"I am Dawood Ibrahim that is why I am being hounded." Those are the words of Valson Thampu, principal of the illustrious St Stephen's College, who retires on 29 February. These words came from the principal because he felt he was hounded by the media in August last year when a research scholar made a sexual harassment against her guide, an assistant professor in the college's Chemistry department.
In the eight years that Thampu served as principal, St Stephen's never missed being in the headlines, mostly for controversial reason sthough. Be it his terming of historian and alumni Ram Guha as a pretentious historian or his action against one of his students Devansh Mehta for a 'misleading' piece, Thampu's tenure has been tumultuous. Despite those rough rides, St Stephen's continues to be one of the premier destinations in the country when higher education is concerned. Thampu spoke to CNN-IBN's Bhupendra Chaubey in The Hot Seat that airs tonight at 8 pm. Edited excerpts of the interview:
Why is it that you have become a symbol for what is being described as the ultimate example of being an autocratic individual, someone who is self-obsessed, someone who has a huge ego?
The short answer to this is that I believe that work is given to us so that we may express our character, our values and ideals through what we do, whereas the principle on which society functions is the principle of conformity. In fact the more advanced the society, the more technological a society, the greater the pressure to conform and those who conform are rewarded and those who do not conform are criminialised and punished.
So you are saying that you belong to the later category that you do not conform and that’s the main reason why one after the other since 2008 when you took over as principal of this prestigious college you have only hurtled from one crisis to another.
Yes! I am saying that I am not free to conform because I am here charged with a sacred responsibility of looking after a great tradition of excellence which was not created yesterday or day before. It goes back some 135 years and I have to remain true and faithful to that tradition. First of all you must understand the essence of that tradition as best I can and use my creativity and courage both to interpret this tradition within this context.
You know you are in a very very weak position today Principal Thampu. You are someone sir who is a Principal of arguably one of the best education institutes of the country which has a very rich legacy of its alumni and you seem to be at complete loggerheads with a major segment of that alumni, how did that happen?
Now this is a complete mistake, this is not the truth.
This is not the truth? You are not at loggerheads with any alumni?
No, not at all.
When a Ram Guha calls you a fascist...
Ram Guha is not the whole of the alumni of the college. The college has about 15,000 alumni. The people who are making noise in the public space or as I sometimes say beat their breast in the public space are a laughably small segment. They won't be more than 20-30 people.
So an Arvind Subramanium, a Ram Guha and a whole bunch of other individuals who the other day came to your college because they wanted to pay homage someone who had passed away who was looking after your dhaba, restaurant of this college, you believe that they do not represent the alumni of this college?
That issue must be understood in perspective. In fact not many of them knew that this was a completely illegal meeting as no permission was sought from the college. None was given so it was an act of defiance against the college than an act of homage to somebody who died and no institution in this country even a primary school will allow a function to be organised by people from outside on its campus without any official permission.
May I ask you one question therefore Sir, and I was looking at this Facebook post that you put up, you said how come a samosa wala is so important, did he supply something more than just samosas, that all these individuals are now coming up to pay their homage.
That is not what I said.
That is a conversation that you had with a friend of yours on Facebook.
Somebody asked me, you must understand a society is judging people all the time. There are two things one is the media visibility and the media interpretation and the other, which is even more important, is judgment of the common man and I have to say this that in the eye of the common man and in the eye of the larger public some of these so called Stephanians are cutting a very sorry figure. Unfortunately they do not know this because they live in their own world of make believe. They think that they are the ultimate and they therefore are totally deaf and blind.
You think that the chief economic advisor is deaf and blind, is he insulting the legacy of this institution?
No No! I began by saying that he may not have known that this was an illicit, unlawful meeting because Sagar Diwedi who was the head of department of History here rang me up and apologized saying that he himself was kept in the dark. He said that had he known that no permission was taken from the administration to hold this meeting, he would not have turned up and he said that it was an extremely wrong thing to have happened. So if Arvind Subramanium would have known it, I know him he is a gentleman, I have written it in my Facebook post, I don’t think he would have come.
No but Sir you know when you quote this conversation that you were having with your friend, how come a samosawala which was a reference of Rohtas.
That is how the public sees him.
But do you agree with that, do you agree with this perception?
I don’t go and correct everyone. I only used the expression people used in their conversations.
