Prize punch leaves mark on Stephen's

New Delhi, April 14: St. Stephen's College principal Valson Thampu has struck off the name of a student who had disobeyed him from a list of annual awardees, triggering accusations from sections of the faculty that he was overstepping his mandate.

Two St. Stephen's teachers The Telegraph spoke to this evening said many in the faculty were upset by the decision, since awardees are selected by college departments and not by the principal.

Thampu today scrapped the name of Devansh Mehta from the list of awardees after a disciplinary panel he had set up found the third-year philosophy student guilty of "undermining college discipline".

"This is a case of taking one's personal anger out on an institutional norm - the freedom of individual departments to choose awardees," one of the faculty members said. "You can't on the one hand talk about discipline and on the other hand violate decades-old norms."

Thampu claimed the student himself was to blame for losing out on the award, which was to have been handed out at the college convocation later this week.

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal will be the chief guest at the convocation, where over 70 academic awards will be handed out.

"No one has denied him, he has disqualified himself," a PTI report quoted Thampu as saying. "How can a person found guilty of misconduct be given such an award?"

Mehta and three other students had started a weekly online magazine they called e-zine with Thampu's permission. The principal gave the students an interview for their inaugural edition, but on the condition that they allow him to vet it before publication.

The students shared a copy of the interview with Thampu but did not wait for him to respond and instead published it. Thampu ordered the students to pull down the magazine - which they reluctantly did - and set up a one-man probe panel under political science professor Sanjay Rao Ayde.

Thampu's decision to stop the publication from continuing till his approval had triggered criticism from influential sections of the college alumni, including former chief election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi and former Supreme Court judge Manmohan Sarin.

But three of the four students behind e-zine had written to Thampu, apologising for taking their grievance to the news media - an idea they blamed on Mehta.

"Devansh Mehta chose to mobilise the media without exploring the possibility of resolving the issue within the college," Ayde's report says. "He did not make any attempt to meet the principal."

But that spat does not empower Thampu with the right to deprive Mehta of a prize, the faculty members said.

The Rai Saheb Banarsi Das Memorial Prize is awarded each year to a student of philosophy or economics who has "shown a high standard of personal conduct and marked degree of curricular and co-curricular interaction".

The recipient is picked by the two departments.

"The principal has simply no role in the selection," said the second faculty member this correspondent spoke to. "If he can't pick the person, he clearly has no right to reject him unilaterally either."

Thampu isn't the first St. Stephen's principal to be accused of stifling freedom of expression at the college.

In 2003, at the start of the US invasion of Iraq, Thampu's predecessor, the late Anil Wilson, stopped students sitting on the college lawns from painting posters against the then American President, George W. Bush. Wilson also tried to prevent a march against the invasion - but eventually allowed it.



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