The principal problem with St Stephen’s

My undergraduate college, St Stephen’s, Delhi University, has increasingly been in the news for the wrong reasons. The latest, as far as I can make out, is because a few students published a newsletter containing an interview with the principal, Valson Thampu (the most controversial principal in the history of the college). As far as one can tell from public utterances, the problem is that he had demanded that they seek his approval of the interview before publishing, and they did send it to him, but when he did not reply in time, they published anyway. This was apparently an online publication, and was promptly taken offline, but a parody has since appeared. As of today, one of the students involved has reportedly been suspended.

Interestingly, Mr Thampu has been posting frequently on an alumni forum on Facebook that I am a member of, and perhaps elsewhere, justifying his actions. His latest, today (April 15), says

The eagerness to forgive must be met by the willingness to acknowledge mistake and to mend one’s ways. Else, we cheapen forgiveness and make it a cover up for chronic misdeeds. Valson

To which I felt impelled to reply as follows.

Dear Mr Valson Thampu : though I was not intending to respond to your outpourings on facebook any further, today’s news about suspending the student compels me to speak again. This student published an interview with you after giving you time to respond. In your universe, his failure to wait for you to respond was a “chronic misdeed”. In journalism, it is not acceptable practice to give the interviewee veto power in the first place. A journalist must be careful not to misquote but must not subjugate himself/herself to a powerful person. If you were uncomfortable you should not have agreed to be interviewed. But you need to remember that most of your students are legal adults, and you should be training them to function in the real world, not to lick the boots of their principals.

Meanwhile, thanks to this idiotic controversy that has dragged the name of a once-great college through mud, I came across your earlier writings:

From there I learn that wives should submit to their husbands because they are already “strong” and “empowered”, which makes me wonder which country you live in. I also learn that “parental deficit also contributes, in part, to homosexuality and lesbianism” — perhaps you would like to tell Vikram Seth to his face that his homosexuality is partly his mother’s (Leila Seth’s) fault. In the real world he, and she, and hundreds of homosexuals of both genders, have achieved vastly more than you will ever do and have made the world a much better place than you clearly care to.

A person capable of writing the above is not deserving of being a teacher in the most modest primary school, let alone principal of one of India’s oldest and best-known colleges.

I should say I don’t know Mr Thampu personally: he was a teacher of English and the chaplain when I was in college. The principal was Dr Anil Wilson, who sadly passed away a few years ago; I remember him as a man with a fair mind, a modern outlook, and above all, a sense of humour. I exchanged a few mails with him before he passed away, which confirmed these impressions.

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  1. Srivastava

     /  April 19, 2015

    This post makes me *so happy*

    The liberal elite in this country have been turning a blind eye to the monster of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism for too long, purely out of a pathological hatred for the Hindu right. Finally, news flash: you may feel you belong to St. Stephens, but in the eyes of the Christian fundamentalists who run that place, you were always a mere infidel. Nothing more. And now that they feel confident enough to reveal their true colors, you are seeing what was on the other side. They don’t need you any more. They can bare their fangs now. And people like you helped them get to this point. All because you hated your own culture too much.

  2. Here is another quaint piece of St. Stephen apologia, this time in Hindu.

    In the space of a few paragraphs, the article packs examples of almost every logical fallacy under the sun, Apparently, we are supposed to ignore Principal Thampu’s recent odious attempts at communalizing a government funded institution since we (I quote) “will find Stephanians and their achievements shining brightly” and because the author heard for the first time at St Stephan’s that Jesus Christ was against usurers. In her enthusiasm to champion the “College” (always with a capital C) the author’s most deadly weapon seems to be a profound ignorance of the contributions other educational institutions (some presumably across the street from “the College) have made to the nation. This weapon is ably supported by a blissful amnesia of the classical fable on the folly of lengthening a line by shortening another one.

    I went to one among a group of colleges whose alumni are notorious for exaggerated aggrandizement of their alma maters, but even in this cohort I have never seen anything that even begins to approach the stupendous suspension of disbelief that is the hallmark of almost every article about “Stephania” written by an alumnus.

    Another minor quibble about the article, especially since the author is a philosophy student: Presumably as a certificate of the secular character of the college, we are told near the beginning of the article that the first thing the author noticed at her Fresher’s party in 2008 was a quote from the Mundaka Upanishad. I believe the reader is not expected to be ignorant of the source of this quote, since part of it happens to be the motto of the Republic of India, but that still does not prevent the author from somehow managing to quote and translate the sentence wrongly (the second word should be “jayate”, not “vijayate”, and the word “nanrtam”, meaning “not the untruth” is left untranslated).

