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When the saints go marching in

If you oppose caste-based reservation, then you’d probably have to oppose religion-based reservation in private educational institutions, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jul 01, 2007 05:17 IST
Vir Sanghvi

I am not an alumnus of Delhi’s St Stephen’s College. If that declaration seems somewhat unnecessary, then bear with me because there is a background to my disclaimer.

For reasons that have never been entirely clear to me, various people assume I went to Stephen’s. I thought this was a pardonable mistake — after all, 23 of the 84 people in my batch at Mayo College went on to Stephen’s, and most of those who didn’t, lived in other cities — but I became concerned only after assorted alumni associations from St Stephen’s started sending me mails.

Would I come to an old Stephenian lunch? Would I be interested in revisiting College? (At Stephen’s the ‘c’ is always capitalised rather like the ‘g’ in God.) And so on.

I thought nothing of this confusion till a fellow editor (who certainly did not go to St Stephen’s) began prefacing his sentences to me with such phrases as, “You bloody Stephenians!” or “I’m sorry, but unlike you I did not go to St Stephen’s.”

I protested weakly that while he might well be within his rights to see me as a product of educational privilege, there was no reason to assume that I was a Stephenian.

But his hostility drove home one fact to me: in large parts of Delhi, St Stephen’s has become a byword for the products of a privileged elite rather in the same way that Ivy League or Oxbridge symbolise privilege in the US and England.

People who do not live in Delhi will find this a little surprising. There are die-hard loyalists of Calcutta’s Presidency College and, in Bombay, both Elphinstone and St Xavier’s produce proud alumni. But in neither city does a single college come to represent elitism in quite the same way. And nowhere else do you find students who act as though the high spot of their lives was their time in College — and that it’s been downhill ever since. (Though, in fact, that’s not true because some of the brightest, most distinguished people I know went to Stephen’s.)

Asked to recall his days at St Stephen’s, Natwar Singh once memorably noted, “Everything I am, I owe to St Stephen’s.” (“Why blame the college?” Mani Shankar Aiyar, another alumnus, famously responded. In the light of recent political events, I suppose this exchange acquires a new dimension.)

And Stephenians are fanatically loyal to their College. In the 1980s, the magazine I then edited, wrote an article about university networks. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who had been president of the Oxford Union and received a Congratulatory First in his finals, went so far as to say that St Stephen’s was a much more important part of his life than Oxford.

If you are outside the charmed circle of those who went to St Stephen’s (or if you simply don’t live in Delhi), then this background might help you understand a flurry of articles that have appeared in the press in recent weeks by a variety of distinguished journos about recent changes in St Stephen’s College’s admission procedures.

Why, you may well ask, is this college of so much interest? Is it really a matter of national importance that somebody is trying to change the character of this institution so that it no longer resembles the place that these old boys (and girls) went to? And why, in any case, should the rest of us give a damn?

These are valid questions but my concern this Sunday is less with the St Stephen’s network and its journalistic priorities, than with the issues that underlie its outrage.

As far as I can tell — and I am happy to concede that studying St Stephen’s College’s admission procedures is not my top-most priority, so forgive me if I get some details wrong — the fuss is about entrance quotas. It’s about the right of Christian students (and Dalit Christians) to obtain preferential admission and about the proportion of such students.

And that is a subject that I do have some interest in.

Almost all educational institutions nearly everywhere in the world have some scheme of preferential admission. It could be that they prefer residents of a particular state, that they are more favourably disposed towards those who make donations, that they give preference to children of alumni, that they prefer citizens of a particular nationality or that they reserve places for those from backward or Scheduled Castes.

On the whole, it is only the last kind of reservation that provokes public debate. Thousands of hours of television airtime are devoted to discussions about merit vs reservation. All of us write passionate editorials on the subject. But rarely, if ever, do we get so worked up about religious reservation. If a school run by a Muslim foundation reserves seats for Muslim students, we treat this as entirely understandable. And we accept that Jesuit institutions will favour Christians.

The interesting thing — for me at least — about the St Stephen’s debate is that it sheds light on the character of the college. According to a thought-provoking article by the new principal of St Stephen’s, the Rev Valson Thampu, in Friday’s The Times of India, St Stephen’s was founded as a mission college. “There wasn’t the slightest uncertainty or embarrassment in the minds of the founding fathers that the college was to have a Christian foundation. The motto of the college is Ad Dei Gloriam or for the Greater Glory of God. The college prayer talks about preparing students for citizenship alike in heaven and earth. The vision of education that underlies the greatness of St Stephen’s is commitment to sound religion…”

So, why is there a fuss now? Here, I suspect the Rev Thampu goes slightly overboard by dismissing the objections of alumni as “a ludicrous piece of prejudice”. But his point is that St Stephen’s founders “would have been appalled by the college as a hot brand name accessible only to the academic and social elite”.

According to the Rev Thampu, “Academic excellence in St Stephen’s in recent decades has almost become a smokescreen for masking the privileges of the socio-economic elite.”

And that’s the view of the principal of St Stephen’s!

If you take the hot brand name/academic excellence stuff out of the mix, then you’re left with a single debate: should religious educational institutions have the right to favour students from their own religions when it comes to admission?

The unspoken consensus so far has been: yes. Religious bodies set up these institutions at least partly to favour their own communities. And since they paid the money, they have a right to decide who gets in or, at the very least, to impose some kind of quota.

At the root of the St Stephen’s debate is the assumption of all these proud Stephenians that they did not go to a ‘real’ mission college. But, assuming that the Rev Thampu is right, they did. And thus, their claim to relatively quota-free admission procedures is no different from a similar claim made by students from a Jesuit institution.

My question: if we accept the principle that whoever set up an educational institution has the right to use criteria other than merit to govern admission, then do we have the right to complain about caste-based reservation?

I ask because reservation remains an emotive issue. The education ministry has asked public schools to include students who would not get in on merit on the grounds of social equality. State governments are increasing quotas to let in more and more backward castes. There is talk of introducing newer quotas in centres of educational excellence. There is a fuss over Benaras Hindu University and Aligarh Muslim University.

To some extent, the education ministry has used the same argument as the religious institutions. It has said that since it either set up or continues to subsidise academic institutions, it has the right to dispense with simple, merit-based criteria and to introduce other factors.

Many of us have argued that special quotas have gone too far and that we are losing sight of merit. There is something to this view: the further we get from merit, the nearer we get to arbitrariness. But shouldn’t this argument extend beyond the realm of government-imposed quotas?

Should any educational institution have the right to offer preferential entry to students on any criterion other than merit?

My guess is that if you oppose caste-based reservation, then you’d probably have to oppose religion-based reservation in private educational institutions also on exactly the same grounds.

Certainly, it’s time for a national consensus on the subject. We need to examine whether anybody who puts up the money to found a college has the right to then impose criteria other than merit for admission. Does the fact that you’ve paid the money give you the right to deny places to brilliant students only because you want to favour your own community?

I’m not sure what my own view is, though I suspect I am somewhere in the middle on this one. But now that the issue has cropped up in India’s most famous college, it should not be allowed to remain an internal affair of St Stephen’s. Given how many bright and successful people the college has produced, this is the ideal opportunity for a high-calibre intellectual debate on this subject. And let’s take it beyond St Stephen’s, and the outrage of its alumni. And let’s look at the entire principle itself.

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