Why St Stephen's principal Valson Thampu hates a 'humble' campus samosa-wallah and samosa-worshipping almuni

By Rohit Bansal

On 6 February, some old students of St Stephen's College, among them chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian and Ramchandra Guha, wanted to hold a remembrance meeting for Rohtas, owner of the legendary campus dhaba that is known for its equally legendary samosas.

They were rudely prevented at the gates of their alma mater and then allowed in only after some subterfuge. This has merited detailed media coverage, much to the amusement of non-Stephanians.

I append four links instead of one so that various versions given out by Principal Valson Thampu are incorporated and media not blamed for misreporting:

Those who didn't attend St Stephen's must be wondering why folks like us who normally strut around with so little time for the poor were sacrificing a precious Saturday afternoon for "a samosa-wallah."

Well, without belabouring why Rohtas is important, or Sukhia, his father, made a difference to lives over 70 years, I would only mention two instances as context.

One is relatively well known: President Zia-Ul-Haq of Pakistan, while attending the BA programme at St Stephen's in the 1940s, had been running some debt with Sukhia. Many of us did, for until a few years ago parents didn't give their children ATM cards, right!

Sukhia would run an account from his elephantine memory. You could redeem when you made it in life as Zia indeed did. Some say he returned Rs 1,000, which was nearly 500 times the original amount, and the Pakistani high commissioner personally closed the matter. Later interpolations inflated Zia's largesse to $1,000!

The second story is known to me in person. When Principal Thampu learnt that Justice Madan Lokur had assumed the office of judge in the Supreme Court of India, he organised a felicitation ceremony.

A file photo of the St Stephen's College. Ibnlive

A file photo of the St Stephen's College. Ibnlive

It was decided at the meeting of the Alumni Foundation Trust, of which I was a trustee too, that two other serving judges of the SC, who also studied at St Stephen's, would be honoured in the same function. (Of the two, Justice Ranjan Gogoi attended, while Justice Vikramjit Sen couldn't).

At one point of time, with all of us fussing around him, Justice Lokur asked if he could walk down to "Sukhia Dhaba". The Principal tactfully delegated the matter and I had the task of taking a serving SC judge to his room in Allnutt South and then the dhaba nearby.

Now, Sukhia had died long back and the judge knew that. But he wondered if he could have a picture with Rohtas. As luck would have it, the signature charpoy where he sat and worked all day was empty.

Justice Lokur, ever so humbly, had a picture taken with "Metro," who is Rohtas' son! His name "Metro" was given by another redoubtable Stephanian, Sachin Pilot.

So, if you choose to call us sentimental fools or whatever, you now have Principal Thampu for company.

His recent FB posts state the counterpoint on going gooey over samosas.

In his post, Alumni and Samosa Worship - Some of them move on their bellies... the reverend argues (and I quote without edit):

"How come a samosa-wallah is so important," a venerable friend of mine asked me on phone this morning after reading the newspaper reports on memorial panegyrics lavished on the late Rohtas. Being a man of some understanding he went on to ask, "Did he supply something more than samosas?" I could hear him laugh under his breath. "When Mr. Mathew died, where were these bandicoots?" the parent of one of the current students, who knows the College well, asked me, again on phone. "None of them was to be seen anywhere near the College. Shows their taste and contempt for academics."
I felt deeply embarrassed. For a few old boys and a faculty member stomach seems to be all that matters. And that is the condemnation. There is laughter all over the city.
I am sure all of you have bought and even consumed samosas from various dhabas. Have you felt, ever, the urge to worship the dhaba-wallas, having paid for the samosas? Eating is not my forte; so I have to go by your advice. So, please tell me. For the life of me, I cannot understand how a peddler of samosa is more important than the Bursar of the College or the College itself on which he thrived; so much so that politics can be unleashed around his death to the embarrassment of the College. And that is done by those who will, without a sense of shame, say -"I am what I am because of the College"! (Each time some of these guys say this, my skin falls off!) I doubt if any other College has alumni of this kind. I hope not!! Even a handful of such, produced over a century, are enough to doom the institution forever.
Now a thing or two about some alumni — led by that Aesopian historian (see the bullfrog story), Guha — beating their breasts about being stopped at the gate on Saturday (6. 2. 2016). According to the said Guha, who has some pretensions to being a historian, I am a fascist because I was not at the gate to usher him in, when he came uninvited with the express intention to gatecrash. He and his gang were simply trespassers (see video below).

