City Landmark – St Stephen’s College, North Delhi
The algebra of infinite merit.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Sorry, Stephanians. You will never get as majestic a view as enjoyed by the college across the road. “Hinduites are so lucky to have us facing them,” says Ketki Saxena, a final-year English (hons) student of St Stephen’s College, Delhi University (DU).
Hindu College stands just across Sudhir Bose Marg, a road named after a Stephen’s alumnus. “On second thoughts, while Hinduites have all the reason to look at us,” says Ms Saxena, “we Stephanians never look beyond our noses.”
Snobs. Elitists. These are easy labels to put on a student of St Stephen’s, Delhi’s oldest college, and one of India’s premier institutions. Founded as a high school in Chandni Chowk before the 1857 uprising, Stephen’s became a college in 1881, with three teachers and five students. It later shifted to Kashmere Gate before moving to its present red-brick building in the university enclave in 1941; the foundation stone is believed to have been consecrated by the bishop of the Anglican Church and the imam of Jama Masjid.
Today, the college is a sort of local Oxbridge where everything and everyone is different from the lesser mortals of DU, at least in name. Here, the canteen is the café, the hostel is the residence, and the teachers and students are called senior members and junior members, respectively. The annual farewell ceremony for outgoing students is termed Dismissal Service.
But change is at the doorstep. For the first time in 10 years, the day events in Stephen’s’ annual festival WinterFest, held in February 2012, were open to students from other colleges.
The college’s elite image is also being questioned.
“St Stephen’s’ elite status is a myth,” says the college’s associate professor of philosophy K.P. Shankaran, “perpetuated by talking derogatively about other colleges.”
In September 2011, former cabinet minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, an ex-Stephanian, displayed what some see as snobbery typical of his alma mater. Responding to an allegation in a letter written by sports minister Ajay Maken to the Prime Minister blaming Aiyar for delaying Commonwealth Games projects, Mr Aiyar said: “Firstly, we have to establish the authenticity of this letter. It contains words like ‘dichotomous’, which I cannot believe that a BA Pass from Hans Raj College would know.”
In response, 40 Stephanians marched to Hans Raj to “express solidarity”. “We had to convey that today’s Stephanians do not subscribe to the views of old boys like Aiyar,” says Udit Bhatia, a third-year student and general secretary (academics) of the college’s Students’ Union Society. “Now more Stephanians attend festivals and debates in other colleges, where we see the brilliance of their students. We are no longer in a position to say that we are superior.”
The primary choice for many who score 95%-plus in school, Stephen’s is struggling to adapt itself to a rapidly evolving world. Running an institution that fancies carrying the burden of nation-building on its shoulders, the reverend Valson Thampu, the college’s controversial 12th principal, says, “The business of St Stephen’s is to produce leaders for tomorrow’s India.”
In that, the college’s record is impressive. Look around and you will find the illustrious old boys. At the time of writing this piece, Montek Singh Ahluwalia is deputy chairman of the Planning Commission; Kaushik Basu is chief economic adviser to the finance ministry; A.P. Singh is director, Central Bureau of Investigation; S.Y. Quraishi is the chief election commissioner; Ajit Seth is the cabinet secretary; and Kapil Sibal and Salman Khurshid are Union cabinet ministers. The college seems to have, at least partially, colonized other aspects of India too. In fashion, Rohit Bal; in cinema, Shekhar Kapur; in TV, Barkha Dutt; and in literature, almost every renowned novelist, including Amitav Ghosh, Khushwant Singh and Upamanyu Chatterjee.
The day The Delhi Walla is here, the college is in the final stages of paving with new bricks the paths on which these famous names walked. “Ah, the old brick paths,” says Lok Sabha member of Parliament (MP) Shashi Tharoor, who was St Stephen’s college union president in 1974. “What memories that conjures! And yet, bricks and stone only matter as storehouses of our own associations with them. The new bricks will, soon enough, become repositories of new memories. So traditions are made and revived…”
The brick paths aren’t the only things being changed. Mr Thampu says, “St Stephen’s College is now less snooty.” It’s rare for a college head to directly confess how snobbish his college is, or used to be. Explaining why the WinterFest was opened to students from other colleges, Mr Thampu says, “Every institution needs to be in healthy engagement with its sister institutions, especially in the neighbourhood.”
