St Stephen's College admissions panel row: Dispute raises questions about place of institution in secular nation

Kartik Maini
As an institution of avowedly sedate imagination, St Stephen's College, perhaps strangely, is no stranger to controversy.

As an institution of avowedly sedate imagination, St Stephen's College, perhaps strangely, is no stranger to controversy. Year after year, the college enters bylines and busy newsrooms, featuring, as if by design, two forces locked in dramatic confrontation, and as ever, the spectre of the Church.

Earlier this month, the supreme council of the college, representing the Church of North India (CNI) in a constitutionally minority institution, announced its decision to incorporate a member (of the council) into the admissions panel tasked with the critical responsibility of conducting interviews and handpicking the incoming class for the respective year. The decision was received by the faculty, some students, and certain formations in the university with evident distaste and has since been contested between the two sides of the confrontation bitterly.

Three teachers of the college were served a letter of warning for their public conversations with the media, and on 17 May, a protest against the decision was held outside the college premises. In what follows, an attempt to enliven the divided house from the inside will be made €" what is it that is being contested about the decision? Does the decision have its votaries? Are there problems with the two positions, and to that end, what does this tell us?

In astute opposition to the decision, teachers of the college €" particularly, Nandita Narain, Ashley NP and Abhishek Singh, also the recipients of the letter of warning from the principal €" have raised two significant concerns. They have argued that the incorporation stands in violation of the college constitution which makes clear the jurisdiction of the supreme council but prohibits its interference in the administration of the college. In pointing to its clear and deliberate violation, critics of the decision have asked why the decision was not taken in consultation while foreclosing the possibility of doing so.

It is argued that the decision reflects an attempt to control and disfigure the transparency of the admissions process, which, as Ashley says, could owe much to the private financial interests of the church and the college administration seeking to make positions, as it were, buyable. For Anahita Bharpilania, a former student of the college, the decision is a culminating part of the broader intent to privatise the college and denude its character as a premier institution of a public university. Seen in this vein, she says, "This had to happen," and is, thus, not a figment of surprise.

Anahita's concerns resonate in certain quarters of the student community of the college, some of whose members protested the possibility of 'autonomy' for the college only last year. Those opposed to the decision, particularly Nandita Narain in an interview, have raised a second concern €" that the decision pushes against the principle of merit that the admissions process bases itself very fundamentally on. This makes, at least for the Christian students, their identity as Christian and not their merit, the basis of their admission to the college. "You should not," she says in the interview, be judged on "how good or bad a Christian you are."

Although the sentiment is well-argued, it is only scarcely known what the nature of this new member's participation in the admissions panel will be and how far it will relate to theological understanding which, it is important to highlight, is compulsory for all Christian students of the college in the first year of their undergraduate education, meritorious or otherwise. As the author tried to argue in another article, the construction of St Stephen's College as an otherwise secular oasis stifled by its minority character rests on considerably tremulous ground.

Similarly tenuous to some students of the college, furthermore, is the discourse of merit. Logistically, all students interviewed by the admissions panel must first make an impressively high 'cutoff'. But there is also an issue of principle, for merit itself is tenuous, not only in terms of whether it reflects itself in making the 'cutoff'. Some students of the college also expressed concern about the support that the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) has given to the opposition to the decision. Well known for its frequent, even routine, attacks on students and teachers of progressive inclinations, it need only cursorily be emphasised that the ABVP is no friend.

In a second circuit of the otherwise well-covered confrontation, the decision has found its votaries, although some students are still waiting for the issue to unravel completely. The votaries refer to the statement from the supreme council that has assured the college community that the decision was made only to safeguard the Christian character of the institution and that it would not be deleterious for the "high academic standards" of the college.

In a very perceptive reading, Jonardon Andrew from the college said, "When an extremist ideology is being imposed forcibly/violently (in the nation), the minorities naturally become threatened, insecure (€¦) in this case, the college is an appropriate example. But there's a lot of confusion about who really owns the college. Ownership, I feel, the UGC has. But then, who can/should run the college? The one to whom historically the structure was passed on, that is CNI, or those like the UGC (University Grants Commission) who actually fund it and give it the status of a college under a secular and constitutional country?"

The controversy, as it has come to be, compels serious consideration of the essentials of much that is taken for granted €" above all, what does it mean to be a secular nation, and what, then, is the place of an institution like St Stephen's College in one? Given the sheer vituperation that the controversy has inspired in lieu of discourse, in St Stephen's College, it has become difficult to love one's neighbour.

Some names have been altered for privacy and on request.

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