For St Stephen's principal Valson Thampu, it's time to take his own advice to Hindu Right
St Stephen’s College principal Valson Thampu is best advised to take his own advice, or rather criticism. A man who recently warned against the arrogance and overreach of the Hindu Right appears now to have fallen prey to these very same vices.
Thampu was recently pilloried all around for blocking access to the inaugural issue of an in-house e-magazine the Stephanians took out, suspending one of its founder, Devansh Mehta, and denying him an award for good conduct. He has come to represent the very same qualities that were on full display when members of his community were recently subject to ugly attacks.
He has been embedded in the collective consciousness as the man who has wronged the weak, remains unforgiving and unrepentant, and invokes rules to hand out punishment disproportionate to the transgression allegedly committed by a student. This, to say the least, is un-Christian in spirit. This irony Thampu hasn’t perhaps noticed.
Thampu can’t or won’t see how close he is to becoming what he hates.
What is possibly happening to Thampu is often the fate of some who seek to vanquish those whom they detest, because of the ideas they harbour. The conscionable opponent soon begins to resemble his rival. Indeed, in the manner of the Hindutva hotheads, Thampu has used college (instead of state) power in an abortive attempt to intimidate the boy who wasn't willing to fall in line or was, at worse, playing the precocious truant.
This allusion to the attacks on Christians might seem flawed at a glance, largely because the religious identity of Thampu and Devansh isn’t the trigger to the controversy in which St Stephen’s is embroiled. Yet it does bear certain similarities with the attacks on the Christians.
Devansh insists he can publish online and any curb violates the fundamental right guaranteed to him under the Constitution. Likewise, the religious minorities invoke the Constitution to claim they have the right to preach and propagate their religion – and are, therefore, justified to undertake religious conversion. Both are appeals to rights of citizenship.
The Hindutva brigade opposes this right of religious minorities, arguing, even though speciously, that the Hindus would be reduced to minority and their culture marginalized. Emboldened because of the BJP government in power at the Centre, besides believing the party could win Assembly elections in other states, the Hindutva hotheads have taken to menacing the religious minorities, particularly the Christians, and also want a ban on religious conversion.
Thampu has invoked the disciplining powers he possesses as principal to gag Devansh. No doubt, Thampu can claim he is justified in regulating any magazine, print or web, which bears the college’s name, which Mehta’s e-magazine did, as it was titled St Stephen’s Weekly. Yet Devansh’s petition in the court suggests this title was adopted at the behest of Thampu.
Devansh was accused of violating the code of discipline because he did not wait for the principal’s clearance of his interview, which he had given to the students for the inaugural issue of the e-magazine. The transcript of the interview was submitted to Thampu, from whom, according to Devansh, no response came even after 12 hours and 28 minutes. He and others, therefore, decided to upload the e-magazine.
Devansh may have been guilty of contravening the undertaking he gave to Thampu. Yet it is one thing to suspend or punish the boy, but it is quite another to suspend the publication of or block access to the e-magazine altogether. It smacks of an over-reach of authority.
Laws are important to ensure the state do not become an unfettered behemoth, and rules of conduct are vital for institutions to function. But these become inherently unjust in case their basis is immoral, as would be the case should the Indian state ban conversion. This is indeed the case with the widening of the ban on cow-slaughter to include oxen and bullocks. It is decidedly a majoritarian imposition, an imprimatur of the powerful.
Thampu is the power in St Stephen’s College. His exercise of power Devansh believes snuffs out his right to his free speech. Some might call his interpretation as an instance of boyish exaggeration. But this tendency India’s premier liberal arts college ought to nurture, not stifle.
In this sense, Thampu is imitating the style of tormentors of Christians. They evoke the absurd fear that conversion could reduce the Hindus to minority for justifying their intimidation of the Christians. For Thampu to believe an e-magazine and a Devansh could throw the college discipline in disarray is plain paranoia. In throwing the rule book at Mehta he is flexing his muscles with the arrogance of the Hindutva hotheads.
About the quest of the RSS and its Hindutva hotheads, political psychologist Ashis Nandy once told this writer in an interview, “They want to establish the 19th century idea of nation-state in the 21st century.” About Thampu, you can say he wishes to impose archaic ideas of discipline and Victorian morality on college students.
For a college imparting liberal education, it is tragic Thampu should be stuck in the morass of the pre-internet age. In the 21st century the internet has redefined the ideas of freedom and rendered a tad more difficult for the powerful to censor ideas. Freedom as teenagers understand today is remarkably different from what its meaning was 30 years ago.
Indeed, the internet is not just a technological tool but a mindset. Thampu has missed this big point in the controversy he has triggered, as has the RSS in mistaking the popular mandate for the BJP as a signal for implementing its divisive agenda.
(Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores)
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