A national debate is necessary on the fundamental issues underlying the controversy over St. Stephen’s College. To structure a meaningful debate, we need to blueprint the issue, lest debate produces heat rather than light.
What is not debated is, at best, vaguely understood. One of the very first things that I participated in, as Member of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions, was a meeting with the Vice Chancellors and representatives of the six scheduled universities in India, who were to be ‘educated’ on the subject of minority rights. However, there was hardly anyone familiar with the 11-judge Pai Foundation vs. the State of Karnataka judgement of 2002. The media pre-suppose that the Supreme Council did or said nothing after the St. Stephen’s College 1992 verdict, which reserved 50 per cent seats for non-minorities. The Pai Foundation verdict reversed this and stipulated that non-minority admissions in a minority institution shall not exceed 50 per cent. It did not cap minority admissions.
The Supreme Court has settled the issue of what happens to minority rights when grant-in-aid is received from the State. No affiliated college can function without State subsidy. Colleges are allowed to collect only a pittance in the form of tuition fees. This revenue is not retained by the college, but remitted to the UGC. As the Apex Court has said repeatedly, you cannot create a situation in which a college is obliged to receive grant-in-aid and then use that obligation to rob it of its minority status.
Many issues underlie the debate on St. Stephen’s College. First, do we as a nation endorse Article 30(1), which gives the ‘right’ to religious and linguistic minorities ‘to establish and administer institutions of their choice’? Does this ‘regulated right’ accommodate the freedom to retain the spiritual culture of a minority institution, even as the education it imparts is secular? Is Article 30(1) meaningful if the institutions protected under it are denied the freedom to preserve their spiritual vision and culture, education being a subset of culture?
Second, should a ‘prestigious’ minority educational institution defy the pronouncements of the Supreme Court to oblige the economic and social elite? The 1992 Supreme Court order was not implemented in St. Stephen’s. I was in college at the time. A powerful lobby in college coerced the then principal into consenting that the order would not be implemented. That the teachers of a nation can defy the law of the land, and feel good about it, is a strange and dangerous situation.
The third issue is the nature of higher education itself. As the National Knowledge Commission indicated, higher education infrastructure is woefully inadequate to meet the rising demand. India is hungry for opportunities. Higher education, till now, has remained the privilege of the socially and economically privileged. In the light of the admissions done till now, I can vouch that there is hardly any ‘merit-gap’ between Christian applicants and their non-Christian counterparts.
Another dimension of the debate pertains to minority rights. Are minority rights required to run the so-called institutions of ‘excellence’, catering to the privileged and the powerful? Can ‘minority rights’ be divorced from ‘minority character,’ especially since Article 30(1) is a corporate or community right? If being faithful to the Christian foundation of St. Stephen’s College is ‘fundamentalism’, does Article 30(1) not become a hate-object? The apex court has affirmed that minority rights should meet the educational needs of the community, and many states want minority educational institutions to admit not less than 75 per cent from the communities that maintain it (for instance, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala). How can St. Stephen’s be different?
Finally, the question of ‘Christian education’ can’t be dodged. Everyone who seeks admission to St. Stephen’s knows it to be a Christian college. Those who cry wolf against the sinister plan to ‘harvest souls’ under the new guidelines should be comforted that no conversion has taken place in St. Stephen’s in 125 years. Those who think that the domain of the Spirit is an insult to their intelligence have today, mercifully, several distinguished institutions to choose from.
St. Stephen’s must have the freedom to pursue its vision of education. Christian education is predicated primarily on ‘enlightenment’ and only secondarily on ‘employment’. We are committed to ‘life’ not ‘labels’. We pursue social justice, social transformation and national integration.
Valson Thampu is Principal (Officer on Special Duty), St.Stephen’s College