No permission was sought to hold any meeting on the College campus by any of them. The College had NO INFORMATION whatsoever that they were coming or a meeting was to be held. Surely, they think that St. Stephen's is their public thoroughfare! Someone has — I know not who — conferred on them the birth right to gatecrash into the campus at will. It is a campus where a large number of lay students live. I should let these trespassers footloose and fancy free on the campus, risking everything.
The guards at the gate are under standing instruction to allow in only those who reside on the campus after 2 pm. They were doing their duty. I am told that they were threatened and abused. For what? For doing their duty? I doubt if this is what St. Stephen's has taught them. Rohtas, for whose sake they are willing to insult and defame the College, could have been — who knows? — their guru in this respect. If the source is different, do correct me. One thing is for sure — mere samosas don't explain their fervor and anger and the eagerness to bring a bad name to the College.
The Indian Express report states clearly that the reporter does NOT know if the guards stopped the so-called alumni at the orders of the Principal. But does it matter to a trigger-happy Ram Guha? He issues the final condemnation on the Principal. "The Principal if a fascist", he thunders. Being a historian, he is not obliged to know either the facts in the given situation or what fascism means. So let it pass.
Guha is sulking. He predicted, in an Outlook article in 2007, that the College would perish under my stewardship. That did not happen. The contrary happened. The College reached unprecedented heights and has been at the national pinnacle in the recent years. How can he stomach that? Isn't it immoral and impertinent for the College to prove his prophecy wrong? That is the essence of the "fascism" that Guha attributes to me.

In all of these, my only sadness is that those who carry the label of Stephanians are cutting a sorry figure in public. People are amused. They are having a hearty laugh. To that extent people like Guha are doing some social service!
Thanks, Rohtas-devotees, for your sense of humour...
Principal Thampu
Under whose instruction the guards will stop all trespassers and gate-crashers.

In another post, titled A Special Olympic Sport - St Stephen's Has A Gold Medal Prospect, Principal Thampu states:

"Many of you may know this already -but it is worth a mention, nonetheless -- that there is a special event to be showcased in the forthcoming Olympics in which St. Stephen's is sure to land a gold medal. It is an event that calls for extreme and desperate skills as well as mental toughness. It is called "firing from other people's shoulder's". This event will take place in two categories-

(a) Firing from the shoulders of living persons
(b) Firing from the shoulders of corpses

The same athlete can compete in both categories. Doping is not disallowed. (This is the only event which is exempted from such anti-philosophical inconveniences).

Contrary to your common sense, the latter -- namely, "FIRING FROM THE SHOULDERS OF CORPSES -- is far more difficult and is rated high. Like in springboard diving, the scores will depend on the degree of difficulty. And the degree of difficulty will be determined on the basis of the cause of death in the case of "firing from the shoulders of corpses" and "age and maturity" in the case of "firing from the shoulder of the living". The corpse of a TB patient, for example, is sure to be emaciated and hence the aggravated difficulty. As regards the living shoulders category, it is far more difficult to fire from the shoulders of mature persons. Students and gullible young colleagues are easier as props than mature and self-respecting colleagues. In both categories, those who have been tainted with any sense of shame or a distant touch of conscience are disqualified as "shoulders".

Many shoulders have been tried out in the recent years ( 8 years, to be precise) and a reasonable number of "shoulders" shortlisted. The shoulder of the present Principal was tried for nearly a year and rejected from both categories (living and dead) as "hard shoulder" in the idiom of traffic.

It is extremely rare that a single athlete excels in both categories, at the international level. It is known to involve at least 3 decades of sustained practice and total focus to the extent of sacrificing all family and professional responsibilities.

St. Stephen's, as most people know, has a great sports tradition. We have had Olympians in the past; but all in traditional events. Keeping our honoured Olympic tradition alive, we have a sure shot entry in the neonatal event under reference. Since the marksperson has been in constant practice for years now, a gold medal is an absolute certainty.

In order to ensure that the distinguished athlete lacks nothing, the area where Sukhia's dhaba once stood is being converted into a "from-the-shoulder-shooting-range" (to be named after the next person whose shoulder is found fit to be used). A few major media houses have come forward to finance this patriotic project. Mercifully, the athlete -who combines skills with uncanny knack and unerring instinct in selecting shoulders- is not likely to need any help in identifying the shoulders to fire from, in both categories. When quizzed, the response is, "It comes naturally to me!"

We wish our medal prospect all success. A small alumni rump is fervently devoted to this sport and has pledged sacrificial support in facilitating the athlete. In case shoulders of corpses are not available, they are willing to offer their own shoulders for practice. This laudable enthusiasm is greatly to be appreciated.

Principal Thampu
Dreading of a gold medal coming home in this event "

I promised to share the reasoning behind why the Principal has a problem here. Here's the unedited text of a note Thampu authored way back in November 2012:

The Rohtas Issue: A Factual Note

Most of us know the College from the time of Sukhia. Sukhia was a benign and matter-of-fact presence, happy to blend with the College and eke out a living without undermining the institution. He was not given to imbibing and, surely, did not drink on the campus.
Rohtas is not Suhia. Nor is Metro, Rohtas.
Rohtas’ relationship with the College, as has become increasingly evident, is marked by an imbalance between his interests and what is good for the College, the former taking precedence over the latter. Ambition has tipped over into greed and needs multiplied. He is much less sensitive to the College than Sukhia was. To Rohtas, St. Stephen’s is a tool.

