The debate over St. Stephens’ new policy

Reading Dilip’s stimulating post on the judgment recently delivered by Justice Dhanapalan of the Madras High Court, and his discussion of the Pai and Inamdar rulings, reminded me that some of the same issues come up in the debate over St. Stephens’ recently announced policy of quotas for Christians, and Dalit Christians in particular. (The debate has been meticulously chronicled by Nanopolitan, and some of the links provided in this post are from the archives of his blog).

The basic facts at the heart of the debate are set out in a punchy HT editorial authored by Barkha Dutt, an alumna of St. Stephen’s:

“Under a new officer on special duty (Valson Thampu, my old teacher), the college has increased the overall Christian quota to 40 per cent, of which 25 per cent will be kept aside only for Dalit Christians. A certificate from a church will determine who is a Dalit Christian, and all such applicants will be measured against a cut-off of 60 per cent marks, irrespective of which subject they want to study (students competing in the general category for a seat at St Stephen’s usually need anything upwards of an 85 per cent score.) If you add the seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and those kept aside for the sports quota, only four out of every 10 seats will now remain genuinely competitive. Christian students and SC/ST candidates already apply at a cut-off that is 15 per cent lower than that for the general category.”

Other alumni of St. Stephen’s have protested against the new policy. (Ramachandra Guha’s spirited response is available on Outlook, but viewing it requires a free subscription: a brief discussion of his views is available at this post on Nanopolitan’s blog). Vir Sanghvi, while weighing in on the issue (and clarifying that he is not an alumnus of the college), called for a national debate over the issue. His editorial also examines some of the reasons behind the furore over the issue, focusing on the high status enjoyed by St. Stephen’s college among educational institutions in India.

The current Principal of St. Stephen’s has responded to these criticisms in a series of op-ed articles. Here is a link to his op-ed in the Times of India, dated June 29, 2007. A few days later, he wrote this op-ed in the HT. And this is his editorial in today’s issue of the Hindu.

While others have focused on the prudential and normative basis of the policy, I hope we will be able to discuss the legal arguments for and against the policy. In her passionately argued piece, Barkha Dutt alludes to the fact that the college may have a sound legal basis for its new policy, but disputes its soundness on other grounds:

“St Stephen’s College is legally within its rights as a minority institution to bring in these new quotas (despite the fact that 95 per cent of its expenses are met by the University Grants Commission). But the college that taught us all to never accept inherited wisdom must now turn its innate questioning spirit to itself. It must answer why it has chosen to self-destruct and walk down a path that will kill the very liberalism that has defined it for decades.”

Focusing on the Principal’s latest response in today’s Hindu, he too raises both normative and legal arguments to back the new policy. Among other policy-based arguments, he focuses on what he sees as the basic problem with higher education in the country today:

“The foremost tragedy in this country is not illiteracy. It is a system of education — from the primary level to higher and professional education — that perpetuates the status quo, aggravates social cleavages, obstructs national integration, and shuts the door on the hopes and aspirations of the poor. A veneer of legitimacy is cast over this systemic injustice with the label of ‘merit.’ Merit, as an American billionaire said some years ago, often implies little more than the accident of being “conceived in the right womb.” The time has come for us to make a distinction between ‘individual merit’ and the merit of a society. A meritorious society is one in which the hidden merit of all its members is enabled and expressed fully. Seen in this light, we are an ‘anti-merit society.’ Our very notion of merit militates against merit in the social sense. It is high time we shifted from a hierarchic to a democratic and socially pro-active idea of merit, the sort of merit that would have found favour with the Father of the Nation.”

He then provides the legal basis for the new policy:

“What holds the field in the domain of minority rights today is the 2002 judgment of the Supreme Court of India’s 11-judge bench in T.M.A Pai Foundation & Ors. vs. the State of Karnataka and Ors. This judgment holds: “ ;To effectuate Article 30(1), minority educational institutions, while giving preference to students of that community, may admit students of non-minorities up to 50% . . .” It is thus obvious that admission from all other communities and categories to a minority educational institution should not exceed 50 per cent. This is so because, as the Supreme Court acknowledges, admissions have a shaping influence on the character of an institution. A minority institution loses its minority character when the minority community becomes a minority in that institution. Article 30(1) is meant, primarily, to enable religious and linguistic minorities to meet their educational needs. According to the Guidelines for Admission 2007-2008, 40 per cent of the seats in St. Stephen’s are set apart for Christian applicants and an equal percentage for non-minority applicants. Both admissions are done strictly on the basis of inter se merit. Of the remaining 20 per cent of seats, 5 per cent is meant for sports admissions and the remaining 15 per cent accommodates social justice (SC/ST students). It is out of the 40 per cent seats for Christian applicants that 25 per cent (or 10 per cent of the total seats) is set apart for Dalit Christians. The admission of Christians from socially degraded backgrounds, or Christian Dalits, does not therefore affect the interest of non-minorities in any way.”Convinced of the legal soundness of his position, Principal Thampu expresses concerns that that by itself may not be enough to ensure that the new policy is allowed to be implemented:

” …. I am a law-abiding citizen, first and foremost. The dilemma I face is whether or not I am free to obey the law of the land within the matrix of prestige in education. Respect for the rule of law is, sadly, not a strong point in our society yet. Not infrequently, people showcase their clout by defying the law. The verdicts of the Supreme Court have the effect of ‘law declared.’ They are binding on citizens, regulatory authorities, and governments. As a law-abiding citizen of India, I am bound by the pronouncement of the Supreme Court of India to which I have to give effect, whether or not it humours certain lobbies. It will be frightfully embarrassing if teachers and other self-styled custodians of excellence in education cry wolf against implementing the law of the land. Nobody has said yet that the Admission Guidelines for 2007-2008 fall foul of law. It is only assumed tacitly that the prestige of St. Stephen’s exempts it from the pronouncements of the Supreme Court regarding the rights and responsibilities vis-À-vis minority rights. That is dangerous and unacceptable. The proposed national debate should not mistake a tree for the forest. It should not be about a few seats this way or that in St. Stephen’s. It should be about the mythology of higher education in this country and the operative socio-political consensus that conspiratorially excludes the vast majority of young men and women from the fruits of national development and material progress. Only 7 per cent of India’s children in the corresponding age group can, as of now, afford the luxury of higher education of any sort. The discourse on 9 per cent GDP growth needs to be humanised and humbled with the corollary as to who is benefiting from it and what needs to be done, via education, to ensure that economic development is coupled with distributive justice and human dignity. “A system that enables,” wrote President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the 1960s, “a man born of a poor peasant as I was some sixty years ago to become the President of the U.S. is the system that deserves to be ranked among the best philosophies of the world.””Those who have followed the complicated trajectory of the rights of minority educational institutions will be aware that St. Stephen’s College was earlier involved in litigation that resulted in an important judgment delivered by the Supreme Court in 1992. There are thus any number of reasons why legal scholars and experts must focus on this current debate, which has the potential to lead to a rethinking of the existing law on the issue. This issue, like the ruling of the Madras High Court discussed by Dilip in the previous post, will require a close study of the TMA Pai ruling (2002) and may involve an analysis of the Inamdar case (2005). For a quick primer on what these cases held, I provide links to V. Venkatesan’s reports on the cases, taken from the archives of Frontline. See this concise summary of the Pai case (which also includes a brief discussion of the St. Stephen’s ruling). And, click here for the report on the Inamdar case.

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