In no other DU college is the algebra of infinite merit as complex as it is in Stephen’s. You have to be top-notch academically, have blue-chip public school pedigree or have parents belonging to the old boy network, be part of a religious quota or other reserved categories such as sports and physically handicapped, to get into the college. In 2011, the first cut-off list for admission into BA economics (hons), the most sought after course in St Stephen’s, rose to 96% in the general category.
Established by a Christian mission from Cambridge, St Stephen’s calls itself “a religious foundation drawing inspiration from the life and teachings of Jesus Christ”. The principal is always a member of the Church of North India or a church in communion with it. Mr Thampu was ordained in old Delhi at the historic St James Church, which at one point served as the college’s chapel. Apart from him, Stephen’s has had three priests as principals. A minority institution, the college reserves seats for Christians. Though the seats were always allotted unofficially, Mr Thampu, “in the interest of transparency”, became the first principal to put it on paper in 2007, when he increased the quota from 34.6% the previous year to 40%. For the first time in its history, Mr Thampu says, the college also introduced 7% reservation for non-Christian scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes.
“To make sure that we produce leaders in the future, we must involve the college in the country’s unfolding destiny that is experiencing revolutionary changes,” says Mr Thampu.
This could be more out of compulsion. The exclusivity that marked Stephen’s is now being challenged. The old bastions of privilege are crumbling. Mr Thampu, a man with decided views — he talks against the growing materialism and the pitfalls of globalization in his morning assemblies — says: “The disarray among hegemonistic political parties like the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party is on the increase. More people from low castes and communities are entering the corridors of power. In social terms, the mushrooming of merit in mofussil towns is seriously challenging the dominance of metropolitan cities.”
The changes that are transforming India are being reflected in the college. According to the principal, 20% of the Indian Administrative Service and Indian Foreign Service officials in the 1970s and 1980s were from Stephen’s. In the past five years, that percentage is not more than 10, says Thampu. This is not only an indication of seats in the civil service being claimed in large numbers by engineers and doctors, but also that corporate and media careers are more alluring.
Mr Thampu says the number of students from extremely poor backgrounds has gone up threefold in the last five years. Today, there are about 50 such students, up from 10 about two decades ago.
When Prakash Chand Verma, son of a bus driver from a village in Rajasthan, arrived in Stephen’s three years ago as an SC candidate, he knew no English, had never talked to girls, and was embarrassed to have classmates who changed outfits twice a day. “I’d got admission because I scored 90.4% in school and I was a good basketball player,” says Mr Verma, a “resident” in the college. He refused to be photographed in his basketball uniform so as not to give readers the impression that he had gained admission through the sports quota. “Initially, I hardly talked except to the few fellow Hindi speakers in the class, but as others saw my good results in the internals, I started making friends. I’m now in the final year and no longer feel shy around girls.”
Stephen’s claims to emphasize merit during admission. In the old days, that was a bird usually caged inside public schools. “It’s true that if you played cricket for Mayo College (Ajmer) or The Doon School (Dehradun) or for St Paul’s (Darjeeling), you had a better chance of getting through to St Stephen’s,” says environmentalist Pradip Krishen, an alumnus. “But that’s not the complete story.”
In 1971, when a 16-year-old Siddhartha Basu sat down to be interviewed, his chances of admission were slim. He was from a no-frills Kendriya Vidyalaya in Chennai, his father was on pension, and he had modest higher secondary results. His only hope was his drama and debate record in school. “I had a free-flowing discussion with the panel on the plays of Samuel Beckett and Vijay Tendulkar, the novels of (Albert) Camus and poets I liked…” says Mr Basu, the producer of TV shows like Kaun Banega Crorepati. “I somehow got into the college. I’d have never made it in my son’s time.”