No but you see is what happens is that we are living in country sir where the prime minister of this country openly flaunts his credentials as being the son of a chaiwala. when you make a comment like this whether you are subscribing to this conversation with your friend or not, will that charge be not leveled against you that you yourself Principal Thampu are being regressive, old fashioned and you are trying to insult someone who may not have been blessed with the material privileges which many others have had.
No, no! he is materially very privileged. he has 10 bhigas of land which is far more than I have. he is not a poor man. Let's get the facts right. Now an attempt is being made to distort facts. He is not at all a poor man, leave that aside, my point is…
But what you mean when you say what is it that he was supplying more than samosas? Are you not insulting him? Are you not insulting an individual who has just died?
I am sure you are intelligent enough to know that what is put within inverted commas is a quotation, why do you attribute that to me?
No, no! What I am saying is that you have put this on your Facebook post, I know this is a conversation you are having with your friend, do you agree with his perception? The tone and tenor Sir, people will accuse you Principal Thampu of not showing enough respect to an individual who has passed away.
In that case let me say, I have been in St Stephen's College for 44 years. I have not seen any one of them show the slightest concern for the poor. A certain person is being played up and being turned as an icon of protest. I mean as I have put in my Facebook post has anyone of them instituted a scholarship for the poor. Ever since that I took over the college, I have increased support for the poor not 10 times, but 20 times, and 30 times. I have not seen anyone of them come and ask me can we do something for the poor, not only that, I remember each one of them in college they had their own groups, they had Doon school or St Pauls school or this school or that school. I mean I was a block tutor here a man from a poor background or a SC person will lie sick in his bed for three days nobody would look at him. I have not seen any sensitivity to the poor on the part of anyone of them.
So all this much hyped alumni of this college who all keep taking political positions largely against you, you say that these are all individuals who have vested interests or agendas just to sell their own selves?
You see this is just convenient posturing, you see there is a particular motive and that is, today nobody likes a person who does not cut corners on their behalf who does not massage their egos who wants to follow his own dream and in conformity with the tradition of the college. The problem with Stephen's….You are a not a Stephanian so you do not know. Thank god for it, you may not understand this that the problem with St Stephen's college is that Stephanians are good myth makers.
Good myth makers?
Good myth makers
Clever word smiths?
Very clever, and they create their own stephania!
As a principal of St Stephen's college I am saying this each one of them will create their own stories, their own jokes and they will say this is St Stephen's College that is St Stephen's College. None of them has really bothered to understand that what is St Stephen's College.
So are you saying to all the viewers that are watching this interview across the country because St Stephen's College also happens to be a place of great ambition of several people across the country, would you say that St Stephen's is not the St Stephen's what believe it to be.
I want to say this as the Principal of this college that St Stephen's College has been grossly misrepresented, it was also much overestimated. Academically it was overestimated. I was student here then I became a member of the faculty in 1973. St Stephen's College was celebrated for its social elitism. I have said this before and I want to emphasize this it was not strong in academic elitism. My effort in the last eight years has been to substitute social elitism with intellectual elitism in which I claim to have succeeded eminently.
But you believe that this is the same alumni who are at loggerheads with you and you call them a minor segment. You believe that they are in a way subverting attempts to provide intellectual elitism?
Oh! There is no doubt about it because you see it's not just. If I put it this way they will object but what they cannot object is certainly denouncing and criminalising me for bringing social justice into higher education because they most hated concept in higher education in this country is social justice.
I am going to ask you some specific questions as well, controversies and issues that will go as hallmarks of your tenure, but let me first ask you Sir – your argument, your disagreements with Ram Guha, now Ram Guha happens to be a historian of some repute across the country and I have interviewed him myself several times and I find him reasonably logical person, but you describe him as a pretentious historian and a trespasser, why are you so upset with Guha?
I am just describing facts.
You are describing facts? That he is a pretentious historian?
Yes, I'll tell you what, who is an historian, a historian is one who tries to be faithful to facts a historian is one who tries to free himself from prejudice.
And you don’t believe that he fits into any of these categories?
A historian is one who tries to leave a truthful legacy to the coming generations, now this gentleman within a week of my assuming office in 2007 wrote an article that now we can now dig a grave and the college can be pushed into it, because of Thampu this college is going to collapse. I can understand if he would have waited for six months or one year to find out how I would fare and then write the obituary on the college.
But why did he do that, what was the personal bias he had against you?
