‘I don’t want a rapecase on my hands!’

Fr. JOE DIAS, principal of St. Xavier’s College, is in the eye of a storm for having banned the prom and other socials on his college premises. Is he being puritanical? Or simply erring on the side of caution? The principal defends his stand in an interview with ASHISH VIRMANI

Did you ever imagine that banning the college prom would stir up such a hornet's nest?
No, I didn't. Certainly I expected some reaction but not like this. However, the fact that it's being discussed in the press doesn't disturb me unduly because my convictions about the issue are firmly rooted. Truth is that I'd have been upset if I hadn't taken the decision that I did.

A section of the media is calling you a prude and a dictator. What do you say?
As I said, I'm unaffected. Calling me a dictator is an emotional reaction from someone who disagrees with me. I think we live in times when socials are not the harmless, dignified events they were once. Now they are monsters and they need to be policed. This same media, if there is a mishap in my college, will turn on me and attack me and blame me for not taking precautions.

You have not just policed socials but banned them completely from St. Xavier's. What are your objections?
Firstly, there is a degeneration in the quality of what were once dignified events. Between 1992-97 the prom became an excuse for drinking and sexual liberalism. Girls come in spaghetti-strap dresses and bare backs, deceiving us by putting on coats on the outside. What worries me is that in this atmosphere, the rowdies among the boys cannot be controlled either by our security or by the police. Secondly, not a single staff member is willing to be present at any of these socials. And thirdly, these functions are elitist. The vast majority of students are left out from them and are marginalised. Which means that these socials no longer fulfil the function that their names suggest.

Is this decision something you pondered on and do you have the support of your Jesuit community on it?
It's been an ongoing battle for the last few years. In 1998, I put up a strong notice saying that the prom was meant only for the final year students which was the original format, and also that no non-Xavierites would be allowed. I also made a survey of 40 colleges and noted that no other college had the function, except perhaps H.R. College which started it last year. And it's not an 80-year tradition as some students have falsely asserted, the prom started in the Seventies. So I thought about it and this year put up a list of 17 reasons why the prom and other socials should be banned. As far as the Jesuit community is concerned, most are in favour of the decision, though some feel that I've gone too fast. But for the latter section it's easy to say, "Be more liberal". They don't have the responsibility of being principal and perhaps they don't realise that times have changed and that I don't want trouble or a rape incident in college. Still, I've studied the situation and taken full responsibility for my decision.

Some people feel that by putting up a notice listing your objections, you've encouraged counter-arguments and played into the hands of students!
I wasn't going to put up a notice originally. But when I said 'no' to socials and the prom the students had a meeting instigated by seniors and ex-students. At which point the general secretary of the college management council came to me and asked me to display my reasons on the board. And after I put my list of reasons, let me tell you, no student has approached me to complain. As far as the press is concerned, I'm happy about the debate because I stand by my reasons. The Jesuits have a history for taking strong decisions to champion the cause of preferential options for the poor and social justice. And this decision is in keeping with that policy.

You've also enforced a strict dress code, no smoking within college premises and banned mobile phones on the campus. Do you think all this is justified?
From our point of view, mobiles are an instrument of social discrimination, as are sleeveless dresses and cigarettes. I know many students cannot afford such luxuries and I want everyone to feel comfortable in the college. In fact many parents are thanking me for banning mobiles because even 11th standard students are asking for them! Now you may ask, are 11th standard so busy that they need mobiles? These are all status symbols and they reveal an attitude that says, "I don't care what other people think" or "I'm doing my own thing, folks". We train men and women in our college to do the opposite — to show sensitivity towards others with their behaviour.

Have you applied the same dress code for your staff?
No, I have not tackled the staff on the dress code issue. That's because I assume the staff is more mature and they are under the pressure of the position they occupy. If they come in sleeveless dresses occasionally they will still stop at the decency level. That's not the case with students — who aim to go further and further for attention and shock value. Among students the hero is the girl with the shorter dress.

Now that you've banned the prom will you ban Malhar too?
In the prom the only aim is fostering friendly relations between the sexes. The circle of friendship doesn't expand. Malhar is open to all, including the poor. It has good formative value and develops students' managerial skills. However, that doesn't mean that it can't get out of hand. Malhar needs constant monitoring but we won't ban it if it manages to keep our aims in mind.

How would you react if the principal who succeeds you were to overturn most of the decisions you've made?
I wouldn't mind because then I wouldn't be responsible. But nobody can accuse me of not standing by my convictions. I've done what I could in the five years that I've been principal and am set to retire next year. But most of all, I don't want anyone accusing me of inaction when I had the opportunity to take action while I was principal.