This is the root of the present unhappy situation.

The Factual Matrix:
1. Facts antecedent. Rohtas had made an unsuccessful bid to plant his son, Metro, in the College surreptitiously during the tenure of Dr. Anil Wilson. This was detected and Metro banned from the campus, as any responsible administration would do. It is unthinkable to turn dynastic succession into a birth right in respect of institutional spaces or facilities. It is done nowhere in the world. During Dr. Wilson’s time, Rohtas essayed a unilateral upward revision of rates for the items he was allowed to sell. He was summoned, reprimanded and asked to stick to rates as approved. The principle that Rohtas could not be a law unto himself was thus secured, even if it was too obvious to need any assertion.
2. The Sequence
(i) The Café manager informed the Principal that Rohtas had passed on the mantle to his son Metro and that the latter was selling unauthorized items. The Principal called Metro to his office, verified the facts, and asked him to revert to the original position. He promised to do so. He went back and wept on Nandita’s shoulders, knowing fully well why he was doing so and that he was, willy-nilly, politicizing the issue, as it indeed happened.
(ii) Metro had also increased his employees from one to two. Since Metro had been declared a persona non-grata vis-à-vis the College by Dr. Wilson (which the present Principal did not know in the first instance) the Principal asked Rohtas to see him. In two successive meetings/occasions Rohtas was told: (a) that the wall that he had raised without any information to, or authorization from, the College was unauthorized and the same should be dismantled. (b) That Metro cannot run the dhaba (c) That only authorized items shall be sold from his dhaba. (d) That Rohtas has to work within the framework of the institution and not invoke outside interference. (e) That he cannot drink on the campus and that he was to stop this breach of discipline forthwith. (f) That he was not to sleep on the campus as he had neither sought nor secured permission for the same.
(iii) Rohtas, as is evident, did not keep faith. He has been leaking information and involving outside elements in vitiating the atmosphere of the College and in defaming it in the eyes of the public. Metro continues to visit the dhaba. [Smeeta Narain, for example, put up a FB post recently saying that Metro served her nimbu pani when she visited the dhaba.]
(iiii) In the meanwhile Nandita Narain came out with the canard that Rohtas was authorized to sell chicken rolls by her. When she realized that she did not have the authority to authorize anyone she said she and Rishi Nanda together authorized Rohtas. Rishi Nanda (who also did not the authority) denied the same to the Principal. Thereupon Nandita Narain claimed that she had documentary evidence that carried the Principal’ssignature to prove her claim. Realizing this to be untrue, she announced soon enough that the document had been misplaced!
(v) Rohtas continued his behind-the-scene maneuvers. A bunch of six alumni -led by Amitabh Pandeand Ashish Joshi- trespassed into the College under the pretext of handing over cheques and DDs to Rohtas and, thereafter, insulted the institution by flashing obscene signs, which was watched by Junior Members in shock and disbelief. Rohtas, being the alibi for their trespass, cannot absolve himself of responsibility in this regard.
(vi) Liquor is strictly disallowed on the campus. Consuming liquor is a serious breach of discipline. Rohtas cannot be a law unto himself, flying in the face of College discipline.
(vii) To whip up sentimental support for Rohtas who, otherwise, cannot be defended the canard is being dished out that he is a poor man being targeted by the administration. As per available information, Rohtas owns 18 acres of land in his home town, which is not the benchmark of poverty in this country! He has, besides, real estate assets in Delhi.
(viii) Rohtas’ health status is also being invoked sentimentally. It is not unlikely that drinking has ruined his health. That cannot, surely, be the ground for improvising irrational claims and outlandish rights! [It is similar to the case of a young man in the US who shot his father and mother and then filed papers for Govt. doles, for being an orphan!]
(ix) Mounting evidence proves that Rohtas is playing a clever game, aided and abetted by some disgruntled elements within and without the College. That being the case, he has rendered his continuation on the campus wholly indefensible. He is hurting the College (which I, submit, is more important than chicken rolls) The College must take precedence over vested interests andthe ludicrous sentimentality of a few that makesthem march to the NHRC, waving chicken rollsall the way!
Bravo, march on!

Rev. Prof. Valson Thampu

So, Metro has no future in this regime. And bleeding hearts are only messing up his case by espousing it with Principal Thampu. But the Son of the Lord has a sense of humour - the regime is set to change on 29 Feb when the Principal retires.

(The columnist, a former journalist, works for RIL and served on the St Stephen's Alumni Foundation Trust. Views are personal.)

Updated Date: Feb 12, 2016 01:10 AM

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