City Landmark - Hindu College, North Campus

City Landmark – Hindu College, North Campus

The rightward course.

[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]

It appears to be a new dawn for the “lotus”.

No, The Delhi Walla is not cheering the 2014 election victory of Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Narendra Modi, who led the campaign with a plastic lotus, his party’s symbol, pinned to his jacket.

I mean the logo of Delhi University’s (DU’s) Hindu College, which shows a rising sun above a lotus-like flower. On closer examination, though, it turns out to be a water lily.

News anchor Arnab Goswami is perhaps the college’s most famous alumnus. In May, while being feted by the college alumni association at The LaLit hotel, Mr Goswami, who studied sociology, said: “This award means more to me than any award in my life, and let me share with you that when I entered Hindu College, the gates of St Stephen’s were closed, …(and) when I appeared before the interview panel for Oxford University, I only said, ‘You should select me only because I am not from St Stephen’s.’”

Known for aggressive encounters with politicians on his TV show, Mr Goswami added: “Debating was something I learnt from this college. During my postgraduation days, I used to say I don’t belong to St Stephen’s, and that’s why I debate like this.”

If there is ever a debate on these two DU colleges on his news programme, Mr Goswami, who gets volatile on matters he deems patriotic, can always argue that unlike the gated St Stephen’s, Hindu, which freely permits entry, was not set up by British missionaries. The grandfather of Hindu College’s founder was, in fact, hanged by the British for collaborating with the last Mughal emperor.

On other points, Hindu’s positioning is not as potent.

Unlike St Stephen’s just across the street (I have written on that college here), Hindu has a lacklustre E-shaped building with no majestic arches or chattris. The lawns are scarred with brown patches. The canteen doesn’t serve mince cutlets. And while a 262-page tome, A History Of St Stephen’s College, Delhi, was published a decade before independence, the 115-year-old Hindu College never had a similar book — until now.

Illustrated with dozens of rare old photos and authored by Kavita A. Sharma and W.D. Mathur, both alumni, the solidly researched Hindu College Delhi—A People’s Movement, released last month, is a must-read not only for those interested in the Capital, but also for those fascinated by the most polarizing issue of our time, secularism.

A society by the name of Hindu College Delhi, registered to establish the college in 1899, aimed to “give a sound English education, upto the highest University standards, primarily to Hindus, and so far as it may not be inconsistent with this object, to students of other creeds.”

Further, the college memorandum continued, “in the case of Hindus, to combine secular education with thorough religious instruction according to the teachings of Sanatana Dharma, on non-Sectarian principles”.

To be sure, Hindu College may not be the country’s top-most institution of learning. It is, however, an apt laboratory to dissect how ideas of secularism and patriotism are being understood by the new generation, especially following the elevation of Mr Modi as prime minister.

Hindu College’s inauguration ceremony was performed in an Old Delhi dharamshala (rest house) on Basant Panchami by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, a leader of the Congress party who founded the Banaras Hindu University, which now lies in Mr Modi’s parliamentary constituency.

Perhaps sensitive to the politically charged debates on the subject, the authors of Hindu College Delhi emphasize: “Although this memorandum may sound chauvinistic in today’s ethos in its mention of Hinduism, the institution that was established was essentially secular. Muslims were not prevented from joining and those who did, were not compelled to study Hinduism.”

Indeed, the new college hired a pandit to teach Sanskrit and a maulvi, Persian.

“By 1947, in accordance with the secular principles of newly independent India, the wording of the college’s memorandum on the clauses of religious instruction was modified,” says Ms Sharma, director of the India International Centre.

Ms Sharma’s association with the college began in 1967, as a student. She went on to become an English literature lecturer there and ended her stint after having served as the college’s first woman principal, a first for any co-educational institution in Delhi University.

