Stephen's principal acted in good faith

The frenzy kicked up in the wake of the St Stephen’s episode (Panorama, April 27) needs an objective analysis.

It is easy and trendy to cry foul at an institution without studying the context, the institutional dynamics, and the background of a certain issue. What comes into the open in such situations will be a shadow or a travesty of the truth. Therefore, I think we need look at the facts and see things in perspective.

The establishment is often caricatured as arbitrary, unjust and harsh. This is a stereotyping that is dangerous to our democracy, particularly to the academic world.

Discipline is the watchword for the healthy life of an academic institution. If discipline based on sound principles of fairness and justice is not honoured, an educational institution will be reduced to mediocrity. The worst enemy of quality in higher education today is lack of discipline, not just among students but also among the faculty and staff.

It is reported that the principal of St Stephen’s College suspended a student for publishing an e-magazine without the former’s permission. The magazine was printed in the name of the College, with its emblem, which obviously implies official sanction. However, it was released without the principal’s knowledge.

The principal and three students had planned the e-magazine together and this was its inaugural issue. The student in question – Devansh Mehta – was never in the picture. Surprisingly, he is the one who published the magazine without the approval of the principal. This is gross betrayal of trust and utter disregard of authority. That he did it at the behest of some vested interests or he was misled into doing it etc are in the realm of speculation. 

The fact is, there was a clear case of indiscipline and disobedience. The principal had no option but to hold an inquiry and when found guilty, take disciplinary action against the student concerned. He was given a chance to apologise which he did not.

Instead, he rushed to the media with a distorted version of the entire episode, tarnishing the image of the institution and the principal. Thus disciplinary action was inevitable.

Freedom of speech is a good slogan in the hands of those who wish to camouflage the real issue. Can an act of indiscipline be condoned in the name of freedom of speech? Extending such logic, can students publish articles tarnishing the image of the college, its faculty, or fellow students, for whatever reason?

Populism abound
That there are people who lend moral support to the student for defying the principal and applauding him for his pyrrhic victory again is a sad commentary on the current tendency to get on to the bandwagon.

Populism is the name of this game. A small internal matter of the college was blown out of proportion by some people which is the unfortunate fallout of this episode.
A principal’s job is not an easy one, given the multifarious responsibilities cast upon him. Do we want principals who do the bidding of students or principals who guide and direct the students, and discipline them if necessary? This is the fundamental question here.

Those who believe that education is complete only with discipline and a sense of responsibility will see issues of discipline in a dispassionate manner. Now, consider for a moment that great man who died recently –Lee Kuan Yew - who transformed Singapore into an economic giant. He too was criticised and even dubbed a dictator.

Today, the world is singing his praises.  Singapore did not become the miracle it is, because of ‘free-thinking’ such as this one, but because of discipline and hard work. “St Stephen’s did not become great because of free-thinking as it is understood now. The heart-beat of the St Stephen’s story is discipline”, says the principal Valson Thampu who has acted in good faith.

He has only sought to correct the student and not hurt him, but those who rallied around the student have actually been cheering him to do something patently wrong. 

Hopefully, he will, sooner than later, realise his folly. He will then go back to the principal to seek his pardon. That is real teacher-student relationship, pure and simple, uncorrupted.

(The writer is Principal, Little Rock Indian School, Udupi, Karnataka)

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