College is known for its questioning spirit, but now destroyed by principal, says St Stephen's alumni

“Restriction on freedom of expression had never been the culture of St Stephen's College. The prestigious institution is gradually losing the reputation of being the champion of right to free speech.” This was the allegation of current and old Stephenians who had gathered outside the campus on Friday to express solidarity with Devansh Mehta, who has been suspended by the school till 23 April after a one-man inquiry committee appointed by Principal Valson Thampu found him guilty of violating disciplinary norms of the college by launching an in-house digital magazine “without permission”. Interestingly, the start-up publication carried an interview of the principal.

 College is known for its questioning spirit, but now destroyed by principal, says St Stephens alumni

St Stephen's college file photo: IBN Live

Mehta, a third-year graduation student who was editor-in-chief of the e-zine, was not only suspended from the college but was also stripped of Rai Sahib Benarsi Das Memorial Prize for which he was selected because of his “good conduct”. He was due to receive the award on the college’s Graduation Day on Saturday.

Nandita Narain, Delhi University Teachers’ Union president and St Stephen’s mathematics teacher, said a “bright student of the college is being demoralised”. “Freedom of expression is being curbed in the name of violating disciplinary norms of the college. Questioning authorities and raising issues are not tolerated anymore,” she told Firstpost adding that the “charges levelled against Mehta are baseless”.

“What was the mistake of the boy? If talking to the media is his indiscipline, it is not written anywhere in the rule book of the college,” she said.

The main accusation against Mehta is: publishing an online magazine without taking prior approval from the principal and subsequently conveying the news of the proscription of the magazine to the media. “I was also a student of St Stephen. We used to have our in-house magazine carrying campus news, jokes and pranks. There was no censorship at that time,” she said.

Lambasting the principal for using “indecent” words for a department head, she said, “Using the word ‘sneaking’ for a department head is unfortunate. College website is being used as personal blog, which is a serious concern.”

Principal Thampu publicly blamed college’s Philosophy department head Vijay Tankha for “sneaking” Mehta’s name “behind the back of the principal” for a good-conduct award.

“The head of the department of Philosophy did not attend, unlike other heads of department, the meeting at which prizes were to be decided. He, instead, sneaked in Devansh’s name, behind the back of the principal, into the list…Going by the citation, on no count did the proposed student merit the award,” read a notice posted on college notice board.

Expressing shock at the manner in which Mehta was suspended and his magazine was banned, a St Stephen’s alumnus describes the college action as an “attack on the right to question”. “The college is known for its questioning spirit, which has been destroyed by the principal,” Ashish Joshi, a member of the Association of Old Stephanians, told Firstpost.

“Humour is in the culture of Stephen’s. Students used to run irreverent magazines full of humour, without inviting such ire from principals. Against whom are you (Thampu) fighting the “battle of ego”? Your own child who is just 19-year-old? It does not suit the stature of a principal,” he said.

Questioning the legality of the ban on the e-zine, he asked, “How can St Stephen’s ban an online magazine when the Supreme Court has struck down Section 66A of the IT Act to safeguard free speech on the internet? If Mr Thampu had any objection on the magazine, he should have raised it when he was being interviewed for it.”

He demanded that the principal should be removed from the college as soon as possible. “He (Thampu) is running a totalitarian regime in this college. “He is damaging the image of this esteemed institution through his vindictive action. We have launched an online campaign and we demand Delhi Diocese that the principal must be removed immediately,” said Joshi, media co-ordinator for the association.”

Sharing his experience, Dhanraj Karel, a former student of the college who passed in 2013, accused the principal of behaving like a “dictator”. “In three years of my BA programme, I was suspended twice for protesting against the dress code in hostel’s mess.”

He alleged that the principal is in the habit of making things personal. “It is a democratic institution. There are ways to handle issues. You cannot take everything on your personal ego and start vindicating people,” he said.

Many students who were present there were talking to the electronic media were being filmed from behind fearing vindication.

“Devansh vs Thampu fight is just a mirror of the environment of what is going on inside the campus. We are here for a larger cause of protecting the right to free speech, which is being taken away gradually. There is no forum available for discussion or debate. Whoever raises voice is targeted,” said two girl students, strictly on condition of anonymity.

They called the ban on the magazine and suspension of Mehta “arbitrary, illegal, malafide and shockingly unreasonable”.

When asked about the thin presence of the students in the protest, they said, “We have support of hundreds of concerned students but no one wants to come forward as we are studying here and we have to get a degree.”

Meanwhile, NSUI, the Congress’ student wing, has staged a protest in front of the college and burnt effigy of the principal. “We denounce this move by the college authorities and wish to elucidate that as citizens of  India, every student has the right to freedom of speech and expression and one need not seek the ‘permission’ of his college principal before launching an online magazine. Suspension and depriving him of a prize he deserves is highly vindictive and least expected from an educational institution,” NSUI national spokesperson Amrish ranjan Pandey told Firstpost.

The ABVP has also condemned and warned authorities of a massive protest if the suspension was not revoked and the ban on the magazine was not lifted.

“Those who were advocating freedom of expression are themselves curbing it now. We are with the students of St Stephen’s and cannot compromise on the issue of expression,” said ABVP’s national secretary Rohit Chahal.

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Updated Date: Apr 18, 2015 11:49:04 IST