Of ties, school ties and alumni

School ties are easy enough to get rid of. Mine was navy blue, with sky blue stripes on it. Not very pretty, but I have still kept it, grudgingly, to remind me of those horror-some years. But college ties are a completely different story. As I was to discover in the three years after school. It’s been a while since, but college is still not out of mind. (image from here)

But enough about me and my collection of ties. We can talk about that some other day also.

Today’s piece is about that Allnutt hangout (Rival College Warning), which was in the news because some ex-Alls decided to set up an alumni society which included the Hallowed Name of the College.

Okay, enough quibbling (the Allnutts are famous enough to have had a stamp issued after them, in, like, 1981): this alumni society aka St. Stephen’s College Alumni Association, one of whose members included sitting Member of Parliament and alumnus Sandeep Dikshit, ended up being sued by the college itself, for a case of passing off from the college itself. The Delhi High Court, which has had its own share of Stephanians at the bar and on the bench, was called upon to sort the issue out, and came out with a very sensible decision recently, which you can read here.

During the course of arguments, the defendant Alumni Association offered to change its name, and presented a bunch of options, including the Association of Old Stephanians. It also offered to add a disclaimer to its website, in keeping with the college’s request, to explicitly state that this was not an officially recognised Association, and so forth.

The college put its foot down, saying the Alumni Association, despite comprising former students of St. Stephens College could not use the words “St. Stephens College” “St. Stephens” or “Stephanians” in their name. The court made some basic issues clear:

1. Constitutional right to form an association:
The individuals involved in the case (Sandeep Dikshit et al) were undisputedly former students of the college. They have a fundamental right, guaranteed by Article 19 (1)(c) of the Constitution to every citizen, to form an association. “Hence, they were well within their constitutional right in forming an association even if that association is to consist wholly of ex- Stephanians.”

2. Naming the association:
This argument is tautological, but bear with the court, it has a point to make: Membership to the Alumni Association is open only to those who have been students of the college. Old students of the college call themselves stephanians. Hence, “there should be no valid objection to their using the word stephanian as a part of the name of the society since being an old stephanian is the only common link amongst the members of the society…. Everyone, who has studied at St. Stephens College, Delhi can claim, as a matter of right, to describe himself as a stephanian and this right comes to him on account of having been a student of the college.”

3. Passing off unlikely:
This was self-evident but it took a court to say it out loud: The Alumni Association’s disclaimer placed on its website would be sufficient to establish that there was nothing official about it. Equally, the college had every right to put a similar disclaimer on their website, claiming no recognition of official status, etc.

“Considering the background, education, level of awareness and credentials of those who have studied at St. Stephens College, Delhi, it is most unlikely that they can be misled into believing that Association of Old Stephanians is the officially sponsored/recognized/affiliated alumni Association of St. Stephens College, Delhi.”

Beyond the murky politics that are alleged to have prompted the case, the court brought to light a couple of interesting issues

No commercial purpose:
First, the court highlighted that the defendants here were not seeking to exploit the name of the college for commercial purpose, which tilted the balance considerably. This was in response to the plaintiffs citing an interim order dated 06th June, 2002 passed by the Delhi High Court in Suit No. 1061/2002 President & Fellows of Harvard College vs. Mr Harbans S. Bawa.

In the Harvard case, the defendant was attracting prospective students by use of the slogan “If you can’t go to Harvard–we bring Harvard Education to you”. He had obtained Harvard teaching material and intended to use that material as a part of its course. The Court had, in that case, felt that if the defendant was not restrained from doing so, the public at large was likely to be drawn in by the apparent misrepresentation of the defendant.

Waiving exclusive right to name?
Second, the defence attempted to draw the court’s attention to several institutions using the name “St Stephen’s” in connection with educational institutions across India, to argue that the college had effectively “waived its right to exclusive use of the name St. Stephens College”. They also alleged that the Alumni Association was being targeted only because they had “criticized the functioning of the present principal of the college”. The college hastily countered this, saying that these institutions were using the name with the consent of the college.

When asked if the college, being itself also a society registered under Societies Registration Act, had passed a resolution authorizing these institutions to use the name St. Stephens in their name, no such resolution/authorization was acknowledged.

Alumnae of my own college are referred to – occasionally – rather indelicately, by a word that sounds terribly similar to the Hindi word for garlic. I am very confident that that acronym will never make it to the top 100 most popular names for alumnae associations.


  1. AvatarS

    It is pertinent to note that the defendants were not using the name for any commercial purpose. A good one!!
    Incidentally, you are from Lady Shri Ram? Aung San su Kyi’s alma mater 🙂


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