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St Stephen’s Student Drags Principal To Court Over ‘Inexcusable Violation Of Free Speech’

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By Sanjana Sanghi:

The threat to freedom of expression has seemingly transformed into a contagious disease that is creeping into every sphere, including educational institutions. Devansh Mehta, a final year philosophy student at St. Stephen’s College, and co-founder of the “St Stephens Weekly”, is one of the most recent victims.

Devansh has filed a petition in the Delhi High Court in retaliation to his suspension from college premises by Principal Valson Thampu on grounds of “breach of discipline”. In addition, Mehta has also been stripped of a good conduct prize he was to receive from the te Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal. Thampu, in the petition, has been accused of putting “fetters on the much celebrated fundamental right to free expression.

St Stephens college Devansh Mehta
Source: Express Photo by Praveen Khanna

Events that unfolded

The e-zine started by Devansh and other Stephenians was banned by the college last month over an interview of the principal that had allegedly not been “cleared”. The interview was conducted with Thampu on March 4, the e-zine went online on March 7, and registered over 2000 hits on the interview. The cofounders did not hear back from the principal, therefore decided to launch the first edition of this widely publicized venture.

Devansh and the other co-founders were very clear that they wished to keep the magazine insulated from censorship and faculty intervention. However, Thampu appointed himself as the staff advisor for the weekly, making sure anything published went through him, thereby eroding it’s true essence. Thampu wished to ensure “what’s published is of a standard”, providing reasoning such as “even a pencil cannot be manufactured without a license.” The published piece, according to Thampu, was “bunkum”.

While the other co-founders chose to apologize, Devansh considered this an inexcusable violation of free speech, and has therefore decided to take action.

An unexpected backlash

The “Saint Stefans Weakly”, a parody website that describes itself as “e-zine band by Waldo Champu”, seems to have triggered Thampu’s disapproval even further. Devansh, in the ‘contact us‘ section, has been indicated by the name Deviant Kehta*on sabbatical. In response to the ban levied by Thampu, the parody brought out a poetic piece titled “For Champu, with Louwe”. This was also in retaliation to a message left by Thampu on the Facebook page earlier.

|| “Well Done!” you said, delighted,
A grin streaked across your face.
Perhaps you think us adversaries,
But “Heil!” in any case.

We are honoured that you’re honoured,
and that your response was jovial.
Irreverent wit, a little bit shit,
but not stonicular or ovial.

Unfortunately, there seems to be
a miscommunication.
You are worthy of our laughter, sir,
but that wasn’t the occasion.

It was not your Hon. Person, sir,
that we parodied that day.
But Stephania, alma mater,
whom we cherish, love and pay ||

Before quitting the Alumni and official Facebook page and deciding only to post on his own personal page, Thampu had written a response to the various spoofs by Sant Stefans Weakly.

Using sarcasm, and making an effort at being humorous, Thampu called the creators of these satires “hidden geniuses” who showed “any sign of creativity” for the first time. He suggested that he takes the spoof as flattery, providing reasoning such as having the ability to force them “out of their rat holes of malicious meddlesomeness towards seeing a glimmer of creativity.” He also drew a conclusion that only “highly impactful individuals are spoofed.” He also urged these geniuses, to “cultivate a sense of humor, as it might come in handy.” This seems slightly ironic coming from the same individual who imposed a ban on a publication owing to the fact that an interview was published without his approval, despite the fact that the transcript had been mailed to him a couple of days before publishing.

Students have launched an online campaign urging Kejriwal to decline the invitation as Chief Guest to the St. Stephen’s Dismissal service on Saturday, where Devansh, who has also secured admission at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York, was to receive his award.

The Stephenians describe the letter not as a retaliation to this single event, but an attempt to tackle the much larger and perpetual problem of functioning under an authoritarian administrative system. The students plan on boycotting the convocation ceremony.

I got in touch with various St Stephens alumni and current students, who on the condition of anonymity expressed extreme disappointment with the events that have unfolded. “The atmosphere at our time was one of complete liberty to perpetuate holistic growth. Full support to Devansh and others fighting for free speech,” said an alumni. A student studying Mathematics at St Stephens currently said, “We are proud of the courage shown by our seniors in fighting this breach of fundamental rights. I might not go for the ceremony tomorrow as a mark of protest.

Recent updates suggest that the Delhi High Court has ordered a stay on the suspension of Devansh, therefore providing relief as Devansh pleaded to the Court stating reasons such as jeopardy of his career, and possible cancellation of admission at Columbia. The Court has adjourned the matter till May 21 and barred the college from awarding the prize that was withdrawn from Devansh to anyone else until the next date of hearing on May 21. The protests organized by fellow Stephanians was joined by alumni who showed up in large numbers in support of Devansh, as they believe that the ban was “arbitrary, illegal, malafide and shockingly unreasonable“.

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