This is a guest post by N P Ashley: For a teacher, it feels strange to defend one’s workplace in public against the experiential remarks of an individual who happens to be in some ex-student capacity in the same college. “I didn’t like X’s classes” or “I found academic excellence in St. Stephen’s College a myth” are statements that need no attempt to be disproven precisely because the writer, Thane Richard, makes no attempt to prove them in the first place. The narrative is anecdotal and validation is through “personal experience” which can only be countered, rather weakly, through other anecdotes. Hence, I won’t get into it. But there are certain methodological problems with the entire exercise, which, if not countered, will wrongly define the concerns of the readers.
Thane Richard seems to operate with the following logical scheme:
1. St. Stephen’s College is one of the best, if not the best, college in India.
2. St. Stephen’s College has no legitimate claims for academic excellence, as some teachers who taught him didn’t do any good teaching.
3. Therefore, Indian academe has no claim for academic excellence.
4. This is because students are docile and don’t know what to fight for.
5. I will tell you, St. Stephen’s Students (Indian students), what to fight for.
Richard has an anticipatory bail ready to say that people don’t need to get nationalistic and defend the academic quality in India. Well, any critique, even if it comes to you anonymously, should be used for self evaluation and correction rather than being viewed as an ego issue/ attack. Thus, strictly for the purposes of this article, I would keep Thane Richard’s American origins completely outside the debate.
But how do we not address the nationalist paradigm that Thane Richard creates for the debate? In the whole article what is the relevance of the statement, “St. Stephen’s College is one of the best, if not the best” college(s) in India? Why is he drawing a metonymic relationship between St. Stephen’s and Indian colleges? Then what is the locus standi of the position, as one teacher read out from his notes, all the teachers in St. Stephen’s College will have to be doing the same? Going even with Thane Richard’s formulation, he is taking the (supposed) worst of the (so called) best and attributing it to an entire nation. This is selective, subjective and arbitrary. If we don’t want the nationalistic frame, we need to get out of what has already been concocted by the writer- which is eminently and unfailingly one of nationalistic stereotyping.
Let me go to another side of the debate now: As for St. Stephen’s College and the developments therein, media will do itself and readers some service if they try and understand the political issue involved in the developments in St. Stephen’s College. In most colleges in Delhi, there is curfew time for women ( This applies to Women’s Hostels of the University where even Ph.D. scholars are not allowed to step out of the hostel after 8 PM). I believe that female students should also have the rights of movement that male students have. In my limited understanding, St. Stephen’s College was the first and only college to have had a major movement for an open campus. If the media had tried to raise the issue of curfew in DU university and college hostels (and this will then need to be studied against the security debates in the city and the modalities of policy decisions in university hostels and colleges) through evoking human rights and gender equality and recording the St. Stephen’s Students movement as a manifestation of a certain kind of awareness, the movement could have brought an issue of democracy into the public domain. Instead, the entire development was quite wrongly depicted as a one-of-a-kind issue between the students and the Principal of the college and handled precisely as that in the public realm through labeling and tarnishing ( and thus abandoning the political concerns entirely).
There seems to be a debilitating lack of understanding of the political in this entire media exercise- a mistake that was not invented yesterday but an old bad habit of legitimizing such tendencies on the basis of the “celebrity” nature of the college. If it is about St. Stephen’s College, news value was attributed to anything and everything. All the political inadequacies are then dissolved into the sensationalism of the narrative. Thane Richard also follows the same logic, making the same mistakes. On the contrary, I would argue that the 1200 students who study in St. Stephen’s College or the 88 teachers who teach can only be used as Indian samples, if and only if, one is ready to situate them in socio-economic givens.
That most visible lot of St. Stephen’s College has been members of the social elite is a felt reality and this needs to be read in the context of the historical situation that the ruling elite hasn’t changed in the country (which has been upper caste, upper class, male and urban)*. The social/economic elite in the country has been managing its power through the maintenance of hegemony (in knowledge), the site for which is educational institutions. If 7 Cabinet ministers, 19 Members of parliament, such a lot of IAS officers, many writers, artists, actors, media personalities and so on came from a single college in a vast county like India, it speaks more about the limited circles that monopolise different kinds of capital in the country than about the training they receive in college. It gives us certain insights into the very nature of “merit” rather than about the merit of the students. (This could be extended to institutions like IITs or IIMs in recent times, in slightly modified terms. This is a historical condition and a social limitation than the quality or fault of a single institution). The nostalgic voices from those who believe in the glory of the college or the outsiders who are interested in the sensationalism around the celebrity nature of the college are not doing anything to take us into the societal, systemic nature of the problem. They merely take us around this gol chakkar of “premier institutions”.
St. Stephen’s College is one among the many colleges in Delhi University and one among the thousands of colleges in the country. For some of us, who have their memories or careers or present there, it will be an important part of our lives. But the college grows out of this topos and becomes a public concern when the issue is placed in the domain of knowledge or of human rights in the secular, socialist and democratic country of ours. Other kinds of interventions are counter productive for the very reason that they take us away from these questions, disabling us from looking at the micro-manifestations of issues from a methodologically nuanced, institutionally useful and politically sensitive position.
*I am aware of the change in the social background of students in the last two decades for a number of reasons. But I am not taking that up here, as this bunch hasn’t gained visibility as students of St. Stephen’s College yet.
(Social commentator and dramaturge, N. P. Ashley teaches English at St. Stephen’s College).