It was not personal bias it was an ideological bias because by then it was known that I was bringing social justice into higher education and the nightmare for people of privilege is social justice because the moment you open up the doors to the poor they excluded the underprivileged, the protected bastion of the rich and privilege will shrink
But Guha is an individual who stands for the rights of the poor and the underprivileged, the tribals the advivasis in far-flung Chhattisgarh, are you suggesting that this is all posturing?
Yes, this is all posturing.
Is this all a lie which is being promoted by him and his likes?
I am not saying that I have seen Ram Guha do this in St Stephen's College, you see people do all kinds of drama in public space. A man’s metal is tested with respective issues. I have watched him, I have known him in college and I have watched him very closely in the last eight years, every time a progressive move was taken he would come out of his hiding and attack the college.
Now let me ask this then to you, you are quite right in saying that my tenure was riddled with controversies, I would ask you today since you have done your research, to identify one controversy which had the slightest substance in it?
So may I put it this way Sir, since you asked me this question, it's good that you have raised this question, you see the in 2015 you took this decision of suspending the individual Devansh Mehta who had come up with a college magazine. Now he had published an interview with you and from the facts which I have gathered from my research and from people who I spoken to is that you had given your permission for that interview to be published. Now Devansh Mehta happens to be your own student, why Sir would you acted in this manner. I mean at the end of the day he was just interviewing a principal, he was not interviewing the prime minister of this country.
That’s right, you see again that’s why I am saying
Is this a distortion of facts?
No, No, No!! It is a misunderstanding of facts.
He went to court against you.
Court intervened and the matter is still in court so I can’t really be completely free and open.
But do you regret that?
You don’t regret that?
You believe your decision against Devansh Mehta was right?
In fact if it were to happen again I will be even more strict.
You will be even stricter? You will still suspend that individual?
I would suspend him for a greater period of time because I tell you what he did was to cheat the principal. I mean suppose somebody comes to you and says please give me an interview and I will publish it only after you have seen the text and vetted it. That is the condition on which you give the interview and immediately he goes and behind your back and publishes it.
But he waited apparently he waited for 12 hours, 12 hours and 28 minutes to be more precise.
This is a media version, now this is what is clever about it. He sends an email to me in the morning, everybody knows that I begin my work at 7:15 am and I work till 7 pm in my office and that is the period that is covered. He knew very well that I would have not had the opportunity to have read the text. At any rate a six page interview you expect a principal who is otherwise a busy man to edit and send it within five minutes.
So no question of regret?
Oh! absolutely not.
Which is why you went to the extent of banning the publication itself?
No I didn’t ban the publication, this is another mistake. I said that the publication is put on hold it will be reviewed in July. He went to court therefore the publication is now stuck.
But I must say this to you again, not only that I have no regret about it, I am proud that I upheld the discipline of the college. If you ask anyone in college they will tell you that if these things, cheating and dishonesty are allowed in college and goes unchecked then this college will be destroyed.
You say that this is a case of cheating.
It is downright cheating.
It was converted into a case of freedom of speech? And you say that you were cheated by your own student and therefore you went to this extent.
You see what happened was the student wanted admission to a school of journalism in the United States, he had nothing to show for himself so he wanted to float a publication, appoint himself as the chief editor and use that in his CV. This is what clever people do. He was not interested in the college, he had absolutely no credentials in college, he had done nothing in college towards intellectual contribution. These are all the gimmicks that people do. Unfortunately this became a national issue. In Hyderabad University, there is a Rohith Vemula who committed suicide that’s not such an issue. The issue of one Devansh Mehta who cheats his principal in order to create some niche for himself he becomes a national icon. This is precisely the hypocrisy of the society that comes and stares you in the face.
Is this the hypocrisy of your own alumni because your alumni are individuals in this society, from a Shashi Tharoor, Swapan Dasgupta to who’s who of this country.
I would say that anybody who promotes supports encourages dishonesty is a shame to St Stephen’s College, absolute shame to this college.
And in that logic you believe that Ram Guha would qualify as the ultimate symbol of that shame and embarrassment to this college.
I don’t hand it to anybody that sense of importance, if somebody is a thief he is a thief whether he is a Ram Guha, whether he is Valson Thampu or he is Bhupen Chaubey. See the problem with us is about the Indian culture is that we go with not by what happens but who does it.
