St Stephen’s College, Delhi, has summoned all its institutional might to vanquish that most dangerous threat to the education system: a student. This week, the college suspended a third-year philosophy student after having revoked the “good conduct” medal that he was to be awarded. His offence: launching an e-zine containing an interview of the principal, Valson Thampu, without first getting the contents cleared by him. The e-zine was later taken off the web on the principal’s orders. In an act of almost Dickensian absurdity, the college appointed a “one man Inquiry Committee” to establish the student’s offence. It concluded that the e-zine co-founders’ proposal to keep the publication “completely independent” was made without proper regard to “legality/ viability”, and that it had not been “banned”, merely withheld for reconsideration till July. It ranged the ready apologies of the other co-founders against the obduracy of the suspended student. Technicalities were cited to justify what was, obviously, a personal sticking point — that the principal did not have the final word.
The academic life of a college exists in the classes that are held daily but also in the conversation that happens outside. A robust institution is meant to enable its students to form their independent opinions, whether it is through dissent, laughter or relentless questioning. St Stephen’s has always thrived on a tradition of thought that is resolutely irreverent. Students produced magazines on college life, formed societies dedicated to playing pranks and put up skits specialising in a brand of very ripe humour. The recent actions of its principal speak of attempts to enforce a culture of obedience and conformity, a rejection of the idea that an institution is strengthened by the opposition it encourages and accommodates.
The casualties in this episode, as former chief election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi noted in an open letter to Thampu, are freedom of speech and humour. That this spectacle should take place in St Stephen’s, one of the leading liberal arts colleges in the country, is doubly dispiriting. At a time when the forces of intolerance have been enabled by bans and arrests, college campuses are spaces where cherished freedoms must be preserved. St Stephen’s College should allow its students, with all due respect, to disagree.