Scenes of student clashes that have shaken Ramjas college this week, revive memories of its 100-year-old history familiar with this violent brand of student politics.One of the first few colleges that were affiliated to Delhi University, Ramjas is part of the legend of student swag and machismo in the Capital’s campus history. In the 70s the campus was much like the fictional Deshraj College from the movie Gulaal where the protagonist is brutally ragged by group of college seniors and later told by his brother to forget about it. The college has, however, witnessed a transformation in the last three decades, turning its story from notoriety to prestige and the recent protests threaten to draw the college back to its violent past.
Founded in January 19, 1917 by educationist Rai Kedar Nath, Ramjas College is celebrating its 100 years. From the start, the college was associated with the young and aspiring – those who had humble beginnings but wanted to get ahead in life and were ready to fight for their rights.
The college became part of Delhi University in 1922 only when it moved to a new campus at Anand Parbat (then known as Kala Pahad). In those days, colleges such as Hindu and St Stephen’s were very much part of the Walled City (the buildings at Kashmere Gate are now offices of the state election commission and MCD).
“The colleges that came before Ramjas largely catered to the children of rich Indian traders and British officials. But Ramjas was dedicated to the people from the economically deprived section who wanted to get good education for their kids,” says principal Rajendra Prasad.
Pay for your own education
Alive to the political and social turmoil around it, Ramjas College played a pivotal role in helping students from refugee families that came to Delhi after Partition in 1947. Not only the college provided sanctuary to nearly 4,000 refugees in its building, it distributed bicycles to young boys who wanted to continue their education. The young students would go out early morning every day to distribute newspapers on their bicycles and earned enough to take care of their education.
‘Bihari’ tag and turbulent 70s
Between 1970 and 1990, Ramjas saw 15 principals taking reins of the institution – something unheard of about any other college. Principals in Delhi University colleges don’t have a fixed tenure. A person can remain at the post till his retiring age. They say it was too difficult to govern the college.
During these two decades, the college had become a centre for protests, violence and gang fights. Some of them blame it on the large number of Bihari students who joined the college during this period.
Pankaj Jha, a former student and now a teacher at LSR College says, “If you compare Ramjas with other colleges, the number (of students from Bihar) would be fractionally higher. But Ramjas got this tag because it allowed you to be what you are unlike colleges like St Stephen’s, which expected you to behave in a certain manner. A friend of mine who was from Bihar but had done his schooling in USA got the Bihari accent from us because he felt it is cool to have the accent of your native state.”
But it was not just about ‘desi’ being hip for Ramjas. The period exemplifies the most politically active, aware and sensitive time in the student movements in India, particularly in Bihar. Those were the times when students like Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan were fighting the state government under the leadership of Jai Prakash Narayan. In Gujarat, Nav Nirman, another student movement with which ‘JP’ was associated, had succeeded in unseating the government of Chimanbhai Patel.
It is in this context that the countless protests, stirs and the power struggle between various student groups on Ramjas campus should be viewed. Any move by the administration which was seen as “anti-people” met with a wave of protests and this is why no principal could administer the college for long.
A ‘Naxal’s tale
Dilip Simeon, a historian, who was a student of St Stephen’s College and who later joined Ramjas College as a teacher in 1974, describes this time as a period of anarchy.
“I was a former naxal and yet when I was in St Stephen’s I feared entering Ramjas College. For the outsiders, Ramjas was a college where teachers or students could go on a strike or protest even at the drop of a hat,” says Simeon. What he didn’t know that he himself would trigger a protest one day.
Remembering his first day in Ramjas as a teacher, he says, “I went to the principal’s office to ask for my appointment letter. His secretary asked me to submit a medical certificate first.”
“It was an unusual demand and those days it wasn’t even a rule for the teachers to submit such a certificate at the time of their joining. It was just a ploy to block my appointment. I mentioned it to some fellow teachers and the news spread like wildfire,” he says.
