An interview with the interviewer, Devansh Mehta of St.Stephen’s College

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Devansh Mehta, a final year student of psychology at St.Stephen’s College, interviewed Valson Thampu, the principal of the college on 4th March and posted it in the online magazine he co-founded, St.Stephen’s Weekly, 3 days later. On 11th March, when the principal learnt that the interview had been published without his clearance, he issued a ban on the magazine and subsequently suspended Devansh for “breach of discipline”. Last week, Devansh Mehta filed a petition in the Delhi High Court challenging the suspensions of himself and the magazine. The Court squashed the College’s decision of suspending Devansh.


DU Beat got in touch with Devansh Mehta who spoke to us about the balance of freedom of speech, the effects of recent developments on him and the support he has received.

Q1. What drove you to start Stephen’s Weekly in the last few months of your college life?

There were three reasons we started Stephen’s Weekly for.

Firstly, a lot of students from college, including me, wish to become reporters or writers in the future and there is no medium in college through which we can develop these skills. Secondly, there is no record of the events that happen in college, once an event is over it is usually forgotten. Thirdly, there has been a growing deficit in the trust between the students and the administration – students are scared to air their grievances publicly for fear of being thrown out of residence or suspended.

There has been a growing deficit in the trust between the students and the administration – students are scared to air their grievances publicly for fear of being thrown out of residence or suspended.

Stephen’s Weekly was supposed to fill in this gap by conveying the grievances of the students as well as representing the difficulties of the administration in solving these grievances. It was towards this aim that we decided to interview the Principal for our first issue itself. For this aim to work, however, it is important that the students perceived Stephen’s Weekly to be an impartial mediator between the students and the administration, which was something clearly not respected by the Principal who appointed himself staff advisor and wanted final editing powers. This was the reason that we never accepted a single rupee from the administration and even bought the domain and hosting space with our own money.

We got the idea of starting a Weekly from an exchange student from Brown University who attended St. Stephen’s last semester. He told us of the the Brown Daily Herald, and we decided to try creating something along those lines. The other founders are in second year, so we tried establishing Stephen’s Weekly in its first 5 issues this year, and then hope that it continues to stand on its own feet after I leave and pass the baton to the other founders.

Q2. The Principal has received flak for curbing freedom of expression on campus. However, as an aspiring media professional, do you think a balance must be maintained? How can one exercise freedom of expression responsibly in your opinion?

I believe that free speech comes with certain responsibilities, which only each individual can decide for himself/herself. For me, a responsible use of free speech is one where the weakest, most marginalised and oppressed section of a society do not get adversely affected by my expression of free speech.

With respect to the recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo, I strongly condemn the incident since it has created an atmosphere of fear which results in the unfortunate effect of journalists self-censoring for fear of potential personal harm. That being said, I would personally not write or support cartoons in the vein of Charlie Hebdo. Voltaire made the point that satire was started as a means of clipping the wings of those in power and bringing them down to Earth by poking fun at them. So to use satire against those who are being oppressed and marginalised, as the Muslim community in Paris is, is something I believe to be against the very spirit of satire and in bad taste.

I knew that an apology for “failing to clarify relevant details before approaching the media” simply meant saying sorry for taking the issue outside of the four walls of the college.

Q3. How have the recent developments affected you personally?

For a start, my beliefs have never been tested as much as they have been over the last month. There was a point where the man in charge of the one man inquiry committee, S.R. Ayde, told me that if I apologised the entire matter would be finished. I wish to become a journalist in the future and have already secured admission at the Columbia School of Journalism. I knew that an apology for “failing to clarify relevant details before approaching the media” simply meant saying sorry for taking the issue outside of the four walls of the college. If I apologised for this, I would be tacitly agreeing to the idea that information needs to be constricted, which would make me feel like a fraud through my entire journalism career. So I am really happy that I did not apologise and feel stronger as a person for having emerged through the ordeal with my beliefs intact.

Q4. For the students of the college, the protests went beyond just the magazine and became more about the overall situation in Stephen’s, where numerous such cases of suspension have happened. Do you think these protests will carry on and what form do you think they will take?

The protests in my first two years were not planned very smartly. All those upset about the discriminatory standards against men and women or about the suspension of a student for speaking ‘rudely’ to the Principal simply gathered outside his office in a peaceful demonstration. Our Principal is extremely vindictive and cannot even tolerate peaceful opposition. Photographs were taken of the protestors so that he knew who the trouble makers were. At the end of the year, he interrogated the protestors who applied for residence as to why they had taken part in the demonstration and even denied residence facility to a majority of them! So I think protests will carry on, but hopefully in a smarter form since the Principal has shown that peaceful demonstrations within the four walls of the college will be penalised and cracked down on heavily.

Q5. Is it true that the co-founders were not in favour of contacting the media? What prompted you to do it?

I was the only third year student amongst all the founders. During my time at college, I had seen how the Principal was closing down the spaces of discussion within the college and began victimising anyone who stood up to him. The other co-founders believed that a solution could be worked out within college, and so I waited for 12 days after the ban in the hope of an internal resolution. But the Principal did not even have the courtesy to reply to our email appealing against the ban. In this situation, I felt the only way to revive the liberal spirit which our college has been famed for was revealing the matter to the outside world.

Q6. What do you expect from subsequent hearings of the court case?

I really hope the verdict of the High Court is in our favour. The issue has now become one of freedom of expression within the college campus and resonates with a lot of students. In fact, a lot of students, from colleges in Bhubhaneshwar to Madras, have messaged me with stories of censorship they had to face on campus. In the subsequent hearings, I hope that the ban on Stephen’s Weekly is lifted and we can continue working on our dream of an online, independent publication.

Ishaan Gambhir
[email protected]

EDM lover, photographer, big-time foodie, drummer, writer, reader, gamer (CS 1.6 and err, Flappy Bird only), a problem solver and not as Gambhir as alleged topped with Hollywood & English TV shows in my blood. In a million ways extremely unique and distinctive and at the same time just a normal guy. Can be reached at [email protected].

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