The league of quiet, extraordinary gentlemen

St. Stephens College. Photo: V.V. Krishnan  

As a distinguished academic institution of the country, St. Stephen’s College has left an indelible impact on the academic upbringing of the country, even if it’s not the only area it has made an impact on. Stephanians are spread over a vast area, some making it to the annals of history with respect to the Independence movement of India.

“The role of the college was not that great, actually, compared to Presidency College of Calcutta, or Elphinstone (Bombay) or Fergusson (Poona) or Government College (Lahore),” points out Ramachandra Guha, prominent historian and a distinguished alumnus of the college.

Dr. DEU Baker, a senior member of college, says, “To address St. Stephen’s College as a nationalist institution would not be appropriate as it flew the Union Jack till the 1930s. But yes, some people associated with the college, like S.K. Rudra and C.F. Andrews, did encourage nationalist ideas in students, but it remained almost peaceful.”

“The closest the college has come to a violent protest against British rule is the Delhi conspiracy case, in which an assassination attempt was made on Lord Hardinge, Viceroy of India, at Chandni Chowk,” says Dr. Baker. Three students of the college — Har Dayal, Amir Chand and Awadh Bihari — were involved in the conspiracy. Amir Chand and Awadh Bihari were executed on May 8, 1915, while Har Dayal escaped and fled from the country.

Lala Har Dayal was the first General-Secretary of the Ghadar Party and the founding editor of its mouthpiece, Ghadar. “Har Dayal was ahead of his time. He published a pamphlet Karl Marx: The Modern Reshi in1907, 14 years before the Communist Party of India was created,” comments Guha.

Har Dayal attained a Bachelor’s degree in Sanskrit from St. Stephen’s College in 1903. Subsequently studying at Oxford University, he gave up his government scholarship and returned to India in 1908. “Our objective is not to reform the government but to do away with it, leaving, if necessary, only traces of its existence,” he said in a letter to Indian Sociologist, published in 1907, bringing to light his inclination towards anarchism. Har Dayal died in Philadelphia on March 4, 1939, after living an austere life committed to national service.

The college, however, secretly continued its tryst with the national movement. “If you got a principal who is a nationalist, it does make a difference. He played a subtle role in encouraging students towards the nationalist movement without letting the situation boil over. He was treading a tight rope,” says Dr. Baker about Sushil Kumar Rudra, fourth principal of the college from 1906-1923.

The friendship of Rudra, Andrews and Gandhi did yield fruits. Gandhi visited the college regularly and even made speeches, prominently one made in April 1915, excerpts of which are present in the issue of the college magazine, The Stephanian, of the same month. “Fear God and therefore do not fear men and remember that ahimsa is our religion, the great gift of our reshis. What we have got to do is to bring all our lives and even into politics, nothing else than this would help us. I would exhort, therefore, to obey your teachers and to be true to your college motto, to be rooted in the truth of it, so that you may worthily enter the citizenship of your motherland,” were the words of Gandhi.

Gandhi was able to change many hearts in the college, particularly that of Brij Krishna Chandiwala, son of a silver trader from Chandni Chowk. “Chandiwala is a freedom fighter who has unfortunately been forgotten,” comments Guha. Chandiwala met Gandhi in college in 1918 and immediately became an ardent follower. “Gandhi used to stay in Chandiwala’s house in Delhi and even one of his famous fasts for communal harmony happened in Chandiwala’s house,” mentions Guha, details of which are also found in an oral history documentation of the Nehru Memorial Library. “Chandiwala was with Gandhi right up to his assassination in 1948. Actually, he was the one who prepared his body for cremation. He also wrote a book in Hindi published in three volumes, titled Bapu Ke Charanon Mein, which was later abridged into At the Feet of Bapu in English,” reveals Guha.

After Gandhi’s death, Chandiwala devoted himself to social service, for which he was conferred the Padma Shri in 1963, but since then he has been completely lost to history.

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 3:14:36 PM |

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