    • Somehow the link did not go through: here it is again (the link goes to the website of The Hindu).

      • Srivastava

         /  May 23, 2015

        Yes indeed. Somehow people who go to St. Stephens seem to be in lifelong awe of the place. This is indeed surprising, considering that St. Stephens would barely qualify as an elite college. When I was in the 12th grade, applying to St. Stephens was not even remotely on my agenda. And not a single one of the students in my class with any trace of merit had any interest in St. Stephens. I don’t think we ever discussed applying to Stephens or discussing Stephens.

        All of us wanted to go to the actual elite colleges, the IIXs or AIIMS. Throughout my undergrad at an IIX, grad school and further career as a professional scientist, I am yet to come across a single scientific paper associated in any way to St. Stephens. And while I have very mixed feelings about my college, I read about Stephens students worshipping theirs. Maybe with all the Jesus crap stuffed in their heads, Stephens students remember being able to walk on water or something. Maybe the students at Stephens remember that water has 3 states: water, wine and JC’s blood. Which means they were probably very very high :) In which case, I can totally understand their fondness for the place.

        • Rahul Siddharthan

           /  May 23, 2015

          I am yet to come across a single scientific paper associated in any way to St. Stephens.

          Well, naturally: it’s an undergraduate college, not a research institution. But its alumni are quite prominent in the sciences, in India and abroad. In my time there were few options for someone who wanted to do an undergraduate degree in basic sciences (a couple of IITs offered an “integrated MSc” but that was it). Today I would recommend the IISERs and IISc first, but there are advantages to an old-fashioned undergraduate experience in a place like Stephen’s too.

          • While I agree that St Stephen’s indeed has a very impressive alumni list in the sciences, I must make two points here: (a) Somehow, I have never seen these alumni being so awe struck with the “College” that they would write apologia replete with quotes from religious texts in defense of any perceived criticism of the College, and (b) The current happenings of the college under Principal Thampu, and the fact that the College and its influential alumni body seems to have closed its years to any criticism from dissident alumni such as you and Ram Guha, does not bode very well for the future of St Stephen’s as a good educational institution.

          • “happenings of” -> “happenings at”

            “years” -> “ears”

            Sorry for the typos.

        • Rahul Siddharthan

           /  May 23, 2015

          Ah, didn’t notice you’re the same person who left the first comment above. Sorry for engaging with you.

          • Srivastava

             /  May 24, 2015

            “Sorry for engaging with you.”

            Ha ha…the elite class Stephanian is sorry to engage with the lowly mud people who went to humble places like IIT for undergrad :) The chaiwallah types you know… :)

          • Rahul Siddharthan

             /  May 24, 2015

            I meant, people capable of writing your first comment above. Hindutva fanatics. Including, yes, one particular self-styled chaiwallah.

          • Srivastava

             /  May 24, 2015

            Be it self-styled, at least that much is self-made :) A bit different from those who sit below the dynasty’s table wagging their tail for crumbs (of beef?) from the Shehzada’s table :)

        • I think St Stephen’s has indeed produced some very fine alumni in the sciences and humanities, and I certainly know very good people in my field who happened to do their undergraduate work at St Stephens. But then, none of them believes, as many of the alumni singing paeans to “Stephania” seem to believe, that St Stephen’s is the only (or, at best, one of the very few) college in India that teaches student “how to think” instead of merely being a center for what they term the acquisition of technical skills. Ironically, this seems to be the one thing that is common in all the odes to Stephania I have read. It almost seems as if there are a bunch of St Stephan alumni who just shut themselves down after being told they would be the chosen few in the country who would be taught “to think”, and never actually bothered to pick up that skill.

  3. Ordinary Person

     /  June 4, 2015

    It is really surprising that a person with such regressive views can be made head of an academic institution. I saw the link to his website “Light of Life” that you shared and it is despicable. Reminds me of a time about 7-8 years ago when the then director of IIIT Hyderabad made it more-or-less compulsory for all students to attend spiritual lessons by the Art of Living foundation.

    Such people are an insult to science, but this is expected in a country whose education minister seems to have immense faith in things like astrology ( ).


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