Dhaba of movements


Sangeeta Yadav and Prakriti Roy 

It’s the iconic Ganga Dhaba where JNU’s famous food for thought is served. From political movements to culture parades, from love stories to student politics anything and everything that JNU prides itself for, often begins and ends at this all-night eatery on the campus. SANGEETA YADAV and PRAKRITI ROY spent some time at this nerve centre to bring you a report

For decades, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has been the nerve centre of political and social activism. The students are vocal about anything they feel about and movements are initiated at the drop of an opinion on this campus. All this food for thought emanates and revolves around the dhabas here, all of which have made quite a name for themselves.

More often than not, all these movements begin at the iconic Ganga Dhaba, the humble eatery you will find when you enter from the main gate of the University. The dhaba, which has been doing roaring business on the campus since 1983, has been a part of the students’ life as much as their classes and semesters on the campus.

This dhaba opens only around 5 pm and is quick to gather gentry on hot trail of discussions. With the students preferring to “chill out” and huddle up only after classes in the evening, the dhaba functions, and is party to their animated issue-talks which often mushroom into movements, speeches and campaigns. It is open the entire night.

Owner Sushil Rathi tells you that he has been taking care of the dhaba since 1987, when his brother-in-law, who managed it before that, passed away. Rathi has been a silent witness to all the changes that the dhaba, the university and its students have gone through in these long years. “The dhaba’s spot has changed thrice. First, it was at the Ganga Hostel bus stop, a small place under a tarpaulin, way back when it was a boys’ hostel. Then it shifted a bit backwards, towards the left of where it currently stands. We have been at this spot since 1993,” he adds.

Rathi’s work keeps him extremely busy even when the dhaba is closed during the day. The only free day that he and his staff get is the eighth of each month. But, God forbid, if an important event like the famous Presidential Debate of JNU takes place on that day, the dhaba must remain open and cater to everyone’s chai and aloo-paratha needs in the middle of the night. After all, it requires a full belly to bring about change.

The beauty of the place lies in the people who come from diverse backgrounds. Some people come to the Ganga Dhaba to sit alone and have a dialogue with themselves and look for answers from within. Others come to unwind after a hectic day. Yet others meet up with friends here over chai in the winters and nimboo paani in the summers. This place has given shape to many a revolutionary movement on the campus as also love stories that are part of student folklore, having blossomed on some rocks around the dhaba.

“The point of JNU life is ‘Ganga Dhaba to Chandrabhaga’. Whenever there is a rally or a march, it starts at Ganga Dhaba and goes all the way to the Chandrabhaga Hostel. This dhaba is the most happening spot, a great place for people to meet and interact. Another great place is the more recent 24×7 Food Court. But sadly, now it shuts down at 11 pm,” Akash Dewangan, an MA student at JNU, tells you.

He adds that because most JNU students are nightbirds, they usually feel hungry around 2 am or 3 am and invariably end up at Ganga Dhaba for an aloo paratha for just Rs 5.

Jayant Jigyasu, an MPhil student of Media Studies, is well aware of JNU’s history. He recalls that in 1990, a bunch of JNU students were right in the middle of the Mandal Commission debate.

“When the Mandal Commission was getting approved, there was a huge debate on whether to bring in the quota or not. Tempers were running high with paradox views bordering on volatile clashes between pro and anti reservationists. Ashutosh, former AAP candidate, and other activists decided to gather at Ganga Dhaba and start a surname removal campaign in a bid to dissociate themselves with the caste identity in public life. The parathas and chai flowed in endlessly as the agitation stretched over quite some days,” Jayant tells you.

From Mandal then to the tolerance issue sometime back and now to the sedition issue, the Ganga Dhaba has witnessed several debates over burning issues that took the nation by storm. What makes JNU different from other universities is that you might be a great scholar but Ganga Dhaba is a place where all your thoughts are counter-questioned.

The dhaba is so integral to students that when it faced lease-related problems, they stood up against the administration to make sure that the eatery or its owners do not get evicted. Rathi tells you that the lease, which passed on to his sister after her husband died, expired a few years back. He asks why the administration is not co-operating with him for its renewal.

“I am ready to pay more rent, if that’s what the University wants. The students are supportive but the administration is mum about it. Right now, we are functioning without a proper lease with no idea of what the future holds,” he says.

“Voltaire once said: ‘I may disagree with everything that you say, but I would defend to death your right to say it.’ This is exactly what tolerance is all about. We talk about anything under the sun. This is what democracy is which you’ll find epitomised at Ganga Dhaba. Even if celebrities come here for a debate, they are treated as equals and not by their celebrity status,” Jayant explains.