“I saw teachers, whom I had never met, shouting slogans at an indefinite strike to support me,” says Simeon.
Principal Prasad says during the 1970-1990, the teachers had “tasted blood” since they always had their way by going on a protest. “They were in no mood to entertain any principal. It was a period of financial bankruptcy, massive turmoil, corruption in administration,” says Prasad.
The joke on the college campus then was that when teachers entered the campus, the first question they asked the peon was ‘who is the principal today?’
No more goondas
In October 1982, Simeon and some other teachers came to know that Sitaram, a gardener at the college, had not been paid his salary for months. Simeon approached the principal and when he denied, he launched an indefinite hunger strike. Soon, teachers and students union joined him. The principal even allegedly arranged some men to attack and threaten the protesters but he had to give in and resigned after some time.
Using the momentum, Simeon launched a drive against goondaism on campus in 1988. “Representatives of students and teachers union used to patrol the campus to ensure no student or teacher is harassed,” Simeon says.
- To counter the British agenda of spreading convent education, community leaders set up schools and colleges in small buildings or mansions of Shahjahanabad. Many of them were set up by the local businessmen, community leaders or influential people of Old Delhi. One such college was Ramjas College
- The college which became part of the University of Delhi in 1922 was founded on January 19, 1917 by an educationist from Old Delhi named Rai Kedar Nath to cater to the needs of ordinary Indians at a time when opportunities for them were few due to colonial rule
- Alive to the political and social turmoil around it, Ramjas College played a pivotal role in helping students from refugee families that came to Delhi after Partition in 1947
- Not only did the college provide sanctuary to nearly 4,000 refugees, it distributed bicycles to young boys who wanted to continue their education.
- The young students would go out early morning every day to distribute newspapers on their bicycles and earned enough to take care of their education
- I am from Bihar, so coming to Ramjas helped me get an idea of diverse views... We did several plays as I was in the dramatic society of Ramjas. This helped me refine my acting skills. –MANOJ BAJPAYEE, actor
- I came from an Army School which had a very strict environment and I went to Ramjas College and enjoyed the liberal environment of the campus. Both enriched my creative thinking. –PRAKASH JHA, filmmaker
- The political satire that I do is also because Ramjas made me more aware, and I started taking a deep interest in the country’s politics. –SHEKHAR SUMAN, actor
First co-ed hostel
For a college that was considered a symbol of machismo, Ramjas has the unique distinction of opening DU’s first co-educational hostel.
“People thought the college was not safe for girls. The fact is that no girl was ever harmed on campus,” says Pankaj Jha.
The hostel, which opened in 2005, currently has 120 boys and 80 girls on its rolls. And, it is one of the favourite hang-out points in DU.
From infamy to repute
Old students say that despite its several problems, studies is something that Ramjas always excelled at. Even during protests, classes were held in the open and both the teachers and student took the curriculum seriously.
Rajendra Prasad is the best example of stability that came about in Ramjas after 1985, soon after he took over as principal. Still governing the college, Prasad has been named in the Limca Book of Records for being the youngest and longest serving principal of centrally funded institution/college.
“Ramjas now has a reputation of being one of the best college in India,” says Prasad.
The college’s history department is considered the best in university “Several students prefer Ramjas over St Stephen’s and Hindu if they want to study History,” says Debraj Mookerjee, an associate professor at the college.
However, ‘desi’ is still hip here. History is still taught in Hindi, by virtue of which several students from government schools get admission here.
Mookerjee says that the college has not lost its essence. It is still a place where a student of Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya in Bihar’s Rohtas district can feel comfortable with his counterparts from big private of Delhi.
Several surveys have put Ramjas in the list of best colleges in Delhi University and among best institutions to study arts.
Among the notable alumnus of the college are first chief minister of Delhi Chaudhary Brahm Prakash, actor Manoj Bajpayee, former chief justice Yogesh Kumar Sabharwal among others.
(The story was published on Jan 23 and has been updated)