When a Historian and a Principal bickered over a dead dhabawalla

It is always amusing to see grown adults with serious and stately titles bicker over the pettiest of things. Clearly education and prestige are not a barrier to snide remarks and tearful harangues.
Before we get into the play, let us have a look at the main characters.
Ramachandra Guha is considered by some to be one of India’s foremost historians. He has taught in the University of California, Stanford University and the Indian Institute of Science. And he regularly writes columns for various publications across India. In short he is one of the elite when it comes to academicians in India.
Reverend Valson Thampu is currently the Principal of the lofty St Stephen’s College, Delhi. For those who might not know, St Stephen’s College is India’s greatest Arts and Science College – if the Alumni are any measure. Stephanians, and they like to call themselves, include in their ranks – Kapil Sibal, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (former President of Pakistan), Sachin Pilot, Salman Khurshid, Shashi Tharoor and Virbhadra Singh (Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh).
If this list feels ‘Congress-heavy’, that is because it is. If you include all the IAS officers, government employees and Congress Party members, this college’s students basically ran India for some 50 years.
Guha once said – “this college has contributed as much as any other to the making of independent India. From its ranks have come many of our finest public servants, academics, writers and artists.”
So if you want to know how India ended up as it is now, you should probably direct your enquires to the college’s alumni. In short, if you want to be someone in India, go to this college.
And then there is Rohtas, a dhaba-walla who continued his father’s tradition of serving food in the college, especially samosas.
Now, on the one hand one can say that the samosas served by this dhaba were legendary gifts from heaven, truly the pinnacle of Indian snack food. Generations of Stephanians have tasted the food of the gods here, or so Stephanians like to say. Much is made of Rohtas as well, including apparently his famous ability to remember how much you owe him, no matter how many years have passed.
On the other hand, India is filled with ‘legendary’ samosa sellers (and notebooks to write down debts). Perhaps every single student in this country can take one to some corner shack where, they will claim, the greatest snack of all time is being served. One wonders if the samosas Rohtas served would be considered quite so amazing, if the people he served it to didn’t end up being the who’s who of India (and in one case, Pakistan).
If readers are wondering why this article is going on and on about some samosa seller, then let us make one thing clear – there is no reason to do so. But when India’s foremost historian and the Principal of this great country’s foremost college are bickering over Rohtas’s legacy….even then there is really no reason, but since they are bickering anyway, so we may as well have a look at the pettiness of it all.
It all began when Guha and some of his pals went to the college to pay tribute to Rohtas, who has recently died. They were stopped at the gates by security guards. They later managed to gain entry by giving some other reason for their visit.
Apparently stunned that anyone would dare to stand against the might of the visitors, which included Arvind Subramanian, the chief economic advisor of India, Guha broke down…metaphorically…at the prayer meet. Denouncing all those who opposed him, Guha declared – “…we were not allowed to enter because there is a fascist who is scared that Rohtas is more popular than him”.
As the phrase goes – shots were fired. They were aimed at Thampu, against whom Guha has been grinding an axe for quite a while. In 2007 he said – “Somewhere in India, there is a virtual graveyard of once great educational institutions destroyed by the petty vanities of men. The corpses it contains come from all over the country, and bear identities that are secular as well as denominational”. (This was just after Thampu took over and increased reservation for Dalit Christians).
Not one to let mere decorum or dignity stand in the face of such a broadside, Thampu retaliated with…several thousand words actually. One wonders how he gets time to run the college, when he has so much time to write long, long pieces on Facebook.
Here are the choicest bits of his endless harangue –

“For the life of me, I cannot understand how a peddler of samosa is more important than the Bursar of the College or the College itself on which he thrived; so much so that politics can be unleashed around his death to the embarrassment of the College. I doubt if any other College has alumni of this kind. I hope not!! Even a handful of such, produced over a century, are enough to doom the institution forever.”

“They think that Stephen’s is their public thoroughfare! As if someone has conferred on them the birthright to gatecrash the campus. It is a campus where a large number of students lives. I cannot let these trespassers footloose and fancy-free on the campus, risking everything,”
“I would have appreciated the hit-and-run organisers of this devious charade if they had announced that the programme was meant to mock the college, to defy the authority of the Principal and to outrage the inviolability of the campus,”
So Guha, who is 57, called Thampu, who is 65, a fascist for not letting him mourn the samosas of his youth, and Thampu called Guha a gate-crasher and questioned why the samosas matter and somewhere in between Rohtas has been elevated to divinity…and so on and so forth. The fight is not really about samosas, and more about how this college is run. But it is still amazing to think Rohtas is the martyr over whom that both sides are choosing to draw their battle lines (in crayon, one presumes).
While their bickering will undoubtedly continue, at this point it is better if we got off this petty train and went back to doing productive things.
And perhaps India would be served better if the people who claim to be its highest intellectuals found something more…gracious…to argue about. After all, there are more samosa sellers in the world…and thankfully, no shortage of samosas.

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