Recalling St Stephen’s: How a Christian College Shaped India’s Freedom Struggle

It's such a little-known story that many think of it as a bastion of the British Raj for its Christian character.

4 min read

In the course of a Christmas-related function on 25 December 2023, Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned the illustrious role that St Stephen’s College (of Delhi University) played in India’s freedom movement. Fittingly, the reference came at the end of the year that marked a century since the retirement of the remarkable teacher who led that college to play that sterling role.

It is such a little-known story that many think of the college as a bastion of the British Raj, simply because of its Christian character. In fact, one of the most respected editors in India once wrote off-handedly that St Stephen’s represented the Raj while another college in Delhi University had stood for nationalism. Shoddy, lazy, superficial view!

The college has changed in many ways since those heady days more than a century ago but has good reason to be proud of its history.

Getting Gandhi Back to India To Helm the Freedom Movement

The fact is that Sushil Kumar Rudra, the visionary teacher who was the principal of St Stephen’s College from 1906 to 1923, went to Mumbai to receive Ba (as Mahatma Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba Gandhi, was affectionately called) and her sons when they arrived in India from South Africa.

Rudra brought them to Delhi, where they stayed at the principal’s house to await the arrival of Gandhiji, who was in London to confer with Gokhale before he returned to India.

In fact, Rudra had sent his vice-principal, the Indophile anti-colonialist Charles Freer Andrews, to South Africa to persuade Gandhi that he was needed in India. Legend has it that Rudra looked up from his paper while having breakfast one morning and said: "Charlie, we need this man Gandhi in India. You must go to South Africa to persuade him."

Of course, a host of others had already written to Gandhi with the same request over the past few years, but Andrews actually undertook the journey, along with another teacher, the Reverend William Pearson. (In fact, Andrews was distressed when Gandhi later refused to allow him to be a leading part of the freedom movement, arguing that it must be an Indian movement led by Indians.)

When Gandhiji arrived, he was given a ten-minute standing ovation when he entered the college hall to address the morning assembly. The Reverend Allnutt, the founder-principal of the college was among those who attended that assembly.

Noting that he was glad to hear that the British teachers at the college had learnt Hindi, he addressed the assembly in Hindi. Gandhi prepared the draft for the Non-Cooperation Movement while staying at the principal’s house.

Rudra had already been dedicated to the freedom movement before he sent his two young colleagues to South Africa. Amid the fever of the 1911 agitations, Rudra had helped Lala Har Dayal, a Stephanian who headed the Ghadar Movement, to leave the country.

Gandhiji did not want to stay at the principal’s house after he had called for a nationwide agitation against the Rowlatt Act, arguing that he did not want to get the college or Principal Rudra into trouble. But Rudra insisted that his hospitality was just a little service to his country.

In those years, his house at the main crossing of the historic Kashmere Gate area (which was then to Delhi what Connaught Place later became) also hosted Rudra’s friends among nationalist poets such as Sarojini Naidu.

Some say that Tagore finalised the English draft of Gitanjali while staying at the St Stephen’s College principal's house in October 1916.


Shattering Glass Ceilings

An interesting sidelight to the way the Rudra-Andrews duo shaped St Stephen’s College in that epochal era is the way they took charge of the institution.

In keeping with the racist approach that the then dictated appointments, Andrews had been sent down from Cambridge as a young graduate so that he might take charge as principal a couple of years later.

After getting to know Rudra and the college, however, Andrews wrote to those in charge at the Cambridge Mission, which had set up the college in 1881, that he could not possibly take over instead of the very able senior teacher, and so would function as his vice-principal.

A glass ceiling was thus broken.

Rudra was a firm believer in Gandhiji’s resistance movement, as well as his efforts to unify the nation by making the uplift of the hitherto untouchable castes a core part of his programme.

Rudra instituted an annual tradition for students and teachers to serve the staff of the college dinner in the dining hall.

Sweepers were seated at the tables, along with cooks, waiters, attendants, and watchmen along with those of their families that lived on campus, while those whom they served the rest of the year (cooked and) served them dinner.

Several students, and their parents, were affronted at this annual inversion of the caste hierarchy. Rudra stood firm, however, telling parents that they were welcome to withdraw their sons from the college if they refused to serve the staff once a year.

The tradition continues and is still known as the Rudra Dinner.


SSC Boasts of a Stellar Legacy of Social Reformers

Although the college trained many bureaucrats, it also nurtured alumni who brought about social change – whether through politics, as by the prominent pre-independence Jat politician, Master Chhotu Ram, or through rural production, as by Bunker Roy.

Chhotu Ram devoted a substantial portion of his salary to fund the education of poor but bright students. As (undivided) Punjab’s Revenue Minister, he set up the Peasants' Welfare Fund. Future Nobel Prize laureate Abdus Salam was a beneficiary of this fund.

Ram pushed two significant laws to ease the lives of debt-burdened farmers: the Punjab Relief Indebtedness Act of 1934 and the Punjab Debtor's Protection Act of 1936.

Perhaps his greatest contribution to what became the prosperity of Punjab and Haryana was the Punjab Restitution of Mortgage Land Act, which allowed mortgaged land to be restored to its owner through the payment of only the original debt, without further interest.

Although Chhotu Ram was not a part of the Congress, having formed his own party, these steps were in keeping with Gandhiji’s emphasis on breaking the vice-like grip of moneylenders on India’s poor.

(The writer is the author of ‘The Story of Kashmir’ and ‘The Generation of Rage in Kashmir’. He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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