“Sir se pehle permission leejiye.” Whether I wanted to park my car inside the campus, walk down the newly-sodded front lawns, enter the library to speak to students, buy a masala Coke in the canteen or take a selfie with the hundred-year-old college chapel – I was always met with the same standard response at St Stephen’s College. Lucky for me I was here to visit ‘sir’, more formally known as Principal Valson Thampu, himself. All it takes is one phone call from him for the gates to this iconic Delhi University institution to magically open up.
Looks like all the wrong people are knocking at the door today—and for all the wrong reasons. And Thampu is struggling to get the gates opened. Set up in 1881, St Stephen’s originally comprised three rented rooms in Chandni Chowk. Affiliated to the University of Punjab, it was governed by members of the Cambridge Mission to Delhi who wanted to educate the poor and underprivileged. Later in 1922, when Delhi University was founded, Stephen’s became one of its three founding colleges. And the rest is history. The college quickly became a popular option for political aspirants, civil servants, aspiring scientists and academics, journalists, writers and artists. Rohit Bal, Rahul Gandhi, Arun Shourie, Kapil Sibal, Natwar Singh, Konkona Sen, Amitav Ghosh, Barkha Dutt and Swapan Dasgupta are just some of the well-known names to have passed through the gates at Stephen’s. “There were only three colleges in Delhi back then. Everyone wanted to be in the capital city and Stephen’s was one the best options. As more and more students from the college achieved success, it became a thing of almost-snobbish pride to be a Stephanian. The college was suddenly as coveted as the university itself,” reflects Nandita Narain, president of the Delhi University Teachers Association and a professor at Stephen’s.
But all is not well at the college today. A number of cases and controversies have cropped up against its principal since 2009. From the recent allegations of sexual harassment by a PhD student at the college to allegations involving forced dictatorship, it is little wonder that the gates to the college and the principal’s office are now closely monitored. With a number of faculty, students and alumni turning against him, such as former vice-principal MS Frank and Narain herself (both have filed court cases against Thampu), the college is now both governed and defended by one man alone.
“Thampu is Stephen’s and Stephen’s is Thampu. He is just someone who is interested in all aspects of the college. Even the length of the grass is something he would like to know about. In a way it’s good, it keeps everybody on their toes. I would rather have an active principal than a lazy one anyway. He is an inspiration for us all,” a second-year student of English once told me, on the condition of anonymity. It wasn’t anything new; there are very few people willing to express their views on the principal. Of those who do, the opinion is always on either extremes – love him or hate him, there is no middle ground here.
One of the people who swear that they will always be on Team Thampu is Nipun Malhotra. A 27-year-old differently- abled economics graduate from the college, Malhotra now leads the Nipman Foundation to promote awareness on the need for inclusive education. “I don’t care what people say or how many controversies crop up – I owe my life to him and the college. When I scored 92 per cent in my boards, I thought I had achieved success. Yet there was no college or principal who could provide the accessibility, inclusion and acceptance that Thampu did. I had a great time in college,” he says. Thampu, too seems to feel the same way and is usually in attendance at all the events held by the foundation in Delhi.
“Oh, if you are good to him—he will be your best friend. But God help you if you decide to stand up against him. I just feel he is an orthodox, vindictive, deeply insecure control freak,” says Sunil J Mathew, a Supreme Court advocate who has been involved in various court cases against Thampu for many years now. Mathew, himself a graduate of St Stephen’s, is now the lawyer of Devansh Mehta, a student from the college who was asked to shut down his online magazine in April this year after publishing an unapproved interview of the principal. “I don’t have anything against him. So I’m not sure why he has anything against me, I just wanted a little bit of personal freedom in college,” says Mehta.
In 2012, after he had just won a court case that contested the validity of his PhD in Theology from Allahabad Agricultural Institute and subsequently his post as principal of the college, Thampu told the press, “I am a minority from a different part of the country. I am religious and a hard worker. For some reason it just ticks some people off. There is an anti-Thampu brigade that has come up but I don’t let it affect my work.”
Today, two much-publicised court cases later, in an exclusive interview to Open, Thampu says that he stands by what he said then—nothing can ever damage the rewards of being a part of Stephen’s. And the latest controversy, though emotionally- depleting, is only serving to strengthen his resolve to work harder and stick to the truth. He is so charged up, he says, that he was up at 6 am writing a post called ‘On Tapes and Truth’ for his Facebook page last Tuesday.
“Serving the college has been my consuming passion over the last eight years. I do not know how this period flew past me. There was never a single dull moment. And adversity has brought out the best from me. Several students, while leaving the college, told me that witnessing my struggles has been the foremost educational experience for them. ‘But for you,’ wrote a history student who graduated this year, ‘my college life would not have been half as meaningful.’ Of course, there have been occasions where I had to fight the demons of cynicism about human nature. But that is nothing compared to the adventure of stewarding St Stephen’s and seeing it reach the summit of national acclaim,” he says.
