A couple of mon-ths back I was moderating a TV discussion between writer Amitav Ghosh, and a perky, outspoken bunch of university students. One of them popped up with the invariable, but clichéd question: Did Ghosh believe there was a ‘Stephanian school of literature’, given how many famous authors seem to walk off its shining green lawns?
Amitav and I, both from ‘College’ (if you want to spot a St Stephen’s alumnus, that’s the surefire sign — there’s no article or pronoun when we talk of our campus years; it’s just ‘college’ — cringed slightly at the presumptuous tag. But then he went on to say, what many others — bureaucrats, businessmen, journalists and artistes — have said before.
“College,” he said, was where he met the most extraordinarily bright and, perhaps, the nicest people he has ever known and its diversity and ideas shaped him in an indelible way. This, from someone who has also studied at Oxford, taught at Harvard and lived in New York.
I knew exactly what he meant in the implicit bonding that only a shared experience can create. But, if usually, meeting someone from College evokes a quiet pride, this time I felt a mild panic and deep sadness. Was this going to be the last time someone would describe those deliciously textured and passionate years in a way that was immediately identifiable across generations? Was the St Stephen’s ethos — built assiduously over 127 years — now terminally ill? Would College ever be the same again? The Church, you see, is killing our alma mater. The monstrous culture of quotas is all set to swallow its soul.
First, the (ominous sounding) Supreme Council that controls St Stephen’s, increased the reserved seats for Christian students from 40 per cent to 50 per cent.
Then, finding that many of these blocked seats went empty over the years because of a lack of qualified candidates among minority students, it drastically pulled down the cut-off marks needed for admission to 60 per cent. So, while, every other student passing out of high school needs anywhere in the range of an 85-90 per cent score in the board exams to even eye three years at St Stephen’s, being Christian means you can walk in with a much lower grade.
These were decisions that ripped through the heart of college, pushing its faculty, students and alumni onto different sides of ugly battlelines. Soon, the contentious principal who began the process had to exit, but the college was left headless and steeped in petty politics and volatile internal divisions. It’s so ironic for an institution that was always accused of being elitist because it did not even participate in the Delhi University students’ elections, preferring instead to create its own student body.
Those days, our defence used to be that we didn’t care to be soiled by the muck and dirt of campus politics. Who would have thought then that the same institution would end up being mired in controversy? Two ministers in the present union cabinet — India’s foreign secretary and the head of the country’s Planning Commission — are all Stephanians. How ironic then, that at this point, the College doesn’t even have a principal — it has been orphaned by an appalling lack of leadership.
But unmindful of the storm raging all around it — a storm that could bring more than the building down — the powerful mafia of Bishops that control St Stephen’s (supported by others within the college) are going ahead with another outrage.
Now they want to reserve faculty seats for Christian teachers. The administrative body that controls the college has quietly instructed heads of department to fill vacant posts with Christian candidates.
Just recently, a former gold medalist student, who wanted to come back and teach at College, was rejected for the job in favour of a Christian alternative. Teachers have protested, argued, dashed off angry letters — even gone on TV to make their point — but the stern men in the purple robes have the ruthlessness of the old Crusaders. They really couldn’t give a toss.
And why should they? They have an inspiring role model in the Human Resource Development Minister who just this month ordered India’s IITs to reserve teachers’ seats for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and OBCs. Not one of the IIT directors was consulted before the dictatorial memo was circulated asking that the faculty quotas be implemented with ‘immediate effect’. The IIT teachers have attempted a few, feeble street protests, but they all know the die has been cast and there is no looking back now. When Brand IIT can be mauled beyond recognition by subversive politics, why would anyone care about a small island of excellence called St Stephen’s College?
For very long now those who oppose reservations have been branded as ‘casteist’ and ‘elitist’ by the quota-pushers. But actually, the debate engulfing my old college has precious little to do with caste, class or egalitarianism. In the name of religion and Christianity, St Stephen’s is being pummelled by bigots and autocrats into the very opposite of its essence.
Yes, St Stephen’s is a ‘Christian’ college. But back in the day, what that used to mean was that the choir and the cross, and the little chapel at the back would be the setting for an ensemble cast of hundreds of people from different faiths, backgrounds and castes, to make a home for three years; a home that we never wanted to leave. And its Latin motto — ad dei gloriam — ‘For the greater glory of God’ — always made perfect sense. It was hopeful, inspirational and filled with the grand possibilities of Life.
Now, we can just sit back and watch another institute that India was proud of being destroyed in the name of God. And we can’t even turn to faith and ask that they be forgiven, for “they know not what they do”. The tragedy is they know exactly what they are doing. And you and I can do nothing to change it.
(Barkha Dutt is the Group Editor, English News, NDTV)