'Freedom of expression' row at St Stephen's college heats up: Suspended student sues principal

A third year philosophy student at St Stephen's has sued the college principal after he was suspended for launching an online magazine reportedly 'without permission'.

While the college principal Valson Thampu claims Mehta was suspended for publishing his interview without permission, the student Devansh Mehta has accused principal of violating freedom of free speech by banning the magazine. His petition in the Delhi High Court accuses Thampu of putting "fetters on the much celebrated fundamental right to free expression." The petition seeks relief against “the arbitrary, illegal, mala fide and shockingly unreasonable actions unleashed against him by the principal.”

The interview was conducted with Thampu on March 4, and the transcript was sent to him  on March 7 but since the co-founders  of the magazine didn’t hear from the principal by the end of the day, they decided to publish the interview and launch the first edition, following which the interview received over 2,000 hits. The e-zine was later taken off the web on the principal’s orders.

"The main malicious accusations against the petitioner (Mehta) in this case are two fold—that of publishing an online magazine without taking prior approval from the principal and subsequently conveying the news of the proscription of this magazine to the media," the plea argues, saying the college authorities have been vindictive towards him, the Times of India reported today.

The first act of 'victimisation', according to the petition, was stopping publication of the e-zine, and then suspending Mehta based on a one-man disciplinary enquiry report which found the student guilty of breaching “college discipline” by speaking to the  media.

The second case of “vindictiveness”, alleged by Devansh, was cancellation of his name from the Rai Sahib Benarsi Das Memorial Prize for which he had been selected.

Mehta was suspended on 15 April till April 23 after a one-man panel found him guilty of violating college discipline.

Mehta was also stripped of a good conduct prize he was to have received from Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on Saturday. In his plea, Mehta has asked for the award to be restored.

The said prize is awarded to an undergraduate student in Philosophy or Economy at the college who has shown a high standard of personal conduct and marked degree of curricular and co-curricular interaction.

"The person has misbehaved... The disciplinary committee has also said this in a report that he is guilty of misconduct and insulted the college. How can we award him?" Thampu was quoted as saying by PTI.

"No one has denied him, he has disqualified himself for... the citation of which says it is for good conduct. How can person found guilty of misconduct be given such an award?" he asked.

The proscription of the weekly e-zine drew criticism from several quarters, including noted alumni members like former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi and former Delhi Lokayukta, Justice Manmohan Sarin, who termed the move as "extreme" and disproportionate".

 Freedom of expression row at  St Stephens college heats up: Suspended student sues principal

St Stephen's College Delhi.

But teachers at the college have protested against the latest move, saying Thampu did not have the right to do so as it was a prize which was awarded on the basis of a departmental selection and had nothing to do with the principal.

The Association of Old Stephanians had called the move a victimization of the student and said: “Mr Thampu, has lost the moral right to remain the Principal of St. Stephen’s College”.

Others have supported Mehta and requested the Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal not to be the chief guest at the graduation ceremony on Saturday, where Mehta was supposed to get an award. His name was dropped later. "The way our college authorities have dealt with such cases displays a clear curtailment of our freedom of speech...," the letter says.

"The paper was banned after the first issue was released without the Principal reviewing it in the capacity of a temporary staff advisor. Although the founding members realised their mistake, we feel that the banning of the paper was a consequence that outweighed their oversight. Once Devansh took this matter to the media, he was found guilty for not resolving the matter internally. It is important to note here that this judgment regarding the breach of discipline was put forth by a one man disciplinary committee appointed by the principal himself. During every instance of student dissent, there has been a concerted effort to resolve the matter in question within college, but the distinct pattern that has emerged in this respect is one of failure. It should therefore come as no surprise that Devansh Mehta resorted to external aid.

We would also like to clarify that this letter is not to be misconstrued as a reaction solely to the case regarding the newsletter. Its purpose is to address the cumulative discontentment we all feel on the basis of several unpleasant experiences. This letter is an attempt to tackle the much larger and perpetual problem of functioning under an authoritarian administrative system and we hope you view it similarly.

Our primary worry is that while we have witnessed the situation move from better to worse, future generations will only experience an atmosphere of passivity and subordination and will in all likelihood, eventually adhere to it," says the letter on change.org.

( You can read the entire letter on change.org )

“Kejriwal has been a proponent of Swaraj and justice. We want him to see the malpractices taking place in the college and empower us by refusing the invitation.We know Kejriwal will not share the stage with a man who virulently attacks his students for personal gain," a student was quoted as saying by the Hindustan Times.

In fact, on Wednesday, the students even mocked the college’s attempt to ban the magazine in a poem on a website parody called "Sant Stefans Weakly, in a poem which states:

"You say that our anonymity
remains your only sadness.
Surely, sir, it’s that and hipsters.
God, what utter madness.

Nonetheless, you have been gracious,
in addressing our mockery
with the same vigour that you reserve
for important things, like crockery.

Now that you know we mean no harm,
we hope it’s not a slog
for you to grant a baffled crowd
a little dialogue.

For in the end it’s just us, sir.
They will depart who fawn.
Leaving you with us – your legacy.
Us and some gorgeous lawns.

Meanwhile, the principal has issued a statement on Facebook  explaining why  Mehta is not being given the Rai Saheb Banarsi Das Memorial Prize for which he had been selected by his department.

The Head, Department of Philosophy did not attend, unlike other Heads of Departments, the meeting at which prizes were to be decided. He, instead, sneaked in the name of Devansh Mehta, behind the back of the Principal, into the list, going directly to Ms. Alka Jain (who is not the competent authority). Going by the citation, which is cited below, on no counts did the proposed student merit the award.

“Awarded to students of the undergraduate Economics and Philosophy classes who have shown a high standard of personal behavior and a marked degree of curricular and co-curricular interaction”
Notice the following:
1. There is an emphasis on ‘high standard of personal behaviour’
2. Marked degree of curricular and co-curricular interaction.
3. Based on none of the above, the student under reference qualifies.
4. The person whose name the prize commemorates, did care for “behavioure” as the College too does. Recommending a student who has been indicted for undisciplined behavior is an insult to the dead person as it is to the living College.
5. This was clear to the Philosophy department. Otherwise, his nomination would not have been sneaked in under cover of secrecy.
2. Suspension of the indicted student.
After the One-man Inquiry Committee found the student concerned guilty of a serious breach, I discussed the matter with Mr. Ayde –the IO and Senior Tutor- on the appropriate course of action. He outlined two- (a) In view of the serious nature of the offence, punishment commensurate with the offence be imposed, lest the discipline of the College is undermined. (b) A lenient view be taken, and the matter be closed provided the person concerned is willing to express his regret and tender an apology. I requested Mr. Ayde, on the ground that he is the Senior Tutor, to counsel the student concerned on the question. His patient efforts failed, and the student persisted with the posture of defiance.

Thampu is not the first St Stephen's professor accused of  stifling freedom of expression.

In 2003, Thampu's predecessor, the late Anil Wilson, stopped students from painting posters against the then American President, George W. Bush at the start of the US invasion of Iraq.

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Updated Date: Apr 17, 2015 13:58:54 IST