Locked in an ivory tower

Courting cases Valson Thampu has been fighting a plethora of legal battles since he started his tenure in 2007
Courting cases Valson Thampu has been fighting a plethora of legal battles since he started his tenure in 2007

A centre for excellence in learning and a dream destination for many students, St Stephen’s College has been in the news in the past couple of years for the wrong reasons. Ever since Valson Thampu took over as the college principal, controversies and scandals have marred the institution.

In addition to the many controversies, the recent episode of the suspension of Devansh Mehta, a third-year philosophy student, stands testimony to the arbitrary and allegedly dictatorial rule of Thampu. Suspended for going ahead with the idea of a college magazine and publishing excerpts of an interview of the principal without his approval, Devansh was forced to seek legal action against the principal.

Today, with more than 20 court cases against him, Thampu stands as one of the most litigated principals of the college. According to students on the campus, there is complete suppression of democratic rights and academic freedom ever since Thampu assumed charge. Moreover, they allege that they don’t have any say in the daily affairs of the college and everything is decided by the principal.

“It is impossible for girls to breathe freely on the campus in such an atmosphere where there is continuous surveillance on them. If we continue to live in such an atmosphere, we will really become eggs,” says an undergraduate girl student. The harshest of Thampu’s critics are girls on the campus who unanimously find him to be a chauvinist. For example, his recent comments that compared boys and girls to stones and eggs had invited criticism from all quarters of the student community.

At St Stephen’s, girls are not allowed to step out of their hostels after 10pm at night. In case they have to go home after the 10 pm deadline, their parents will have to inform the college authorities in advance about it. The same rule is also applicable when the students visit their local guardians. As a result, the students decided to protest against the medieval tactics of the administration by loitering around the college after 10 pm. After this protest, Thampu announced that there would be a fresh round of interviews for accommodations in the girls’ hostel. To nobody’s surprise, the girls who participated in the protest were unceremoniously kicked out.

“We were asked if we drank alcohol or smoked or were part of any protest,” alleges a student. Commenting on this issue, Nandita Narayan, duta president and also a professor at St Stephen’s, says, “Thampu does not give space for dissent and has a tendency to target people who speak up against his style of functioning, be it students, professors or karamcharis of the college.”

Thampu’s detractors allege that one look at his track record as the principal would show that he has targeted people from the weaker sections of the college community.

At St Stephen’s, Thampu has gone after mess workers, daily-wage workers, administrative workers and their children. To cite an instance, in October 2010, Thampu tried to implicate a minor, the son of a worker, in a criminal case to the extent that the juvenile justice court reprimanded Thampu for his baseless allegations. Subsequently, the boy was denied admission in the college, which was in violation of the St Stephen’s tradition of providing education to the children of the workers.

In yet another case, on 16 August 2010, a deputy librarian had filed a complaint against a co-worker for sexual harassment. To date, many allege that the librarian was forced to revoke her complaint under pressure from Thampu. But, what stands as an eternal blot on Thampu’s career has been his questionable educational qualifications.

According to many oral and published accounts, when the vice-principal of St Stephen’s, Dr Frank, challenged Thampu’s doctorate in theology from the Allahabad Agriculture Institute, he (Thampu) promptly got a disciplinary case initiated against him.

However, the Delhi High Court came to the rescue of Frank and he continues to work in the college.

Ashish Joshi, an alumnus of the college and now a civil servant by profession, finds Thampu a regressive principal who is trying to impose Victorian morality in the college. Pointing out the difference between his years at the college and now, Joshi says, “When we were in college, St Stephen’s was famous for its liberal ethos but instead of moving ahead with the times, the culture on the campus seems to be taking a leap backward. Also, the way he is handling the administration is
difficult to understand. In a democracy, you cannot handle everything with an iron hand.’’