Thirty years later, his son, Aditya Basu, discussed Malcolm X and the zamindari system with the interview panellists. A history (hons) graduate, Aditya made a 30-minute film on St Stephen’s in 2006. Uploaded on the Internet, The Unofficial Guide to Mission College remains the most definitive account of the institution in its 125th year. “By my time, the elitism had begun to fade,” he says. “The parents of most of my classmates had regular jobs. They were travel agents, doctors, engineers, lawyers… yet most had old boy connections.”
Mr Thampu admits that the interview round in the college’s admission process favoured English-speaking candidates, who had better communication skills than students from a vernacular background. “Those more comfortable in Indian languages felt intimidated by the ambience of the interview, a feeling aggravated by the awe the college inspires,” he says. “Since 2007, depending on the candidate, our interviews also take place in Hindi, and that’s why you find more people coming from the towns and villages of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.” This segment, however, still forms less than one-tenth of the college’s total student strength of 1,200, according to Mr Thampu.
Unlike other DU colleges, Stephen’s has no regional factions, though it always had substantial contingents from Bihar and Rajasthan. There are no Jat gangs or Bihari groups, although students from, say, Kerala or Nagaland might stick together. In the 1970s, “religion and region were not the distinctions that mattered. What counted was whether you were ‘in residence’ or a ‘dayski’ (day scholar), a ‘science type’ or a ‘DramSoc type’, a sportsman or a univ topper, or best of all, both. Caste and creed were no bar, but these other categories determined your share of the Stephanian experience,” Mr Tharoor wrote in “Stephania: An Evocation”, an article in The Delhi Walla.
The distinctions have further disintegrated into inoffensive categories of “Gurgaon crowd” and “Paharganj crowd”. “The Gurgaon crowd hangs out in Hauz Khas Village wearing branded clothes. They talk about who is dating whom when they are not talking about their old days in Shri Ram School or Vasant Valley,” says Ms Saxena, referring to two of Delhi’s upper-crust schools. Vasant Valley School, incidentally, is run by a former Stephanian. “The other crowd eats out in Paharganj’s rooftop cafés. If anyone is wearing clothes priced more than Rs 200, it’s capitalistic and unforgivable.”
Some teachers, students and alumni feel that the college’s liberal character has taken a beating. The Bible is read every morning in the assembly—for a minute. After becoming principal, Mr Thampu became strict about assembly attendance for first-year students. In the first year, Christian students have to compulsorily attend religious classes.
In an opinion piece, “St Stephen’s: Murder in the Cathedral?”, in Outlook magazine in 2007, historian Ramachandra Guha, from the class of 1979, commented on the college’s reservation policy: “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.”
Five years later, Mr Guha told The Delhi Walla, “I stand by it.”
“Guha sang the last song of Stephen’s,” says Mr Thampu. “When I took over in 2007, the college was ranked No. 2 in arts and No. 4 in science in the annual India Today AC-Nielsen-ORG-MARG survey of India’s best colleges. Last year, it was No. 2 in arts and No. 1 in science.”
While a few students hinted that increasing reservation for Christians has led to students with poor marks getting in, dampening the significance of academic merit, it is not the only view. “If one compares a student who entered the college through reservation with one who got in through the general category, they wouldn’t find much difference in their grades at the university level,” says Mikhail Sen, a final-year history (hons) student, who heads the college’s famed Shakespeare Society, and who got admission in the general category. “A lot of quota students have done better in exams than me.”
The reservation comes with the rider that the maximum difference in marks between the general merit category and any reserved category cannot exceed 15%. In 2011, 11.6% of total seats in the Christian category remained unfilled, according to Mr Thampu. He adds that these seats went to the general category.
Arjun Rajkhowa, a master’s student who has been living in the college for five years, says: “Earlier, there was a certain creative and unconventional element to life in college—the people were more eccentric and adventurous. Now, the culture is more conventional.”
From 1949-75, girls were not admitted to the college, which meant they were free to enter the boys’ blocks but not the classrooms. Today, the girls’ blocks are locked at 10pm, and girls can’t visit the boys in their blocks.