For a long time, however, Hindu’s co-educational status meant little. In the 1940s, there were only a dozen female students compared to a thousand males. Girls sat in the front rows and had to remain in the common room when there were no classes. No interaction was permitted with boys, not even for cultural events. The boys had to play girls’ roles in college plays. This changed in 1944 when a rebellious student, Kapila Vatsyayan, successfully demanded the right to participate in the drama society. Today, she is better known as the founder-director of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

There was such an ingrained sense of male hegemony that the appointment of the first woman lecturer in 1959 was felt deeply — not one teacher would sit beside her in the staffroom.

Today, half of the college’s 3,000 students are women. Yet only the boys have a hostel, which the girls are not permitted to enter — thereby sparing them the sight of underwear hanging across balconies.

Nevertheless, girls and boys mix freely elsewhere on the campus, including around an unwieldy keekar tree more famous as the Virgin Tree, which is ritually decorated on Valentine’s Day with condoms.

In 2013, Hindu College, for the first time in its history, held a two-day event to commemorate the death anniversary of Bhagat Singh, the young socialist revolutionary hanged by the British in 1931. The event was the brainchild of Praduman Kumar, the officiating principal, who took over two years ago. “At the time of his supreme sacrifice, Bhagat Singh was more popular than (Jawaharlal) Nehru,” says Mr Kumar.

“Everyone is informed on the life and times of our first prime minister but we at the Hindu also want to stress on the contribution of others who fought for our country’s liberty. After all, Hindu College contains the ethos of India that is Bharat. In Hindu we are not training our students to imbibe Western values but to instil in them a feeling of swabhiman (pride) for our ancient civilization. It is good that honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modiji is re-emphasizing the ancient values that emanated from the Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayan, Mahabharat and Gita, which are the very values we are trying to infuse in our students who can then make this country a vishwa guru (master of the world).”

On the morning of 16 May, the TV room in the hostel was packed with students watching live coverage of the election results, even though they were in the middle of final exams. There was jubilation as the scale of Mr Modi’s victory unfolded. Many students posted congratulatory messages on their Facebook walls; some distributed gulab jamuns.

Manish Pandey, a third-year botany student who shares his hostel room with a student from the newly carved state of Seemandhra, says: “Everyone was rooting for Modi in the TV room. We all believe he is the person who can change our country.” On the criticism levelled against the Prime Minister for the 2002 riots in Gujarat, Mr Pandey, who was 7 at the time, says: “I don’t remember those events very clearly but of course they were a painful chapter in our country’s history. However, it is wrong to blame just one person for it. Haven’t such riots happened earlier too?”

Too young to remember recent historic events, the students of Hindu also have a very fragile connection to their college’s old days. The college, which moved to its present location in 1953, has no landmark that can give students a sense of a shared past, or a set of common values imbibed by generations of graduates.

Both Hindu and St Stephen’s were earlier in Kashmere Gate (where, as now, they were separated by a road), but the latter shifted to the north campus in 1941. A walk around the Stephen’s campus fills one with awe; the building’s Lutyensesque and Mughal motifs, the cross at the top and the homely chapel in a garden infuse a certain character unique to this “minority educational institution” of the Church of North India.

None of its past can be sensed in Hindu College — it looks like just another modern building. Who could imagine that this institution was visited by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah; that its hostel secretly sheltered the revolutionary leader Chandrashekhar Azad; that in 1931, its students came out on Chandni Chowk’s streets to protest against the Simon Commission, set up in 1927 to look at governance reform, with slogans of “Simon, go back!”?

“Most of us were there in the Hindu as a function of the usual whirl of Delhi University cut-offs and course preferences than anything else,” says Sreenivasan Jain, another Hindu College alumnus and a calmer news anchor than Goswami. “There was no greater sense of the history of the college, or its founding principles, or subsequently a strong alumni culture.”

On what made his alma mater distinct from other colleges in Delhi University, Mr Jain says: “If at all there was any frame of reference, it tended to be in contrast to St Stephen’s. Our classrooms seemed more eclectic: We had a strong presence of girls from west Delhi, a smattering of Doon and Welham types who couldn’t get into Stephen’s, four-five kids from the North-East, and so on. The hostel was, again compared to Stephen’s, a much wilder place, roiled by student politics, with a dubious dining hall and occasional clashes between students from different regions. I have this striking memory of marijuana weed growing at the back of the hostel, tinged with regret that one could never taste the goods.”

