Nostalgia can be an awful bore, especially for those whose memories are painted in hues different from ours. What we take away from our school and college years is especially personal and rarely transferable to someone standing outside that circle of experience.
Perhaps that’s why the outcry over the new quota policy in St Stephen’s College has been dismissed by so many of you as the self-indulgent rant of an elitist alumni club. Some of you have even questioned why the admission procedure of an individual institution should become a matter of national debate. You sneer at what you call the nepotism of various editors and writers who studied there, for devoting a disproportionate amount of space and time to their old college (by the way, doesn’t it make its own point that so many of these opinion-makers are products of St Stephen’s?) And you demand to know why you should give a toss about how many seats are reserved in a college that didn’t leave an imprint on your life.
There are only a handful of educational institutions that can be called emblems of a Thinking India. Just like Oxford and Cambridge separate the best from the rest in Britain, and Ivy League schools attract the most accomplished minds in the US, India can lay claim to just a few colleges with a legacy that is robust enough to mould the mind and shape the soul. St Stephen’s is inarguably one such place. What our IITs are to engineering and science, St Stephen’s is to the world of liberal arts and humanities. When this government proposed an additional 27 per cent quota for OBC students in the IITs and IIMs, we all had an opinion, even if we were never going to study technology or business. We didn’t sidestep or ignore the debate because it was only about a few thousand young people, and we were not one of them. The quota policy, we believed, impacted the future of India, and we were all stakeholders in that. So it is with St Stephen’s.
For those of you who have missed the controversy, here is what the fuss is all about. Under a new officer on special duty (Valson Thampu, my old teacher), the college has increased the overall Christian quota to 40 per cent, of which 25 per cent will be kept aside only for Dalit Christians. A certificate from a church will determine who is a Dalit Christian, and all such applicants will be measured against a cut-off of 60 per cent marks, irrespective of which subject they want to study (students competing in the general category for a seat at St Stephen’s usually need anything upwards of an 85 per cent score.) If you add the seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and those kept aside for the sports quota, only four out of every 10 seats will now remain genuinely competitive. Christian students and SC/ST candidates already apply at a cut-off that is 15 per cent lower than that for the general category. And if this were not bad enough, the chairman of the Supreme Council that governs the college has declared that this “could be further lowered if there are not enough candidates to fill the quota”.
There is a frightening evangelical energy driving the new proposals. Thampu and others who support him have cited the college’s “Christian foundation” and unambiguous identity as a “mission college” to justify the new quotas.
I studied English literature at St Stephen’s and it was Thampu who taught me how to look at the Bible as so much more than a preachy religious text. His passionate classes brought the Bible alive as a wonderfully constructed work of art. The Christianity of the St Stephen’s College I remember was atmospheric (how we loved the chapel, the choir and the Cross), cultural and entirely subtle. Our T-shirts may have been proudly emblazoned with the motto of Ad Die Gloriam, but if anything, the tradition of our college was classic Nehruvian. With the fiery and perhaps naïve idealism of the young, we shunned caste, class and religion. Sprawled on the sunny front lawns of the college we loved, entirely unmindful of social background, region or even language, we believed that this, right here, was a microcosm of Modern India.
If there was a Catholicism that defined us at all, it was the notion of right and wrong, justice and injustice and how to hang on to our principles in the face of pressure and prejudice. In the tradition of great liberal arts colleges everywhere in the world, we were argumentative, volatile and perennially in disagreement. But each one of us hoped that as we navigated our way through adult life, we would be guided by a moral compass. Even today, as I argue (in the face of evidence to the contrary) that the good shall inherit the earth, my friends rib me about my “Catholic conscience”. But that is what I (and hundreds like me) learnt at St Stephen’s College. To watch these historic traditions of integrity and intellectual robustness being asphyxiated by a narrow textbook notion of religion is truly heartbreaking.
St Stephen’s College is legally within its rights as a minority institution to bring in these new quotas (despite the fact that 95 per cent of its expenses are met by the University Grants Commission). But the college that taught us all to never accept inherited wisdom must now turn its innate questioning spirit to itself. It must answer why it has chosen to self-destruct and walk down a path that will kill the very liberalism that has defined it for decades.
For the rest of India, this is a wake-up call. We have watched quota politics divide the country again and again. We sat back in helpless horror recently as Rajasthan erupted into a full-blown caste war. The poisonous cocktail of religion and politics has already destroyed other great institutions like the Aligarh Muslim University and the Banaras Hindu University. Must we keep another tombstone ready with nostalgic epitaphs in place?
Merit may be a complex myth in a country as unequal as India. But it’s time for an ill-conceived and self-serving quota policy to get a firm and quiet burial. India needs a more imaginative way to address inequity and discrimination.
For God’s sake.
Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24X7