Shrinking St Stephen’s

Kanpur: Prof Ramachandra Guha is a historian and Gandhian of great standing, and I have often written to him expressing my appreciation of his writings. I also share some of my writings with him. However, I was deeply dismayed by his article under reply. For the benefit of those who may not have read it, let me quote from the same.

Guha begins by referring to Deenabandhu C.F. Andrews, after whom the forecourt of St Stephen’s College, Delhi, is named. Guha joined there in 1974, some 60 years after Andrews left. He admits that in his time most of those who had joined the College were there to use the Stephanian badge as a launching pad for careers in MNCs or the IAS.

At that time the College was not “contaminated by the prejudices of race, religion, caste or class.” Just 5 percent of the students were Christian. He decries the “Fifty Percent Judgement” of the Supreme Court in 1992 “allowing minority aided institutions to admit up to 50 percent students from the founding community.”

Guha then makes an alarming allegation that the College is now divided between Christian and non-Christian students and faculty! He further alleges that Christians are admitted with “substantially lower cut offs.” He avers that “Christians are far more privileged than dalits or adivasis.”

He bemoans “the lopsided reservation policy” resulting in an influx of wealthy and privileged Syrian Christians. He considers reserving 50 percent seats for 2 percent of the population “indefensible on ethical grounds.” He says that the “galloping Christianization” of his old college will convert it into an “evangelical ghetto.”

Hence the best students are moving to other colleges, so he is piqued that old students like him now experience an inevitable sense of loss. Stephen’s is now the antithesis of what it earlier stood for! Colourful adjectives and insinuations from a learned writer. They do not hold water; as we shall presently see.

Guha will be interested to know that I was the National President of the All India Catholic Union (AICU) when this judgement was delivered, and I challenged it in the Supreme Court. Our lawyer was Ashok Sen, the former Union Law Minister. I had studied the Judgement, moderated a seminar on it, and published a paper in 1992, analysing its pros and cons. I was able to resurrect a copy, which forms the basis of this rejoinder to Guha.

The Judgement was based on appeals filed by the Allahabad Agricultural Institute and St Stephen’s, though most of it is actually addressed to the latter. In its very first sentence the court observes that these are “premier and renowned institutions.”

Unfortunately it bases its judgement on this false “premier” premise. The court framed three issues, (i) Whether Stephen’s was a minority institution? (ii) Whether such an institution was bound by the Delhi University circulars that admissions should be purely on the basis of the marks obtained in the qualifying examinations, (iii) Whether reservation of seats for members of their own community ran counter to the provisions of Article 29 (2) of the Constitution of India; or was Article 30 (1) the over riding consideration?

The court upheld the minority status of Stephen’s. It further acknowledged that the College had followed its own admission procedures for 100 years, and the university could not change them without proof of maladministration. The interests of the general public could not be at the cost of curbing the rights of the minority community.

Examination marks alone are neither fair nor reliable, because of human factors in evaluation, and because different Boards have different standards, observed the court. In fact the College procedure was better than the blind method of selection based solely on marks. The court was therefore giving full marks to the College’s admission procedure.

The third issue of the interface of Articles 29 (2) and 30 (1) was more complicated. Nevertheless it upheld the predominating emphasis expressed in Article 30 (1). Speaking of Govt aid to a minority educational institution the court sagaciously observes that under Article 30 (2) the state is obliged to maintain equality in giving aid, and minority institutions are entitled to it. It is not a privilege in any way and the receipt of aid in no way impairs the right under Article 30 (1).

It further states that educational institutions are not business houses that generate wealth, hence they cannot survive without aid, and the minorities cannot be saddled with this burden without grant-in-aid. This effectively counters Guha’s argument that it is unethical to give aid from the exchequer to an institution that primarily caters to its own.

The court further adds, in line with the Mandal Report of the time, that “equality of opportunity for unequals is an aggravation of inequality,” hence the need for “reasonable protective discrimination.’ It says that “differential treatment in standards of selection are within the concept of equality” because the right to equality of opportunity includes the right of the under privileged to compensatory privileges because “equality of opportunity must yield to equality of results.”

The Mandal Report, quoting an American sociologist, whose name I cannot recall, talks of three types of equality – equality of opportunity, equality of treatment and equality of result. Admitting a student is an act of equality of opportunity. If that student does not have electricity in his home, cannot afford private tuitions, or class tours to exotic locales, then it does not get equality of treatment. Hence it requires reverse discrimination in order to bring it on par with those who have better amenities or facilities, culminating in equality of result – a classless egalitarian society, that a Socialist Republic like India aspires for.

(The writer is the National President Emeritus of the All India Catholic Union.)