stephanians have given the nation, but what did St Stephen's give them? Khushwant Singh, who studied in the college in the 1930s, says he learnt there that "parts of the Bible were great literature". He adds that "another thing that St Stephen's gave me was a consciousness of what is right and what is wrong". This didn't "come through sermons on morality, it was there in the atmosphere that pervaded the campus: you imbibed it, like inhaling fresh air".

When I studied in St Stephen's 40 years later, the air one inhaled was still fresh. The nicest thing about the college was that family background did not matter a whit. Here your father's profession or income was completely irrelevant; so also was your religion or mother tongue. What counted was how good you were at what counted: whether bowling a leg-break, delivering a speech, playing the guitar or mimicking a film star. Since these virtues spread themselves out over the population, and since each had its own special constituency, there were few Stephanians who felt left out.

An attractive feature of St Stephen's was that it was genuinely all-Indian. It had large contingents from Bihar and Rajasthan, who unselfconsciously spoke Hindi among themselves and to the rest of us. There were many students from the Northeast, and numerous South Indians. The staff was similarly diverse: my own teachers included a Bengali, a Tamil, a Haryanvi Jat and a Delhi Kayastha. I studied economics; meanwhile, the history department was run by three stalwarts named Mohammad Amin, David Baker and Prem Sagar Dwivedi. This capacious catholicism marked out the college from its rivals: after all, Presidency College in Calcutta was basically for Bengalis, the Madras Christian College basically for Madrasis and, at a pinch, Malayalis.

This was, in theory, a Christian institution, but in practice its Christianity was understated. The two men who made St Stephen's what it was were the first Indian principal, S.K. Rudra, and his English associate, C.F. Andrews. Both were close friends of Mahatma Gandhi. Their tolerant and broad-minded version of Christianity seemed to blur into the benign Hindu traditions of bhakti. Love, service, charity, understanding-- these were the guiding principles of the faith of the two, and of the men who followed them.

Stephanian Christianity, if such a term can be coined, was a moral universe in which the specificities of one particular religion were rendered irrelevant. As with Gandhi's own ecumenical philosophy, this was a creed that, among its very many diverse followers, attracted an entirely voluntary adherence.

Faith and ethnic origin were irrelevant to being a Stephanian. That was its peculiar charm, and also its greatest asset. The 'morality' that Khushwant Singh and others imbibed at St Stephen's taught them to treat every human being as unique, as an individual to be dealt with on his or her terms. This, in a country so divided by the politics of identity, was hard to preach and harder to practise. That a measure of success was achieved is tribute to the visionaries who nurtured the college.

For most of its history, the governing ethos of St Stephen's was liberal, plural, cosmopolitan-- in a word, Indian. However, in the early 1990s, the Supreme Court permitted 'minority' institutions to allot up to 50 per cent of their seats on the basis of faith. Immediately, the pressure grew on St Stephen's to increase the number of Christian students. Slowly, the Christian intake began to grow.

Although the college keeps these figures secret, it is estimated that at present some 25 per cent of the student body is Christian. These students enter the college with a poorer school-leaving record than their peers. (The gap varies from course to course�it is higher in prized subjects like economics, and lower in subjects with fewer takers, such as chemistry.) Last week, it was announced that the creeping Christianisation of St Stephen's will be made a galloping one. Forty per cent of all seats are to be reserved for Christians; another 20 per cent for other special categories, such as sportsmen, the handicapped, and Scheduled Castes. To this shall be added the seats in the gift of the principal, ranking members of the Church, and (this being Delhi) senior bureaucrats and ministers. If the proposal goes through, three seats out of four will be filled on strictly 'non-academic' grounds.

The principal reason behind this move is the defeat of Christian ecumenism by Christian evangelism. Those who run the Church of North India today are far removed from the faith of the founders of St Stephen's. These new Christians seek not understanding and truth, but political mileage and economic gain. In the real sense of the word, they aren't 'Christian' at all-- in the same way as Narendra Modi is not 'Hindu' and Osama bin Laden not 'Muslim'.

St Stephen's has stood for a catholic and truly Indian Christianity. Now, the college is in danger of being captured by a group of Christians who are insular and narrow-minded. These power-brokers seek to usurp a highly valued brand, a brand deepened and developed by other people using altogether different (and more noble) methods. Once the student body has been made the property of a particular religion, pressures to remake the faculty in the same image will follow. At risk then would be St Stephen's reputation for intellectual excellence as well as its cosmopolitan character. Mediocrity and its even uglier cousin, parochialism, will rule.

It is important to note here that while St Stephen's was founded by Christians, it is funded by the state. According to the Union ministry of education, fully 95 per cent of the expenses of the college are met by the University Grants Commission. Why should a college that draws so heavily on the public exchequer be allowed to choose 40 per cent of its students from 2 per cent of the country's population? The new policies are claimed by their proponents to be 'legal', but they are surely unethical. They are also profoundly unhistorical, based on a wilful ignorance of the traditions and legacy of St Stephen's College.

Great institutions are difficult to conceive of and even more difficult to build. But they are comparatively easy to destroy. The affection and admiration that St Stephen's now commands is the product of decades of patient, selfless work by hundreds of teachers and students: Christian and non-Christian, rich, poor and middle class, North Indian and South Indian and East Indian. And yet, the cumulative labours of these very many people over very many years can be undone by the shortsightedness of a few men, and within a day--that is, in the time it takes to formulate a new admission policy and get it passed. If its present administrators have their way, St Stephen's will soon become a corrupt Christian version of a Hindu shakha or a Muslim madrassa.

(Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi. He was a student at St Stephen's from 1974 to 1979.)
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