‘A formidable propaganda machine had sprung into action against me’

By Valson Thampu

(Editor’s note: Valson Thampu served St. Stephen’s College for four decades. The last nine years of his tenure were rife with controversy, beginning with his stepping in as principal (OSD) in 2007. From accusations that he was ‘Christianising’ the college to allegations that he curbed the fundamental rights of the students, Thampu was constantly in the glare of the media throughout his term. Here’s an exclusive excerpt from his upcoming memoir “On a Stormy Course”)

There are two counts on which a human being can be attacked — for what he does and for who he is. These are not watertight categories. Sustained propaganda fuses them into one. If you can’t be attacked for what you have done or are doing, the propaganda machine will begin by sounding alarm bells about who, and how dangerous, you are. Once this has had its effect, it becomes easy to attack whatever you do.

We are now ready for a bird’s-eye view of the propaganda blitzkrieg unleashed on me. My interest here is not journalistic. Controversies, per se, do not aggrieve me. They are done and gone. Our main purpose in reckoning some of them is to understand the human realities in a specific historical context which, according to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is the usefulness of biographies.

The propagandist caricature of my religious identity was the starting point. As soon as I assumed charge as principal, I was reinvented as a religious fundamentalist, a predatory practitioner of proselytisation and a missionary head-hunter who would bedim the liberal sheen of the college. This prejudice purchased its traction from the admission guidelines I evolved and implemented.

The bugle was sounded by Ramachandra Guha through an article in the Outlook.

I was caricatured as an evangelical fundamentalist and a gravedigger for St. Stephen’s. I should have felt flattered. I was being placed in an illustrious pantheon, after all. The very same slur was cast on Mother Teresa, the saint of Kolkata, decades ago. Had she been a secular practitioner of social service, she would have been left unharassed. Her work, as it began to be noticed, supported and globally respected, was misrepresented as an attack on Hinduism. The charge of conversion was leveled against her. In the decades that this controversy raged, no one came up with the names of converts or identified a single convert. The offence was that she served the destitute and dying as though she was serving Jesus himself.

The parallel between this, and the propaganda unleashed against me, could not be missed. No statement or speech I made, no article I published, no activity I undertook in the three decades of my public life prior to 2007, had been cited as evidence for my religious fundamentalism, surreptitious evangelistic intent, or zeal for conversion. On the contrary, plenty of literature pertaining to my radical views on conversion, my contribution to inter-faith dialogues and my initiatives to promote communal harmony spread over articles and reports published in the print media, were readily available. All this notwithstanding, I was photoshopped as a fanatical merchant of proselytising Christianity. This piece of fiction was then sold to the media.

In the admission guidelines I evolved for the college in 2007, I provided for up to 40 per cent of the seats to be filled with candidates from the Christian community, whereas it was lawful to go up to 50 per cent. The college was attracting academically the most meritorious Christian applicants from all over the country. Filling 40 per cent of the seats — 164 seats out of 410 — with meritorious applicants from the Christian community nationwide held no threat to the academic stature of the college. The problem was, as a leading newspaper article complained, that the ‘space was shrinking in St. Stephen’s College’. Shrinking for whom?

A formidable propaganda machine sprang into action. The task of crafting the substance and shape of controversies was assumed by a teacher in the college, one who had an established reputation for running, as the word went then, a ‘department of dirty tricks’. A few impressionable students were co-opted. Stephanians holding senior positions in the media and bureaucracy were lobbied and enlisted as force-multipliers.

A second propaganda thrust was that I denigrated Hinduism in my morning assembly addresses and preached the gospel with zeal. Late in 2007, I was informed that Sheila Dikshit, then chief minister of Delhi, wanted me to see her. I had worked closely with her from 1999, in three successive minority commissions, and had enjoyed her goodwill and trust. I went readily. After the exchange of preliminaries, she referred to a complaint she had received. She randomly enumerated the allegations levelled in the document. One of them pertained to my alleged abuse of the morning assembly to denigrate Hinduism. I asked for a copy of the complaint. Out of sheer curiosity I turned over to the sixth and last page to check for the complainants. To my shock, there was none. The complaint was anonymous. I asked the chief minister if it was proper to act on an anonymous complaint. She replied that the allegations were too serious to be overlooked. She suggested that I provide a detailed, written explanation for each of the allegations.

I told her that it was unjust on her part to press me to respond to an anonymous document. ‘Madam, I shall be doing an improper thing if I respond to an anonymous complaint,’ I told her. ‘I would belittle the college, if I do. I shall not respond, much less in writing.’

I knew I could, by refusing to comply, earn a powerful adversary. But the alternative was unthinkable. Today, I am even more convinced that it would have been unforgivable on my part to compromise my conviction in order to avert the displeasure of the then executive head of the NCR of Delhi.

What was the truth about my assembly addresses? The morning assembly has been an essential feature of the college from its inception. The principal, sharing his thoughts on issues relevant to the life of the students had been a practice basic to the idea of total education on which the college was founded.

Reading scriptural texts and sharing an anthology of prayers drawn from various sources and traditions — Christian, Hindu, Muslim — as also the works of Tagore and other inspirational writers was the substance of the morning assembly. It never was controversial. I was only continuing an old and honoured tradition.

A few teachers, however, chose to sow seeds of resentment in students. Senior students were deployed to work on their susceptible juniors. This was done for fear that sustained exposure to the principal would make it that much more difficult for disgruntled elements to incite students against the ‘establishment’. The target needs to remain ‘alien’, if he is to be effectively denigrated.

With the students, the line of argument adopted was legal. The college receives state aid, and in such institutions, as per Article 28 of the Indian Constitution, religious instruction cannot be imparted compulsorily to anyone. Attendance at the morning assembly is mandatory and it counts towards qualifying for various prizes, awards and scholarships. The college was, thus, alleged to be flouting the constitution.

The teachers involved withheld relevant information from the students; especially the fact that the Supreme Court had already settled this issue in 2002.The morning assembly did not attempt to impart ‘religious instruction’, but religious education. Article 28 did not proscribe religious education in institutions receiving grant-in-aid. The college was absolutely on the right side of the law in this regard.

Propaganda thrives on public ignorance and its attendant gullibility. The managers of the propaganda machine did an outstanding job in cultivating media bosses, lobbying diverse interest groups, keeping whisper mills grinding within the institution and, most importantly, by inventing grievances regarding alleged atrocities and misdeeds on my part. They did even better in prevailing upon the media to black out my side of the story.

(This is an extract from “On a Stormy Course,” with permission from Hachette India)

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