The iconic Ganga Dhaba in JNU, Delhi has been served notice to shut down. Like the Freedom Cafe of Berkeley, it is the nerve centre of radical student activism, associated with many iconic movements of JNU. The Piece recounts a former student's views on this place.
The sprawling campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi abounds in great tales about people and places. Ganga Dhaba, the favourite eating joint for the students, is one of those fertile locations inside JNU which has given rise to many such stories. Some of these have become part of mythology in JNU. It is often said that those who have spent a certain amount of time at the Ganga Dhaba are actually never able to leave JNU. Even today one can see many of the people who had been associated with JNU decades ago, not necessarily as students, sitting on Ganga Dhaba breathing in the air of JNU. No wonder that the news about closing down of Ganga Dhaba has created a minor commotion within the campus and a major upheaval in the hearts of those who can’t imagine JNU without this iconic place. Ganga Dhaba is probably the Hyde Park of JNU, only far more radical and intimate in its relations with its occupants.
The Dhaba signified the informality of interaction in JNU even while it was the location of fundamental transformation in the thought processes of generations of students. For many of the students coming from the Hindi heartland, it was akin to a cultural shock to see heated political discussions taking place among people gathered on the Dhaba without anybody really bothering about the caste affiliation of the new comer. When a senior student of Ph.D. offered his/her cigarette for a little puff on it, one found it unimaginable in the milieu from where we came. Such experiences changed the person slowly, working at a deep, subterranean level perhaps. The barren landscape of Ganga Dhaba with a few large sized bushes and smaller trees worked its charm slowly radicalising many, stamping them with the trade mark identity of JNU- assertive, fearless, non-hierarchical mind set.
Sitting on the small uneven rocks or the little stubs of cement pillars, vigorous discussions took place on issues ranging from Antonio Gramsci to the deteriorating food in the hostel to double locking of our rooms for delay in payment of mess bill. The spirit of democracy and free thought was evident as students ranging from Ambedkarites to NSUI cadres, from ultra-left to ABVP engaged in discussions within their own groups or across the groups spiritedly. Whether it was the big student movement in 1981 or the Mandal Agitation in early 1990s or Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 or the most recent slogan shouting episode involving JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar alongwith others, Ganga Dhaba was the focal point of activities. It worked as the nerve centre where students tested the limits of everything including university administration and the government. It was also the place where many a relationships became intimate in a personal way and many other intimate relationships floundered on the choppy waves of ideological inclinations. The boundaries between the personal and the political often got blurred on the rocks of Ganga Dhaba.
I remember the day in 1992 when Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhaya on 6th December. The cultural group Jugnu had organised a day long fast cum lecture programme at the Jhelum lawns. During dinner in the hostel, there was palpable tension, anger too on this heinous act in Ayodhya. We came to the Ganga Dhaba in the evening around 9 p.m. We sipped our tea in silence. The evening was dark, atmosphere cold. Silence was oppressive. Nobody knew what to do. Suddenly someone suggested that a procession should be taken out with just those students who were there on Ganga Dhaba. Five or six students started raising slogans against the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Slogan shouting rung through the Jhelum lawns across to the balconies of Jhelum, Ganga and Sutlej hostels. Within a few minutes students started emerging from behind the Tea stall, the scattered cement stools, this nook and that corner of Ganga Dhaba and adjoining hostels. It turned into a huge procession that marched from Ganga Dhaba to Poorvanchal hostel, at the other edge of the university. It was the first demonstration against Babri Masjid demolition and probably among the biggest demonstrations in the history of JNU. The occasion was indeed historic but Ganga Dhaba worked as the glue, the anecdotal ‘public space’ that gave birth not just to vigorous debates but to many a concrete actions too.
Nobody went to Ganga Dhaba to ‘savour’ its tea or enjoy the snacks. Indeed, it was a common joke that once you have tasted tea at Ganga Dhaba, you can never dislike tea at any other place in the world. In the early 1990s, those who got their fellowships would often order special tea which the ‘Chhotu’ of the Dhaba would bring shouting ‘Milak Tea, Milak Tea’. One of the first trainings one got in JNU was to treat the Chhotu, the tea-boy and Omveer the Dhaba owner with respect. This egalitarian ethos grew on a person as one started treating the tea-boy as equal, cutting joke and being joked with. This habit of treating the lowest of the workers with respect unselfconsciously stays with a large number of JNU students all through their lives. This is another of the distinguishing marks of JNU for which Ganga Dhaba was the testing laboratory and breeding ground so far as the attitude was concerned.
