St Stephen’s College — A Distinguished Academic Institution of Delhi University with a Glorious Past


Dr Ravi P Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service

Like some other prestigious academic institutions of the World — Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, Princeton, Sorbonne and others, St Stephen’s College in India enjoys a well deserved reputation. It has, by Indian standards, a relatively long historical background. It was started in Delhi as St Stephen’s High School by Reverend Samuel Scott Allnutt, Chaplain of Delhi in 1854 and then over the years after attracting some students to study in it, it became a College, called St Stephen’s College  on 1 February 1881,  The college was named after Saint Stephen, who was adopted by the Anglican Church as the Patron Saint of Delhi.

The aim of the College was to provide English education to Indians and also for the propagation of the Gospel. Samuel Scott Allnutt served as its first principal. In the beginning the College was located in the Mughal area of Chandini Chowk and had just five students and three teachers. The College was affiliated to Calcutta University but subsequently in 1882, it became affiliated to Punjab University (in Lahore) and moved to a more spacious location in Kashmiri Gate not too far from its earlier location.

In the beginning, the College admitted girl students also since there was no girls College in Delhi. Then after a gap of a few years, the admission of girl students was stopped. However, girls are again being admitted to St Stephen’s College and recently a girls Hostel within its large campus has been constructed. Another College that also came up in Delhi not too far from St Stephens was Hindu College.

The University of Delhi was formally instituted in 1922 with three constituent Colleges — St Stephen’s, Hindu College and Ramjas College.  Delhi College was affiliated to the University later.   This latter College also had an interesting past; it was a madrasa for imparting Muslim students, elementary education and teachings of the Koran. It is said that once Mirza Ghalib who had become quite famous as a poet, had been invited to come to Delhi College. On arrival at the main gate, Mirza Ghalib found that there was nobody to receive him, whereupon he went back to his home in his palanquin.

St Stephen’s College shifted to its new campus in North Delhi in 1941; it is built in gothic style in a large 25-acre plot with several classrooms, a grand library, several laboratories, and a small church within the college premises itself. A large auditorium invites students and teachers with the following words of Jesus Christ:

“I am the Light of the World: He that followeth me shall not walk in Darkness. But shall have the Light of Life “

As   mentioned earlier, St Stephen’s enjoys a high reputation and many famous men and women have studied here or have been associated with it in some manner. Some of the famous students are the former President of India Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed.

It is hard to believe but the former President of Pakistan — Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq was also its student.

Diplomats such as Mani Shankar Aiyar, Swapan Dasgupta, Salman Khurshid,  writers Khushwant Singh, Arun Shourie, Ramachandra Guha, Barkha Dutt and countless other well-known names were its students. Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament and former Under-Secretary-General of the UN also studied here.

Another person Rahul Gandhi who is the son of former Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi, and is now the President of the Congress Party also studied in his College for a year but did not complete his studies in this college.

The Nobel Prize winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore also visited the College and stayed here for some time while he was translating his poems from Bengali into English

Mahatma Gandhi is also associated with the College by his association with Reverend C. F. Andrews, a distinguished lecturer in the college and a member of the Cambridge Brotherhood. He was active in the Indian independence movement and Gandhi used to call him Deenbandhu because he worked for the poor of India. The College Library possesses a few letters of Gandhi and Andrews and their correspondence demanding independence of India from British rule. . .

Not only did the College excel in academics and teaching, it also encouraged sports. Cricket was very popular and in the annual cricket tournament of Delhi University, the College usually made the finals of the tournament. Who was its opponent? On several occasions it was Hindu College that stands opposite it in the University Campus. On a few occasions, I used to see the hotly contested Cricket matches between these two great Colleges.

On a personal note when I was a student of Delhi University about half a century ago, there used to be a brilliant student studying Physics in St Stephen’s. Let me call him Ashok. He was not only a brilliant student—he broke the existing record of marks obtained in the final examination of Delhi University. He also had a fantastic memory and could remember the days and timings of various trains that passed through Delhi and other metro towns such as Bombay, Calcutta etc.

Ashok was a genius but sometimes being a genius can be injurious to one’s mental health. He often played some mischief and did some queer antics when he was in the College and also when he started working as a teacher in a school. No wonder he was therefore thrown out by his Principal. But that hardly made a dent on his eccentricity.

Can one hold the College responsible for my friend’s eccentricity? No, but any grand institution should house not only brilliance, but also accommodate an element of quirkiness.


Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, an educationist, Gandhian scholar and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University. His new book, A Garland of Ideas—Gandhian, Religious, Educational, Environmental was published recently in Delhi.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 22 Oct 2018.

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