There was a time, not so very long ago, when the tag "prestigious" was routinely attached to my alma mater, Delhi's St Stephen's. Having passed out of the "hallowed portals" of "The College", my chest quietly swells with pride at the many and varied accomplishments of Stephanians. I still get a thrill when I realise what high esteem most people accord to the institution's alumni.

Three decades ago, my joy at having sailed past the marks cut-off and the interview was  unbound. When a friend and I, accepted as freshers in the English (Hons) course, finally had the Stephanian tag to brandish, we whooped it up in an empty first-floor classroom the day we joined college.

So it is with a measure of anguish and sense of loss that I have been following the goings-on in St Stephen's. The unsavoury tussle involving college principal Rev Valson Thampu and third year student Devansh Mehta is only the latest of several controversies that have hit the college in recent years. The two have been at loggerheads for some weeks following a ban on an e-magazine called St Stephen’s Weekly that Mehta and some friends launched a few weeks ago.

On Wednesday, Mehta, the co-editor and co-founder of the e-magazine, was suspended for a week by Thampu for “breach of discipline”. The student petitioned the Delhi High Court on Thursday against his suspension, and got a stay on Friday.

'Betrayal of trust'

Thampu cracked down hard on Mehta for what he has described as “gross betrayal of trust” for failing to obtain the principal's clearance for the text of the interview with him for the publication. He was to clear it before it was uploaded on the website, as was the prior agreement. Disciplinary action followed against Mehta. The Rai Sahib Banarsi Das Memorial Prize for which he had been selected was withdrawn and he was then suspended.

Even the head of the department of philosophy, Vijay Tankha, has been at the receiving end of Thampu’s stick. A college circular has accused Tankha of having "sneaked in Devansh’s name behind the back of the principal" for the award. Thampu has also accused his teachers of "a serious case of favouritism".

The casualty has been the institution's reputation, one that was painstakingly and lovingly burnished over decades by successive principals, faculty members, students and Sukhiya’s dhaba with his hot samosas and nimbu paani and the college café with its mince cutlets, scrambled eggs and toast.

Nobody would grudge Thampu his effort to enforce discipline and the core traditions of the college. But surely the matter could have been resolved in a more amicable manner, without it becoming the public spectacle it now is.

Dirty linen being washed in public is always an ugly sight. More so when it concerns institutions built over a century and known thus far for their liberal values and traditions, like St Stephen’s.

Though it was certainly elitist at times, the college encouraged intellectual, academic and sporting endeavours like no other, regardless of whether a student had come from the Doon School or Sanawar or one that was government-run. Merit and capability were the overriding norms.

Morning assembly

After a cloistered and at times stifling convent education, I revelled in the liberal environs of the college. Yes, there was compulsory morning assembly for first-year students, “tutes” (tutorials) were sacrosanct and even “subsi” (subidiary subjects) classes could not be skipped easily ‒ but it was a breeze.

The recent controversies  show that the liberal spirit and thinking that St Stephen’s embodied is under threat. After all, wasn’t it the same college where one could see the racy college mags Kooler Talk (Katy) and Spice. They were irreverent at all times, risqué occasionally, with their penchant for "chick charts" rating women students for their physical attributes.

The irreverence though took a serious turn in the mid-1980s when some students broke into the lockers in the Ladies Common Room, stole clothes (some say undergarments) one night and they were found fluttering on the college building next morning.

Author-politician Shashi Tharoor and a Stephanian to boot recalls in an article that while in college he revived the Wodehouse Society that according to him “ran India’s only faculty-sanctioned Practical Joke Competition”.

That was then. But now, the space for freedom of speech and humour in the college appears to be shrinking.

Thampu himself is no stranger to controversy in the last seven years or so that he’s been at the helm in the College. His PhD in Theology from the Allahabad Agricultural Institute was challenged in court by former college vice-principal M S Frank in 2009. His contention was that Theology in which Thampu got a doctorate was not taught at Delhi University and therefore its relevance for the post of principal was not certain, The petition was later dismissed.

I recall him as an earnest teacher, his clear sing-song  voice taking us through the travails of Job in the Book of Job and the Gospel according to St Matthew, both from the bible. He also taught us the Greek tragedy Antigone and the Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth.

A pervasive sense of righteousness

So, did the all-pervasive sense of righteousness and didacticism we sensed in his lectures then flow merely from the nature of the texts that he was teaching? Or, are the latent tendencies erupting now? I don’t know.

But sometimes, it’s just the personal touch and the willingness to shed an overwhelming sense of righteousness that can go a long way in enforcing discipline. Rev Thampu would do well to keep this in mind as he presides over college affairs.

Yes, heading an institution comes with its pulls and pressures. To quote Thampu from his interview to the e-zine, “The most thankless job in the world is being principal. Everybody sees you as their enemy.”

But even enemies can often be befriended with the right attitude.