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The shrinking of St Stephen’s

Ramachandra Guha


The lawn in front of the main building of St Stephen’s College is called Andrews Court. It is named for an Englishman who was greatly beloved of India and Indians. Charles Freer Andrews came to this country in 1904 as a teaching missionary. Unlike other Europeans, he did not stand aloof from the natives. Among the friends he made early on were a Muslim scholar, Zakaullah, and an Arya Samaj preacher, Swami Shraddhananda. Later, he drew even closer to two other Indians, whose names were Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

When the British principal of St Stephens retired, Charlie Andrews was offered the job, but he insisted it go to a deserving Indian instead. In his life and work he transcended the divides of race and religion, and also of class. He led a global campaign to abolish indentured labour in the British Empire, travelling to Africa, Fiji and the Caribbean to pursue his cause. Andrews was a person of great commitment, and also of enormous charm; attributes that shine through the most readable collection of his correspondence recently edited by Uma Dasgupta, and published under the title Friendships of ‘Largeness and Freedom’.

This writer joined St Stephen’s in 1974, some 60 years after Andrews had left the college. Some of the spirit of the man still hung over the place. To be sure, many of my classmates wished only to make money, to barter a St Stephen’s degree for a job in Hindustan Levers or Citibank.

Others thought of the college as a stepping stone to a career of power and influence in the IAS. Some students had little interest in money or power; choosing to become teachers, writers, and social workers instead. However, regardless of what they did after graduating, while they were in college most Stephanians were uncontaminated by the prejudices of race, religion, caste or class. The ethos of Andrews and Gandhi still prevailed.

Although St Stephen’s was technically a Christian college, in my time its Christianity was extremely understated. Christians constituted perhaps 2 per cent of the country’s population; and perhaps 5% per cent of the college’s students. However, after a judgment in the Supreme Court allowing ‘minority-aided’ institutions to admit up to 50 per cent students from the founding community, this began to change. Sociologist Andre Beteille, then a member of the governing body, warned the incumbent principal Anil Wilson, that if he rushed to admit more Christians the character of the college would change, and not necessarily for the better. He was disregarded; doubtless under pressure from the Church hierarchy, Wilson began admitting many more Christians. Successive principals took the process further; now the college is equally divided between Christians and non Christians, with the former having a substantially lower cut-off for admission. Wilson’s successors have hired more Christian faculty as well. St Stephen’s has for many decades now been entirely funded by the public exchequer. And, on the whole, Christians are far more privileged than Dalits or Adivasis. A striking consequence of this lopsided reservation policy has been an influx of students from the Syrian Christian community, who have a high degree of wealth and status already. Reserving 50 per cent of seats for 2 per cent of the population, this a far from disadvantaged section to boot, is surely indefensible on ethical grounds, especially when the college is funded not by the Church but by taxpayers’ money.

There have been academic costs to this capture as well. If outstanding students and the best faculty are turned away only because of their religion, then they will go elsewhere. Within Delhi University, Sriram College of Commerce, Hindu College and Lady Sriram College have benefited, both in terms of students and quality, from the Christianisation of St Stephen’s. Elsewhere, the new law schools are picking up brilliant students in the humanities. In my generation, a disproportionate number of the best historians and social scientists came from my own college; now, they come from these other institutions. The evidence indicates that the galloping Christianisation of my old college has hurt its image badly. The college authorities, impervious to this evidence, want to make the institution even more of an evangelical ghetto. A recent report in The Print says the college wants to disband its philosophy department and replace it with a department of theology. It so happens that the St Stephen’s philosophy department has for many decades now been the best in the country. But philosophy is about argument, reflection and debate; whereas theology, of course, is about conformity and dogma. Apparently, those who now run the college prefer ideologues to thinkers. In academic terms, we need not deplore this narrowing of St Stephen’s institutional vision. For no college is the best, forever; Oxford and Cambridge jostled for primacy for centuries, and then Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Berkeley came along to challenge them both. If the likes of SRC, LSR and the National Law School flourish at St Stephen’s expense, India will benefit as a result.

But among old students who owe their own moral and intellectual education to the college, a sense of loss is inevitable. A place that was verily a pluralist paradise, a microcosm of the linguistic, ethnic, religious diversity of India, has been captured by vested interests within a powerful community. As my recent trips to the college demonstrate, the atmosphere of the place is far more polarised than it ever was before. Students were once known by their individual talents and eccentricities; now they are identified as ‘Christian’ and ‘Non Christian’ respectively. So are the faculty. St Stephen’s today is the absolute antithesis of the college and country that Charlie Andrews gave his life for.

(HT Media)

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