Not so patrician?

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On St Stephen’s college and its evolving elitism

It is the admission season in Delhi University. And according to newspaper reports, the elite St Stephen’s College, the alma mater of General Zia-ul-Haq, has received a record 22,000 applications for 420 seats.

I hang around in the college to find out just what the fuss is all about. (It’s surely not the Zia factor!)

Stephen’s is a sort of local Oxbridge where everything and everyone is different from Delhi’s other colleges, 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 today the college’s elite image is also being questioned.

“St Stephen’s’ elite status is a myth,” the college’s associate professor of philosophy K P Shankaran told me, “ that is perpetuated by talking derogatively about other colleges.”

Last year, former Indian ambassador to Pakistan 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 PM blaming Aiyar for delaying Commonwealth Games projects, 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,” said Udit Bhatia, general secretary 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.”

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. Montek Singh Ahluwalia is deputy chairman of the Planning Commission; Kaushik Basu is chief economic adviser to the finance ministry; and Kapil Sibal and Salman Khurshid are Union cabinet ministers. The college seems to have, at least partially, colonised 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 and Khushwant Singh.

Thampu said, “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.

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.

The exclusivity that marked Stephen’s is now being challenged. 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. The number of students from extremely poor backgrounds has gone up threefold in the last five years.

Thampu said 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 told me. “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.”

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.”

3 COMMENTS

  1. 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.”

    So he used the 'non-judgmental' and liberal environment to color his hair red! What a moron!

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