But don’t you think Sir that your own students and now I am not talking about your alumni. I am talking about the students of St Stephen’s College students of Delhi University and may I say students across the country when they would be listening to such harsh words being used by the principal how do you think it would impact them?
If they have any common sense they will respect me for telling the truth. You must understand the person who was responsible for Nithari killings, Pandher was also a Stephanian, 47 children were killed
Tribhuvan Darbari went to jail for corruption is a Stephanian. SP Singh was arrested recently, that IAS officer is a Stephanian. This college has put out all kinds of alumni
Dinesh Singh former vice chancellor of the Delhi University was also a Stephanian.
I mean I am a Stephanian, there are many kinds of Stephanians, I judge a person not in terms of labels
You would say that this institution is ultimately hyped up.
Oh it has been highly exaggerated in terms of the quality of people it has put out. Stephanians created a convenient club they help each other and I think as a service to the nation I think merit is being compromised in the process and the nation has to wake up to that fact. That we are not a country the really values merit, Merit is birth, Merit is contact, Merit is money, Merit is clout
And you represent that, your institution is a symbol of that.
No Now I am changing it, I have changed it now this is a new institution. This is what some people cannot stomach
That’s why you have believe that this entire controversy, these groups of alumni are against you.
Oh, there is no doubt about it.
You say that they are subverting your attempts to brining in social justice in this institution.
There is no doubt about it, The most hated word in this country, particularly with respect to education is social justice. You are well informed journalist I don’t have to argue with you
When you were accused of taking sides with an individual in your college who in turn was accused of indulging in a case of sexual harassment, did it not cross your mind that maybe this is getting too muddy to tricky, you should step down?
You see Bhupendra; you must know that a person who wants to take a stand on the side of truth always runs a risk.
Always runs a risk, whether it was a case of this sexual harassment or Devansh Mehta?
Don’t behave like Arnab Goswami, You see the easiest thing to do in any society is to swim with the crowd and when you swim with the crowd you have to sacrifice your convictions. When you sacrifice your convictions you end up a hollow man. The worst curse that can come down a human being is to end up like a cardboard figure that’s what is happening to most people One thing that philosophy has taught me is that you become a man a human being, man or woman only by facing opposition, by facing and overcoming resistance Now this whole fashion of taking the line of least resistance is reducing us to becoming hollow men.
Sir, your own teachers’ sir, the likes of a Nandita Narain.
She is not my teacher; Thank god she is not my teacher
She was a teacher in this very college where you are the principal of why is Dr Thampu that you have been marked out is it just because of the reasons that you have been telling me, are there personal biases or ego issues that are playing here?
I am sure that you know this, there are certain individuals who insist that everybody should fall in line the expectation from the principal of St Stephen’s College is that he sits there in his chair enjoys the public distinction of being principal and others run the show. The principal of St Stephen’s College is expected to be a glorified rubber stamp.
A glorified rubber stamp?? And you defied that?
I don’t like it, I don’t like it one bit I am here to serve the college according to my conviction my commitment and my value system
Therefore in conclusion I must ask you Sir that you now coming to the end of your tenure, there will be a new principal who will be taking over from you what are the two things, you know two learnings that you would want your successor to have from you?
Well I want him to understand the spirit of the college as faithfully as he can and have the courage to stand by it even if he has to lay down his life for it Number 1, Number 2, I would plead with him not to conform under pressure to anybody because the moment he or she does it This college will be like any other college.
But to the people outside the purview who do not understand the intricacies of St Stephen’s College would you say that the best way to treat St Stephen’s College is to look at it as a symbol which you yourself is saying as a symbol of many ills that confronts the society.
Well today St Stephen’s College, I am glad that you see it in that light. Today St Stephen’s College is a mirror held up to the society in fact I must tell you. I have thoroughly enjoyed those controversies because these controversies gave me the opportunity to highlight certain issues. I am not just a teacher confined in a classroom. In fact the vision which with I have worked all my life is that India is my classroom
India is your classroom?
India is my classroom and therefore I have used all these controversies in my own humble ways to educate the society, now whether the society is educated or not is a different matter but I also want to tell you finally that the world in which the media is located is not the real India.
And St Stephen’s College is certainly not part of that real India according to you?
No, No St Stephen's College wants to bridge the two.
But it is not yet there?
It is fast becoming one
On that note Dr Thampu thank you so much for taking out time.
Thank you very much.
The interview will be televised on CNN-IBN on Friday (12 February) at 10 pm.