If I were to name the two most embarrassing troughs in the history of St Stephen’s College, I am personally acquainted with, I would say: inviting Harshad Mehta of the stock exchange scam right after he was released on bail, and the belated revocation of the permission given to the students to invite Mamta Banerjee to the college.
As regards the first event, I asked the then principal why such a role-model was upheld to the students of a college that swore by character-formation as the soul of education, I was told, “Because he is a successful man; and success inspires.” I haven’t asked the present principal why the Mamta event has been scrapped. There is no need to ask, and there is no point in asking.
But I must explain why I hold this to be a disconcertingly low point in the life of what has been, for long, an institution with a soul of its own. When Jallianwala Bagh happened, St Stephen’s did not withdraw behind the curtains of cowardly silence and look for the boots of colonial officialdom to lick. St Stephen’s condemned it.
But when the infamous Emergency was clamped on the country, the then principal, WS Rajpal and the then chairman of the Governing Body, bishop Eric Nazir, queued up to choreograph endorsement. The moral decline of the college — the withering away of the soul of St. Stephen’s — started then.
Visit the office of the principal of St Stephen’s. You will see a cherished photograph. It commemorates Gandhiji’s first visit to St Stephen’s when the college was in its Kashmiri Gate campus. Allowing Gandhi (ah, the anarchist!) into the precincts of St Stephen’s in the early 20th century, was far more scandalous than allowing Mamta to address the students to say her two-penny worth of stuff. She is, after all, a constitutional functionary in a presumably federal polity. By no stretch of is imagination she a subversive element. If anyone has any doubt on this count, he could check with Vajpayee ji.
My memories go back, on this occasion, to the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814 by Harkat-ul-Mujahideen in the course of its flight from Kathmandu to Delhi on December 24, 1999. In the torturous days that followed one day, late at night, I got a call from Mamta.
“I am organising,” she said, “an all-religions prayer meeting at Raj Ghat for the safety of the passengers. Please come and offer prayers from the Christian side.”
There has never been an occasion, before or since that day, for me to think of Mamta as a dangerous person. As a matter of fact, she always struck me as a soulful, authentic human being; one who has the courage of her convictions and the will to make them tick.
May be, this has become a dangerous thing?
My concern in this context is pedagogical, not political. What is the educational implication, especially for St Stephen’s, of a twist such as this?
St Stephen’s prides itself in its liberal tradition of education. The main repository of the liberal character of the learning milieu of St Stephen’s is an assortment of clubs and societies the activities of which are managed almost wholly by students. The principal exercises an over-all control over these activities, but its scope is limited strictly to who may or may not be invited to the college. The idea behind this is not to nuance the life of the college in a politically biased fashion, or to showcase institutional cowardice, but to ensure that undesirable elements did not get showcased, by accident, in the college.
Withdrawing the permission granted for the Chief Minister of a state to address the students’ body is a blunt political statement by an institution that is mandated to be politically neutral in the interest of pedagogic objectivity.
The activities organised by the students are, in the St Stephen’s idea of education, at least as important as the lectures and tutorials offered by the faculty. “Real learning takes place outside the classrooms,” is an inter-generational St Stephen’s cliché.
St Stephen’s has traditionally eschewed conventional student politics. Its students are not members of DUSU. But that did not ever mean that they were required to be illiterate in regard to politics. I remember organising a series of talks, delivered by the representatives of diverse political parties, in the run-up to the 2014 elections.
The college is politically neutral, but it is not politically blind or paranoid. We have deemed it desirable to expose students to all shades of political thought (or want of it) and leave them free to come to their own conclusions. It was never a feature of St Stephen’s that students were abandoned to biases and prejudices for want of due exposure to the diverse facets of important issues and realities.
The independence of the college, furthermore, was deemed quintessential to its liberal character. So, it has had a tradition of resisting external pressures of diverse kind. Situated in Delhi, it is never the case that the college was spared pressures. But the college, barring occasional aberrations like endorsing the Emergency by WS Rajpal because of his personal proximity to Mrs Indira Gandhi, has a commendable track record of holding its fort. It resisted pressures of diverse kinds, the details of which are beyond our present scope.
The exact circumstances of the present instance are not available to us. But, from my experience as the 12th principal of St Stephen’s, I can vouch for one thing. No person of the rank of the Chief Minister of a state can be invited without the prior permission of the principal.
It was done only once in the history of the college. That was during my tenure. Some teachers, who were fighting me, and were desperate to enlist the students on their side, instigated them to invite Sheila Dikshit to the college behind my back. I had the event cancelled, incurring serious risks.
The invitation to Mamta could have gone out only after the principal granted permission. If otherwise, the principal needs to state it upfront.
I find it difficult, therefore, to swallow the version that the students committed some “procedural impropriety” which necessitated corrective or retributive action by the principal. If improprieties were indeed involved, we have a right to know what they are.
If, on the other hand, it is a case of the principal buckling under pressure — become wiser for what I have had to suffer for nine tortuous years — I don’t have the heart to blame him for it.
It is not easy for anyone to survive writhing under the iron heels of those who matter. I sat it out, but it has left me a broken piece of mortality. No one with a particle of common sense would want to be degraded and dehumanised with ruthless viciousness over an entire tenure.
So, the message behind this event is clear. There is fear. And fear is something that makes people wise.
But it is the sort of wisdom that, in the educational context, turns generations of students into fools of the time. It is education with a corpulent body, but no soul.
St Stephen’s College is founded after St Stephen, who was a martyr for truth. The college is obliged to stand on the truth and not play hide-and-seek with challenges. Truth giving way to falsehood is, for St Stephen’s, tantamount to institutional suicide. Not every suicide is voluntary. There are “aided and abetted” ones.
The Mamta-event volt face on the part of St Stephen’s seems one of the latter kind.