Not just political but also social movements like the ‘Kiss Of Love’ originated at this dhaba. Started in 2014 by Pankhuri Zaheer, a JNU student, this non-violent movement first started in Kerala after a Facebook page called ‘Kiss Of Love’ exhorted the youth to participate in their protest against moral policing. It reached the Ganga Dhaba soon enough where very many students gathered and kissed their partners in public.

“Then there was the Pride Parade which also got a lot of attention. Whenever marches or protests happen, they either start at Ganga Dhaba or finish at Ganga Dhaba. That’s where the show of strength happens. JNU is extremely cold during winters and the mix of chai and egg sandwich can make you sit for hours and discuss everything from America to Begusarai. You will not find Coke, Pepsi or cigarettes at the dhaba as the owners or this dhaba support students in not promoting any product which propagates capitalism,” Preeti, a day scholar doing her MPhil in History, says.

Currently, the hottest issue in JNU is the sedition row. Though no one is talking about it for now, it all started around the Ganga Dhaba. However, Rathi insists, contrary to popular perception, life in JNU is not all about politics. There is a unique cultural atmosphere too. The immensely popular culture nights at the hostels are an event to be with. Then there is the grand Holi celebration that begins on the eve of Holi.

“This is one of the most fun-filled nights of the year. There is a parade which starts from my dhaba and is known as ‘Mamu ki Chaat’. This has nothing to do with the street food. It is the colloquial term for annoying people. A few years back, the students made Mamu (owner of Mamu’s Dhaba in JNU) ride a donkey decked up with phoolmala as part of the parade,” he tells you laughingly.

At the other extreme end of the campus lies the Brahmaputra Hostel. Being secluded from the epicentre of most activities, a smaller community has formed around Karamveer Singh Dahiya’s (fondly called Dahiyaji) shop right in front of the hostel. All the students who stay around this hostel, spend a lot of time at his shop, while he continues his duty to feed these students.

“On national and public holidays, the mess remains closed. So it is my responsibility to feed the entire hostel. Even on their cultural nights, we clean up the entire area and have a gala time. The students respect me a lot and they keep coming back to meet me even after they pass out from the university,” Dahiyaji, whose cold coffee comes highly recommended, says.

And that’s not it. Those who are privy to the memorable movements at JNU, like Rathi, can tell you how a lot of things have changed over the years. Jayant recalls that the Ganga Dhaba used to be in front of the boys hostel earlier and used to be so overcrowded in the evenings that a lot of fights took place. Rathi remembers an instance where an over speeding car was stopped and burnt down because the students sitting at his bus stop dhaba felt threatened by the speed. The administration then decided to shift the boy’s hostel a little further into the campus and made Ganga Hostel for girls.

“It was the time when famous journalist Palagummi Sainath was studying in JNU. The Ganga Dhaba was a centre point that created the culture of open debate amongst the students of JNU and outsiders. It was a bigger canvas where people with diverse ideologies expressed their opinion without any fear and limitations. People carried a revolutionary mindset and sometimes there used to be fights in groups at that place during a heated debate. This used to create a lot of trouble for the administration which made them switch the boys’ hostel to the girls thinking that it will then have a more decent environment. Also, they though that radicalisation will not happen at the dhaba and big gatherings would stop. But none of the shifting had a major impact on the ambiance. Instead, girls also started participating openly. The women emancipation issue got fire at the Ganga Dhaba where you’ll find girls voicing their opinion and hanging out with the boys,” Jayant says.

Grapevine has it that once actor Saif Ali Khan was beaten up at the Ganga Dhaba. According to campus lore, before becoming an actor, he was a roadside romeo who would spend a lot of time at JNU with his friends in a Maruti car. Once, he was caught by some JNUiites and beaten up for cat calling.

“JNU is an addiction. I have seen alumni coming to Ganga Dhaba 20 years later for dinner and nostalgia. There is a popular saying that ‘people who study in JNU either go to America or Munirka’. Some have studied one course after the other and become professors as well. In JNU lingo, we call them baba log who sit with professors and students, share a drink, debate and give guidance to freshers. You’ll find them there all the time. Ganga Dhaba sabka mai baap hai (Ganga Dhaba is like everyone’s parent),” Saurabh Dwivedi, who studied MPhil in Hindi Literature from 2004 to 2010, tells you.

(The article was published in the http://www.dailypioneer.com/sunday-edition/sunday-pioneer/special/dhaba-of-movements.html).


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