Visit any university or college and you’ll find students huddled together- in lawns and in corridors, in canteen and outside the library- participating actively in the discussions of national and international matters. They carry themselves with intelligence and confidence as youth should carry. Not just that, they have a world of their own.
This world, in Jamia Millia Islamia, becomes a public sphere in itself. The ultramodern FX- Uth Cafe aka Castro Café is at the forefront of this public sphere. Central canteen, MCRC canteen, engineering canteen and other places provide students a space outside their classrooms. The dingy dusty streets of Batla House and Zakir Nagar also contribute to this public sphere.
But there is one place which stands out because of its distinctiveness. The distinctiveness being that it offers refreshment even upto midnight. It is the ‘locked’ library gate of the Old Library turned Reading room.
It is 5 pm in the afternoon. At this time, most of the students of the university are in their homes or in hostels. But a good number, mostly the studious and dreamy ones, are still in the university.
For them to satiate the need of a cup of tea, the chai-walla at the locked library gate is a better option than the central canteen. Most of the students are standing, walking with cups in their hands but many are sitting on the ridges segregating the paved roads and the green parks. “Library is nearer from here,” says a student. Around the chai-walla, a horde of students is sipping tea and chattering. The conversations range from the taste of the tea served to the difficult equations of physics to the new English teacher to the latest trends in clothing.
At one corner of the gate, Abu Bakar Ayoub and Abdul Waqar are sitting, discussing “the vicissitudes of their own lives.” They are not frequent visitors to the library. In fact Abu Bakar Ayoub has never seen the interior of the reading room. In his own words, “It is a daredevil’s act.”
Abu Bakar’s only reason for this daredevil act is, “Mass Communication students should be out of Library and more in the field,” he smiles and adds, “but it is a cliché.’ Abu Bakar is a student of PG diploma in Urdu Mass Media. “Actually we come here to refresh ourselves. It is always good to be here. Drink a cup of tea and then head home,” he says.
Waqar says that it is not just a cup of tea but “in class we cannot discuss what we want and when we are at home, it becomes even more difficult.” He further adds that today they’re discussing their favourite writers- Ibn Safi and Khalid Javed—the two Urdu Novelists from Pakistan. The other writer who frequently occupies their chats is Saadat Hassan Manto. Co-incidentally, the lane leading to Mass Communication and Research Centre is also known as Saddath Hassan Manto lane.
But literature is discussed by a few. The common topic of discussions is politics and of course studies. A few yards away, two other students from the department of Arabic had bought the tea. Between the sips of the cardamom flavored tea, Azhar-ud-din was looking at his smart phone. Browsing through his facebook account, he suddenly burst into laughter.
The reason was a status update. “BJP to boycott Sushil Kumar Shinde,” Azhar read loudly.
His friend Nazir Ahmad laughed too. “What are the comments?” he asked.
Azhar, pursuing B.A. Arabic (Honours) didn’t answer. Instead he said, “People write absurd things in the comments section.” Soon they emptied their disposable tea cups and went inside the old library turned reading room of the university. Though a short conversation, it reflects the intellectual growth of Jamia Millia Islamia where a bizarre statement by a politician is laughed at.
On the same lines, Tawseef Ahmad, an Animation Student says that he loves Jamia for these discussions not just in class but outside the class also. One such place is the MCRC Canteen, “Discussions and debates happen there. Every time. Sometimes even teachers are part of these discussions.” However, a question arises; the canteen can be open only up to evening. What after that? To which Tawseef replies, laughingly, “People need rest after that. Enough discussions happen throughout the day.”
Tawseef immediately turns serious. “For my UGC-NET exams, I turned to the Library in the evening and was amazed to see so many people here in the evening, even up to 2 am.” Thanks to Aftab Hashim, the chai-wallah, students turn the Old Library gate into busy spot. Aftab is in his late twenties and has been coming to the university for the last four years.
With packets of biscuits, traditional snacks and golden colored copper tea Samovar, he takes a position in a corner near the closed library gate at 4 pm every day except on the days when the library is closed. He is helped by his two little brothers; one of them studying in class tenth. Though illiterate, Altaf helps students to keep the candle burning. “My uncle used to bring tea and now he is old. I have taken his place,” says Aftab. He is from Banaras, Uttar Pradesh and had migrated to Delhi some 10 years ago.
Both Abu Bakar and Waqar are of the opinion that Jamia has a “public sphere” atmosphere but not a conducive one. Unlike other central universities in Delhi, Jamia does not have a defined “students’ point.” “With a road bisecting the university into two parts and the residential areas also being very close to university, the public sphere places are also hard to find like we see in JNU,” says Waqar. Abu Bakar echoes him and says, “Students often chat in the dhabas and tea shops in the residential areas around university.
From the class lectures and syllabus to the Metro construction going around Jamia to the latest news from sports and politics to latest trends in clothing and the best brands, one can hear students analyzing it all. But girls generally aren’t found around the place during evening hours. “I go to the reading room during daytime and have heard it’s a really vibrant atmosphere in the evening around the place, but I can’t be there, for I have to keep hostel timings in consideration. Also my parents don’t allow me to stay out till late hours”, voices Sadia, a third year B.A. student.
For Beeny Rajput, a Masters’ student in Political Science, at a time when women are highly asserting themselves, it’s important that girls form a part of such informal gatherings in universities. “They also need to share their views and not feel left behind. Why should the male narrative alone find its’ place in these discussions?” she questions. It is through increased participation, she believes, that Jamia’s own public sphere can become more vibrant and effective and truly serve the purpose of discussing issues of common interest and forming a sensible public opinion.
[Samreen Mushtaq, class of 2013, is a postgraduate student in the Department of Political Science. This article was first published in the 2013 edition of ‘Episteme’ — Dept. of Political Science’s annual student magazine under the title “Jamia’s Own ‘Public Sphere’ – The World Outside Classes.” We republish it here with permission.]