And he certainly has done that. His efforts at setting up a Centre for Translation Studies, Centre for Economics, Centre for Theoretical Physics and adding air conditioning to all the science labs have paid off. The college has been ranked by several surveys as the number one institution in the country not just for science but also for humanities, a first in its history. And surprisingly, despite the controversies surrounding Stephen’s, its popularity hasn’t diminished in the least amongst aspiring students. If possible, it has only gone up. “The popularity of the college seems to have increased further because of the ‘controversies’ eddying around it. Young people seem to enjoy controversies! Some of them joke and tell me that no one kicks a dead horse,” explains Thampu. This year the college cut-offs were higher than usual for science and computer science. When I asked this year’s CBSE topper M Gayatri what her future plans were, she replied without hesitation, “I want to study at St Stephen’s College in Delhi.”
“I acknowledge the nation-wide popularity of my college (of which I am inordinately proud) with some sadness. It is a reflection of our lamentable bankruptcy in higher education. It is no happy thought that there is only one St Stephen’s for a population of 1. 3 billion people. There is a saying that in the country of the blind, a one-eyed man is king. I do not say this to belittle my alma mater, but to bemoan our backwardness in quality education. So, behind the national chorus of praise and preference for St Stephen’s I also hear the shuffling feet of chronic frustration,” says Thampu. He adds that the media frenzy surrounding the college is also in part thanks to its high-profile alumni. “Several of them, having attained near- iconic status, are alluring (unpaid) brand ambassadors. For decades the college has had the image of being the nursery for civil service aspirants,” he adds.
When I ask him what role the media has played in influencing the status of Stephen’s, he says, “Believe it or not, not at all. Media adversity can destroy institutions that compromise their integrity or decimate individuals who are hollow within,” he says. “I used to teach undergraduates in my literature classes that there are two kinds of irony: inevitable irony and incongruous irony. Inevitable irony—or strategies of attack—degrades and destroys the object of irony. The more he tries to pull himself out of it, the deeper he sinks into it. Incongruous irony—or being subjected to unmerited attacks— makes the object of attack stronger and more dignified. The media has done a great service to St Stephen’s by covering it with ‘incongruous irony’. As the nation stood and watched, an iconic institution was subjected to prolonged, orchestrated attacks giving it an invaluable opportunity to prove its mettle. Today it stands a shining example of our national motto: satyameva jayate.”
Of course, there are plenty who disagree. “How is it good for the college to have a principal who is always under the scanner for one court case after the other? I have always said that his appointment and tenure is politically motivated and maintained. Look at how he managed to bring even Arvind Kejriwal as a chief guest to the college, only a week after Mehta filed his court case. All this publicity actually helps strengthen his position. Ironically, in his case, there really is no such thing as bad publicity,” says Mathew. Narain adds, “Every year in June he is the most powerful man in the country. So it’s understandable if a few controversies crop up. But this is not a few, this is a lot.”
But adversity is nothing new to Thampu. “My earliest memory about St Stephen’s is a mixed-up affair. It is, first, one of awe, as I stepped into the campus on the 9th of April 1971, soon after reaching Delhi from Kerala. This turned soon into extreme agony at being rejected, on account of being a Keralite. Being a gold medalist from Kerala University, I thought I would receive at least a coir carpet welcome! But for my fortuitous meeting with the then Superintendent of Nursing in St Stephen’s Hospital, the story of my life—and perhaps of the College itself—would have been vastly different. I was interviewed alone for 45 minutes after all admissions closed and finally declared to be ‘good enough’ to be admitted,” he reflects. Thampu went on to top the college in MA English and upon graduation was appointed as a professor in the subject by its then Principal WS Rajpal.
Going forward, Thampu says he doesn’t know what the future holds but he is glad to have sown the seeds of social inclusion in the college. “I am glad that the fog of social elitism has lifted from the landscape of the college and it is now far more humane,” he says. “Stephen’s had a humble beginning, in three dusty, hired rooms in Chandni Chowk. It was established to educate the poor. Of the first four students, not one could pay the annual fee of Rs 2. Who thought in 1881 that this institution would be gradually hijacked by the rich and the mighty and be turned into a bastion of privilege and elitism?”
In the meantime, the college continues to function as usual. Guards patrol the gates for any non-Stephanians daring to enter the campus, girls rush to change from short skirts to jeans if they spot Thampu anywhere nearby, teachers line up outside his office to seek an appointment, the media secretary frantically tries to do damage control with the latest controversy, boys sneak beer to their hostels disguised as banta bottles and one lone gardener has a panic attack as I accidentally leave a shoe imprint on the principal’s pet project— the beautifully manicured college lawns. “Abhi sir se jaake aap hee boliye!”
– For transcript of Thampu’s interview, click here