The confrontation between St Stephens and DU shows that minority rights have become management rights

In religious contexts, there is a tendency to equate oneness with separateness; when they are opposites. Individuals are only unique when they are true to their individual qualities and develop them for the greater good. The obsession with being unique in itself is complacency, incompatible with the religious culture of all communities.

People see themselves as “separate” or exclusive when they are selfish and hold prejudices. In their hands, even the best arrangements become problematic. Encouraging and allowing religious and linguistic minorities to develop an egocentric outlook is not compatible with Article 30(1) of the Indian Constitution. In addition, it weakens the communities concerned.

Take an example from Kerala. Members of the South Kerala Diocese of the Church of South India are now caught in the turmoil caused by the abuse of minority rights. A few decades ago, the diocese established a faculty of medicine, which enjoys minority rights. In 2019, it was discovered that the Bishop and his cabals allegedly collected Rs 7.5 crore from ineligible medical school aspirants, promising them admission. The alleged scam came to light after three students moved to the Kerala High Court. The bishop and the director of the medical school admitted the fraud and agreed to refund their money.

With that, the turmoil began. Where did the money come from? What had been collected from the candidates had already disappeared. The bishop decided to pay it out of church funds. This was resisted by the diocesan treasurer, who was suspended. Some of his colleagues, who expressed their solidarity with him, were also fired. The issue snowballed into a bitter and massive confrontation between the bishop and the rest of the church. The bishop is said to have used the state apparatus to suppress dissent.

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Minority rights have become management rights

My vast experience of how minority education rights are currently used leads me to believe that they have become a hindrance to the Christian community. The main reason for this is easy to see. The Constitution regards minority rights as community rights. But in practice, they have become management rights. The community has no idea how these rights are used. They have no means of minimizing abuses, even if minority rights are claimed in their name. It is unfair and unfair. And the seriousness of this problem increases in proportion to the degeneration of the religious community concerned, creating a vicious circle.

Now consider the ongoing struggle between St Stephen’s College and the University of Delhi. The admissions guidelines developed by the university are in line with the scope of minority rights. The scope of Article 30(1) is limited to the right to admit up to 50% of candidates preferably from the minority community concerned. Thus, any exclusive process championed under the aegis of minority rights should relate only to the selection of these applicants, not general admissions.

I’m reasonably sure – if the university had allowed interviews for applicants in non-reserved categories and banned them for Christian applicants, the college wouldn’t have made a fuss about it. From my personal experience, I can guarantee that there has always been interest in admissions in the unreserved category and indifference to the reserved category.

We do not live in an ideal world. Huge interests play wherever there is prestige. They even broke in through the keyholes in the back door. As the 12th Head of College, I have no hesitation in stating that the interview-centric admissions process at St Stephen’s is seriously vulnerable to manipulation. It has always been so. As head of the English department in the 1990s, I declined to participate in admissions because I could not guarantee fairness in the process. It is not always the best candidates who are admitted and the institution suffers as a result. This deception was camouflaged by the presence of bright students who inadvertently helped cover up questionable participants.

Two facts must be kept in mind if we are to fully understand the current impasse. First, even though the interview weighting is, on paper, only 15%, it is in fact 100%. It should be easy to see. Say you are an applicant with 100% marks in class 12. You are shortlisted with those above, say, 98%, as is the case at St Stephen’s. You can lose to the last candidate on the list if you are given 10/15 and given 12.1/15. Who will know? It cannot be established that you have been harmed. I am surprised that the Supreme Court approved this process in 1991. Troubled by this, I myself reduced the interview weighting from 15% to 10%.

Secondly, extreme importance is given to admissions in the general category. Why? As a former bishop of the Church of North India (CNI) told me dryly, “Christians cannot pay”. However, it is not only in cash that these “payments” are made. It is also in terms of patronage and privilege. While in the saddle, I said that the prestige of the institution far exceeds its academic substance.

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Revisiting minority education rights

It is interesting to note that the teachers who claim the right to interview the students of the general category are also those who are indignant at the Christian character of the college. Not that they don’t understand this anomaly. It is assumed that minority rights can be divorced from the culture and needs of a community, and used at will to serve interests outside the scope of Article 30(1). It is fraud, no matter how carefully it is defended and how cleverly the abuse is concealed. St Stephen’s College needs to tell the rest of the country how interviews with General Category students benefit the Christian community. For the life of me, I can’t figure this one out!

I am no one to predict how this showdown will play out in the Delhi High Court. But I’m sure of one thing. There is a need to review the mechanisms and conveniences of minority education rights. A right liable to be diverted in its current form and which must be examined under the microscope. It is in the interests of minority communities and the country. It is dishonest to rely on constitutional provisions while considering them as alibis to perpetuate vested interests.

Valson Thampu is the former Principal of St Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. Views are personal.

(Editing by Zoya Bhatti)