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St Stephen's and the sickness of the age


St Stephen's College is the only educational institution in living memory that has had to defend itself in a court of law against a rump of its own alumni. During that process the college was criminalised as 'communal' and condemned as 'irrelevant'. The very existence of the college was, in a way, denied. But it was the apathy of many alumni that perhaps triggered greater disbelief. Does this signify a failure on the part of the institution in its larger responsibility to the nation? Does it also signify some aspects of the nation itself?

Like an earthquake, this ruckus has been long in the making. Unnoticed, the tectonic plates shifted from under the college. The tremor hit in the fullness of time. But it is the weakening of the foundation, not the tremor alone, which should bother us. Consider this: St Stephen's has one of the most formidable alumni networks in India. Her alumni are, quite evidently, resourceful and influential. And many are also quick to admit that they owe much to St Stephen's. Yet the college remains a sadly neglected institution, stuck in the past and frozen in time. Almost.

The St Stephen's earthquake has now lasted nearly four years - an unrivalled and unenviable state of affairs for an institution of this kind. But how is it that such a shocking state of affairs did not prompt many Stephanians (alumni) to find out why this came to be? Or to ponder if their alma mater was being woefully mauled in the process? Instead, the refrain, 'the college is in the news for the wrong reasons', was routinely parroted. But what were these 'reasons' and how 'wrong' were they? Who knows? The college is named for Stephen, the first Christian martyr for truth. Truth is the foundation of the institution, as indeed it must be for the edifice of education as a whole. Such apathy to truth: did St Stephen's help breed it?

If India's educated elite is not imbued with a moral passion - especially a commitment to truth and justice - and continues to promote identity through class and caste, education stands at risk of becoming a self-contradiction. The same is true of all that we cherish in India today, including secularism and democracy.

'Truth' is a function of the whole. The 'whole' that education has to reckon with is not only India but also Bharat. For years now, St Stephen's has been in denial vis-a-vis Bharat. In its tryst with India, the college lost sight of Bharat. Or, worse, pretended 'excellence' may be compromised by doing so. Yet the quake that struck is perhaps, paradoxically, a sign of robustness. The earth quakes because plates move. Movement is a sign of life. A good sign of robustness for any institution is its capacity to throw up from within itself the catalysts for its own regeneration. In that sense, St Stephen's still remains a robust and dynamic establishment.

But its alumni, like the rest of the country, present a picture of fragmentation. The alumni of the college are divided into small enclaves of prestige and exclusivity. Some Stephanians are so exclusive that they exclude even other Stephanians. Each group is, in its own way, an exclusion zone, of sorts.

Sadly, enough efforts have not been made to imbue the alumni with a shared sense of purpose in respect to their alma mater, which, over time, morphed into a mere 'brand name'. Acquisition is the only sensible purpose when it comes to brand names then.

This current 'Stephania' is perhaps a parable on India today. The nation too lacks a nationally shared sense of purpose. Look at the 2010 Commonwealth Games mess. 'National prestige' - the counterpart of 'nostalgia' in St Stephen's - was invoked to sanitise a scandal. But we did precious little to invest our national pride with substance or to mark it out from vanity. Showcasing national pride further discredited and disunited the country. A house divided against itself, as Abraham Lincoln pointed out, cannot stand.

'House' is a symbol of sharing and caring. There will be purposive camaraderie among the alumni only when they unite to serve. The founders of St Stephen's envisaged it as a blessing to the nation, not as a hypermarket of prestige. How can alumni, who cannot unite to serve their own alma mater, then unite to serve India? If they don't, how can their alma mater claim to be an institution of national stature?

Inner decay is a serious peril to institutions and nations alike. It is not slanted comparisons to other institutions that will convince anyone of the greatness of St Stephen's, just as running down your neighbours' gods cannot prove your own to be superior. St Stephen's has a great deal of soul-searching to do. And it must do so for the sake of this nation. What has happened to the Deenabandhu (friend of the poor) strand in the tradition of St Stephen's ? Indeed, Mahatma Gandhi's epochal relationship with the college is now a fading memory. Do Stephanians heal or merely mirror the sickness of our society? If St Stephen's has failed to inculcate a national vision in its pupils, it must apologise to the nation for its pretensions to greatness and for becoming, in the process, a sound brass and tinkling cymbal.

The writer is Principal, St Stephen's College and Member, National Integration Council

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