Mr Jain’s memories include charming instances of the occasional cow wandering into the corridors. Cherishing the college campus as “a wonderful place”, he says: “We had a reasonably good faculty — at least in English honours, my subject—that veered from the staid Father Pinto, who taught us the Bible, to the radical, Ania Loomba, who you might recall led the charge against (Narendra) Modi coming to Wharton, and who taught us a blisteringly upgraded, post-colonial reading of Othello, so much so that I ended up going to her university, Sussex, for a master’s.”

A few of the present-day students I met waffled on about their college’s core values — nothing very significant was said beyond “excellent faculty” and “helpful staff”. No one uttered a word on the college’s staunchly nationalist origins, although there are signs of it in many places. The foyer has panels on the college’s founders and early years. The vice-principal’s office has a portrait of one of the foremost Hindu revivalist figures, the saffron-clad Swami Vivekananda, whose portrait can also be seen in the college canteen and in the staffroom. The principal’s office has an extraordinary collage of portraits of freedom fighters such as Khudiram Bose, Birsa Munda, Kartar Singh Sarabha, Bagha Jatin, Madanlal Dhingra, Master Awadh Bihari, Rani Chennamma and Kanak Lata Barua.

“They are men and women who sacrificed their lives for India and whom we have forgotten,” says Mr Kumar. “Their ideals are also the ideals of Hindu College, which played a noteworthy role in the fight for independence, especially in the 1942 Quit India Movement, when our teachers and students went to jail.”

Mr Kumar’s argument buttresses the one made by Ms Sharma, who points out that the college was conceptualized out of a “need for an indigenous educational institution” at a time when the only college for higher education in the city was run by Christian missionaries.

That college, named after Christianity’s first martyr, practically ruled the country — until early 2014. The old boys of Stephen’s were important people in various Congress party regimes, including in the Manmohan Singh government, where they presided over cabinet ministries, as well as the Planning Commission and the Central Bureau of Investigation.

“By chance, most of our alumni in the political world happen to be in the BJP, and so now it is the turn of our students to contribute to the new government,” jokes Mr Kumar, referring to his college’s old students — the controversial Subramanian Swamy and new member of Parliament Meenakshi Lekhi, who became a household figure as her party’s spokesperson on news channels.

Linking the college to a single party would be a mistake, however. After all, two of the 60 Bollywood personalities who appealed to voters before the elections “to protect our country’s secular foundation” — the open letter was widely interpreted as a critique of the BJP — were former Hinduites, Vishal Bhardwaj and Imtiaz Ali.

The officiating principal also points out that while his college is called Hindu, its annual cultural festival is named after the Muslim holy city Mecca, “in tune with the country’s secular traditions”.

And, its logo, which used to be a lotus, is now a water lily — the lotus had replaced Bharat Mata (Mother India), who had replaced Saraswati, the goddess of learning. “I see the Bharat Mata logo as a reaction to the British origin of St Stephen’s,” says Mr Mathur.

The goddess of learning, replaced earlier, seems to be less generous with her blessings. In the 2013 India Today magazine survey of the country’s best colleges, Hindu was ranked No.9 in arts, No.7 in commerce, and No.8 in science (Stephen’s topped the list in arts and science and Shri Ram College of Commerce, or SRCC, in commerce).

“The better-ranking colleges haven’t got the diversity of subjects that we have,” says Mr Kumar. “We teach botany, zoology and political science, which Stephen’s doesn’t, and SRCC has only commerce and economics.”

Waving his arm towards the campus across the street, the mild-mannered Mr Kumar says, “They have only 1,200 students. We have more than double that figure. Their admission process includes interviews, while we are more inclusive and admit all those who get the percentage for the required cut-off. Please judge us on a level playing field.”

Even if Hindu fails to improve its tally in the future ranking lists, many will still covet it.

The Hindu way