The St Stephen’s alumni have dominated different areas of professional life. From being top bureaucrats to social workers, they have made an impression in every professional field. Among the list of its renowned alumni are MP and former Union minister of state Shashi Tharoor; former national security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon; Montek Singh Ahluwalia, formerly deputy chairperson of the Planning Commission; journalist Barkha Dutt; director Ketan Mehta; historian Ramachandra Guha; writer Allan Sealy; Mihir Shah, a former member of the Planning Commission, among many others. Such a glorious past is indeed a matter of pride for Stephanians.

St Stephen’s was termed as a secular place even when it was the foremost Christian educational institution in India. In his essay published in 2007, Guha recounts: “Stephanian Christianity, if such a term can be coined, was a moral universe in which the specificities of one particular religion were rendered irrelevant as with Gandhi’s own ecumenical philosophy, this was a creed that, among its very many diverse followers, attracted an entirely voluntary adherence. Faith and ethnic origin were irrelevant to being a Stephanian.”

However, in sharp contrast, the Thampu era dismantled the St Stephen’s ‘secular’ tradition. Thampu created a religious divide by introducing compulsory Bible readings in the morning assembly.

Valson Thampu
Valson Thampu

Valson Thampu, Principal, St Stephen’s College

Edited excerpts from an exclusive interview •

Ever since you began your tenure as principal of St Stephen’s College, there have been a series of controversies. How do you perceive this?

They are factually incorrect and a part of the false reportage on me.

There was a similar incident earlier when you placed a ban on paper cups on the campus. Subsequently, you suspended a student who questioned the ban. How would you respond to this?

No such incident of suspension has ever occurred. What is wrong in keeping our campus clean? The Prime Minister came out with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan with the very same aim of promoting cleanliness. When we try to do what he says, contradictory reports appear in the newspapers.

Isn’t the suspension of Devansh Mehta and the ban on the magazine harsh?

Who said that I banned the magazine? I did not. What I said was that I would look into the matter in July. Three students had approached me and they wanted to start the magazine. At that time, I said, “That is excellent.” I was very overjoyed. I am a person with a sense of humour. No one encourages sense of humour. Humour has evaporated in this society and I am the last person to deny humour. This is what the country lacks and this incident also suggests the same.

But do you think the student in question would find humour in his suspension?

He says he has a sense of humour. Sense of humour does not hide. He was prejudiced and biased against the college. I gave two suggestions when they approached me. One, they can proceed with the publication without taking the college’s name. Or, if they take the name, the publication must follow clear-cut practices, customs and rules. No article is published without the staff adviser’s clearance.

Who is the staff adviser?

I am.

In an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, you had mentioned a few pertinent and ominous points of the Hindu Right in reference to a Modi speech. Considering how there are talks around the communalisation agenda of the government, how do you perceive the present state of affairs?

Why are you asking me questions from all over the place? Why are you jumping from one topic to another? Are you trained as a journalist?

I am entitled to speak about the PM and I am free to appreciate anything. It was a happy thing to do and it is certainly nice to know people are reading good things about me inspite of controversies. Haven’t you come to talk about the present incident?

Sir, I have the liberty to ask you questions from any quarter.

You are wasting time and the time for this interview is almost up. You have not asked me questions on the incident.

Sir, I did. But, do tell us your version.

You know the facts.

Sir, you mentioned earlier that the facts were wrong.

He didn’t follow the rules and regulations of this college and what he did was a breach of trust and a violation of law. If someone writes an article degrading a woman, can we publish it?

So, sir, you were fine with the transcript of the interview?

Yes, I was and I stand by it. But I said I would consider it in July as it was the end of the academic year.

But the students mentioned that they waited for 12 hours for your response.

What are you saying? I am the principal of St Stephen’s College. Do you think I have the time to respond quickly to a fledgling magazine? Does your managing editor respond quickly to you?

Sir, the court has put a stay on the suspension. What is your take on that?

The high court takes the decision and I am abiding by it.

After placing restrictions on women’s hostels, students said that you justified it by saying ‘Boys are like stones and girls are like eggs.’ Can you comment on that?

This interview is done.

—Deepti Sreeram




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