Various organisations, cultural groups, student’s union and individuals in JNU bring out pamphlets on issues of relevance to them. The experienced activists know that the pamphlets have to be put on the counter of Ganga Dhaba before 4.30 in the evening so that it can be picked up by the students. These are read with great interest and analysed in detail over unending cups of tea at the Dhaba or later at dinner table in the hostel . The little space around the cash counter of the Dhaba was also used for sticking handbills and handwritten posters that gave it a distinct look. Discussions around the Dhaba clearly brought out how the student community was reacting to the positions taken in the pamphlets. Shrewd student leaders would make fairly accurate guess about student’s response to an issue judging by the way they reacted to the pamphlets put on the Ganga Dhaba counter in the evening.
Though there are many big and small eating joints, Dhabas and shops in the JNU campus, Ganga Dhaba retains a special position. The owner of the Dhaba, one Omveer had committed suicide but the continuity of the Dhaba was not affected. Probably a family member of Omveer or a tea-boy working at the Dhaba took over the running of the place. A unique atmosphere of non-commercial identity marks this Dhaba lending it the aura which is feared to be lost once it becomes part of the usual ‘tendering process’ for letting out commercial spaces by the university.
Ganga Dhaba is also historic for witnessing many interesting incidents in the past. A Bollywood star (not so big a star then) got a good thrashing from students because he indulged in eve-teasing. A top official of the government got beaten up on the day he was selected for IAS for indulging in a drunken brawl. If you misbehave with the tea boy, indulge in lecherous acts or eve teasing Ganga Dhaba could be unforgiving.
It was also the place where people like Chandrashekhar (JNUSU President) , who was killed in Siwan by the goons of local don Shahabuddin, tested the popularity of their ultra-left ideological positions by engaging in open discussions with all those who wished to.
However, it would be wrong to think that Ganga Dhaba was a space only for the JNU students. Many of the people who inhabited the Ganga Dhaba, often sleeping at the bus stop across the road were not students of JNU or had been students so long back that no body knew when they were in JNU. Rama Shankar Vidrohi, simply known as Vidrohiji, was one such presence on Ganga Dhaba.
He would be sitting on the Dhaba right from the time it opened in the afternoon staying there till late in the night usually past 2 a.m. Groups of students, current and past would come to him, offer him a cup of tea respectfully or an Aaloo Bonda, Bread Pakoda occasionally and listen to his electrifying poetry. When he died last year, hundreds of students, teachers and others turned up at his funeral at Lodhi Road crematorium in Delhi. When Ganga Dhaba is closing down, it would be a tribute, both to this space and the great poet of the people Vidrohiji , though unrecognized, to cite a few lines from his oeuvre-
मैं उनकी बात नहीं करता जो
पीपलों पर घड़ियाल बजाते हैं
या बन जाते हैं नींव का पत्थर,
जिनकी हथेलियों पर टिका हुआ है
सदियों से ये लिंग,
ऐसे लिंग थापकों की माएं
खीर खाके बच्चे जनती हैं
और खड़ी कर देती है नरपुंगवों की पूरी ज़मात
मर्यादा पुरुषोत्तमों के वंशज
उजाड़ कर फेंक देते हैं शंबूकों का गांव
और जब नहीं चलता इससे भी काम
तो धर्म के मुताबिक
काट लेते हैं एकलव्यों का अंगूठा
और बना देते हैं उनके ही खिलाफ
तमाम झूठी दस्तखतें।
धर्म आखिर धर्म होता है
जो सूअरों को भगवान बना देता है,
चढ़ा देता है नागों के फन पर
गायों का थन,
धर्म की आज्ञा है कि लोग दबा रखें नाक
और महसूस करें कि भगवान गंदे में भी
इतिहास में वह पहली औरत कौन थी जिसे सबसे पहले जलाया गया?
मैं नहीं जानता
लेकिन जो भी रही हो मेरी माँ रही होगी,
मेरी चिंता यह है कि भविष्य में वह आखिरी स्त्री कौन होगी
जिसे सबसे अंत में जलाया जाएगा?
मैं नहीं जानता
लेकिन जो भी होगी मेरी बेटी होगी
और यह मैं नहीं होने दूँगा
Ganga Dhaba is the celebration of madness that people like Vidrohijee symbolised. It is the playground of the magician who transforms a caste bound rustic boy from Bihar or UP into a fighter for a casteless and equitable society not caring about his own career and financial security. It is the magnet that pulls you towards the dream of a better world even while you see the tide turning against you.
Ganga Dhaba was the mythical arena that reflected the soul of JNU which stands to be dismantled today because it does not meet the tender requirements of the university. It comes as a heavy blow to all those who spent far more time at Ganga Dhaba than the class room or library and never regretted that they missed out learning the values, ethos and much more that enriches life, makes it worth living and for some people even worth dying.