“In my time, the college didn’t wear its missionary character on its sleeve,” says Mr Basu. “The chapel was a serene place of sanctuary, open round the clock. I was first drawn to it at midnight, hearing a student’s soulful rendition of the Moonlight Sonata. There were memorable times thereafter where my senior Param Vir played everything from (Ludwig van) Beethoven to (Béla Viktor János) Bartók to an audience of just one or two of us with a virtuoso flair.”
Sitting inside, facing the cross, Blesson Mathew, a second-year student from Kanpur, says, “I got admission through the Christian quota.” Praising the principal for increasing the reservation for people of his faith, he says: “Reverend Thampu has attracted much criticism. He is being persecuted for standing for justice. Remember, Christ was crucified not because he was wrong, but because he was right. Christians have been persecuted in this country—look at what happened in Orissa—and Stephen’s should continue to uplift this section of society.” Unlike most of his college mates, who wear casual dresses, Mr Mathew is always dressed in suits. “A true Stephanian always carries himself in a dignified manner,” he says.
Mr Thampu’s stint as college principal has sparked controversy ever since he took over as officiating principal in 2007. A former post-graduate student of the same institution, he had to quit a year later following doubts over the genuineness of his PhD degree in theology from the Allahabad Agricultural Institute, a deemed university. He returned as principal the same year.
In 2011, Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit’s son and Congress MP Sandeep Dikshit, an ex-Stephanian, echoed Mr Guha’s views, saying the college has become communal.
Mr Thampu says: “Those who allege this aberration do not know the college as it is today at close quarters. They go by hearsay, distorted further by distance. The other reason for such attacks is because I’m a priest and it is tempting to assume all priests are monsters of fundamentalism.”
One afternoon, the pale rays of the sun struck the red columns of the corridor, casting a lattice of light and shadow on the floor. Classes had ended. So had the hushed atmosphere of the first half of the day. The Shakespeare Society members were rehearsing Macbeth on the mess lawns. In the College Hall, The Gandhi Study Circle society was preparing to welcome activist Medha Patkar, who had been invited to speak on “Exploring tribal cultures and challenges of indigenous development in India”. The Informal Discussion Group student forum had put up a poster for a talk on secession and the idea of a nation. The library noticeboard was plastered with covers of books like The Fall and Rise of Keynesian Economics.
The college’s perceived elitism remains. “Elitism was part of Stephania, but by no means the whole,” says Tharoor. Another old boy, former West Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, says: “Used as a noun, the word ‘Stephanian’ is a tawiz, a celebratory, protective charm. Used as an adjective, it carries tehzib, the mark of civilization, refinement.”
Professor Shankaran, who has been teaching in the college since 1985, says: “St Stephen’s was socially elite, but never intellectually. Well-read people are an exception. We are like any college, except that there are fewer rowdy elements and it is easy to manage the college due to a long tradition of political passivity.”
The one time Stephen’s became politically engaged was when quite a few students went underground to join the Naxal movement in the 1960s.
To Ayesha Adlakha, a first-year student, the college is like a “camp” where you can meet adventurers of various kinds. “Coming here is the most liberating thing that happened to me,” says Adlakha, whose hair is dyed red. “People are so non-judgemental. You say and do whatever you want. Everything we need in this world is right here.”
The world immediately outside, however, is moving on, and the college may find itself left behind one day. It’s a fact acknowledged by St Stephen’s’ living legend. David Baker, a retired history professor who lives in an apartment in a boys’ block, is busy writing a history of the college. “My book deals with how Delhi’s history overlapped with that of St Stephen’s,” he says. “After crushing the 1857 uprising, the British reshaped Delhi into a commercial, industrial, railway city, and the college began in this new world. It acquired more importance when the city was made India’s capital… Each chapter of my book explores what effects these two made on each other during significant periods. Today Delhi has become a megalopolis of 16.7 million people. The college’s hold on the city has begun to taper. That could be the final chapter, but, in general, my proposition holds true.”
Admission season will start in May 2012. According to Mr Thampu, the college attracted 12,000 applications for 400 seats in 2007. In 2011, the figure was 26,000. The lure of Stephania might survive.
Scenes from the Stephen’s