Students having dinner at the Machhu A hostel mess. (Express Photo by Javed Raja)
As the winter sun sets, around a dozen students from Lukhdirji Engineering College (LEC), Morbi, Gujarat, emerge from class to settle down on square plastic stools outside a tea stall, their backpacks still on their shoulders.
It’s from this college’s mess that an agitation over a hostel food bill hike eventually built into the 1973-74 Nav Nirman Andolan that, in turn, became the only student agitation to force a government out in India. More than 45 years later, as campuses across the country see protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and an agitation over hostel bill at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) meets almost similar violence, LEC is more animated over the US-Iran face-off following the killing of Iran’s No. 2 Qassem Soleimani.
Morbi is the hub of the ceramic tile industry in the country, leaving its air thick with dust by evening. With its 52-acre wooded expanse, LEC is its rare green lung. In a town whose fate is closely linked to global developments affecting trade though, the only stir at LEC over CAA was when a few of its students joined a rally in favour of the Act called by industry owners last month.
“Both the ABVP and NSUI have tried to muster the support of students, but the response has been lame. However, a few others and I joined the pro-CAA rally after being asked by a friend,” says a final-year student refusing to be identified.
Contractor-cook Sunil Sitapara makes puris on a coal-fired stove. (Express Photo by Javed Raja)
And yet, it is in LEC hostel messes that 1973-74 lingers. LEC has seven men’s hostels for around 900 students — A, B, D, E, (C was pulled down after damage in the 2001 earthquake) and New Hill, New Hostel, NVP — arranged in a rectangular complex named after the river Machhu. There are two women’s hostels — F, G — for 140 students.
The dinner in ‘Machhu A’ this evening is puris, vegetable curry, daal, rice and curd. Sunil Sitapara, who has the contract to run the kitchen, struggles to churn out the puris over a coal-fired stove, as students wait at stone tables. The soot has settled deep into the crevices of the peeling walls of the kitchen.
Every hostel has its own mess and Mess Secretary, with students deciding the menu and paying per meal. The Mess Secretary of Machhu A, Swapnil Sawant, a second-year production engineering student, says he has been trying to get the authorities to install a gas-fired stove.
Today evening, the mess, which charges Rs 35 for regular meals and Rs 40 on days with dessert, has drawn only about 35 of Machhu A’s 100 students. The initial spark for the 1973-74 agitation was a Rs 40 rise in monthly food bill.
None in the Machhu A mess has heard of that protest except Jay Baraiya, a third-year student of electrical engineering. After some prompting, he says, “Yes, the mess bill was increased, so students protested and the Congress government lost.”
That time, housed in the regal Nazarbaug Palace, LEC had around 1,800 students, half of them hostellers. In the 1979 floods, the palace was inundated, destroying most of the records of 1973-74. Since the palace was deemed unsafe five years ago and shut, the college operates from a newly-constructed dull-grey square block nearby.
The LEC protest had coincided with a similar revolt at Ahmedabad’s Lalbhai Dalpatbhai (LD) College of Engineering, 190 km away. Gujarat then only had five engineering colleges, all run by the government. Affiliated to Gujarat University at the time, LEC and LDCE are now under Gujarat Technological University.
Prof Saurabh Pandya, the incumbent principal of LEC, who did his graduation from LDCE, points out that a lot coincided for LEC to emerge as the epicentre of the protests. “In those days, merit students enrolled at LEC, and the faculty was ‘intellectual’. The students did not have laptops, mobile phones or TV, and kept themselves engaged through other activities. The government of that time was not stable,” he lists.
Jayantibhai Patel, a student leader who now heads the Morbi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says hostel food was an important issue. “The mess secretaries would devote a lot of time buying rations and kitchen items. There would be competition to offer the best meals for the lowest bill.”
Bhavnagar-based Prof (retd) Vajashi Gojiya, then a third-year electrical engineering student and general secretary of LEC student’s union, says the protests also coincided with overall inflation. “For students, even a marginal increase can be a big deal.”
Incidentally, just as the anti-CAA protests were fuelled by police action at Jamia Millia Islamia, and alleged police passiveness at JNU, the intervention by the force also tipped matters in 1974. On January 3 night, police entered LDCE premises and picked up students, recalls Umakant Mankad, a Congress leader who at the time was an electrical engineering student at LDCE and active in student politics.
The teachers too joined the students, angry over how their salaries were paid. This was also the reason why then chief minister Chimanbhai Patel became the target of the anger. Having been a professor of economics at St Xaviers’ College in Ahmedabad, he was trustee in many Gujarat colleges.
The agitation was given its name, Nav Nirman (Reconstruction), by local journalist Rajendra Sheth, who was one of the advisors of the Nav Nirman Yuvak Samiti (NYS), which led the agitation.
Later, the movement got national support when Jay Prakash Narayan lent it his support. His Sampoorna Kranti movement in Bihar against corruption, inspired by Nav Nirman, eventually precipitated the imposition of Emergency in 1975.
Mankad believes the 73-day agitation also laid the foundation of the BJP, then the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, in Gujarat, with many leaders of the party emerging from the movement. Like Bhupendrasinh Chudasama, the current Gujarat Minister for Education, then a 25-year-old Jan Sangh karyakarta. He describes his achievement as “success in creating public awareness and roping in teachers, students and businessmen”. A blog on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s website also talks of his involvement with the movement.
At one high point, people came out striking rolling pins on steel plates in response to a ‘Sarkar no mrutyughant (death knell for the government)’ call. With his position untenable, Patel stepped down as CM on February 9, 1974.
Prof Kalubhai Bhetariya, head of the Department of Applied Mechanics at LEC who was assistant rector of its hostels till recently, says they haven’t seen any major issue regarding hostels in recent times.
Among those saddened by this “apoliticisation” is Ahmedabad-based documentary filmmaker and writer Manishi Jani, 68, who led Nav Nirman as president of the NYS. A Master’s in Philosophy student, he was at the time the only elected student member in the Gujarat University Syndicate, a policy-making body at the university. “This set up an official leadership of students,” he says.
Jani was jailed with around 125 students, and negotiations for their release were held with then union home minister Umashankar Dixit and prime minister Indira Gandhi. “The night we were to speak with Gandhi (March 15), the Gujarat Assembly was dissolved... Indira Gandhi had wanted it to seem that the government negotiated with the students and declared the dissolution. Next day, we were freed and boarded the only metre-gauge train between Ahmedabad and Delhi back home. We were felicitated at every junction. The train took almost two days to reach Ahmedabad.”
Jani is now among those leading a campaign against the CAA, and asserts, “People are always hopeful change will come at the end of a mass movement.”
Prof Gojiya, who headed the Morbi unit of the NYS, believes that may be wishful. “Today’s student politics has been reduced to a stepping stone for party politics,” he says. “In our time, no politician would dare meddle with an educational institute and students respected teachers. But today, students are pawns. In such a scenario, it is advisable not to have student union elections.”
At Ground Zero of Nav Nirman Andolan, in a Gujarat that has come a long way from 1974, the students agree. Gujarat University has seen no union election since 1998, points out Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi, a former student leader.
Asked whether elections ought to be revived on campus, Chudasama says, “Punah vicharan karna zaroori hai (we need a rethink on this). Look at our other two state-run universities, Bhakt Kavi Narsinh Mehta (Junagadh) and Govind Guru (Godhra). They are running fine without elections.”
Neither the ABVP nor NSUI has any presence at LEC today. Says ABVP Morbi district convener Parth Prajapati, “We have not had a formal organisation in Morbi for about two years.” The NSUI’s Rajkot district unit president Rohit Rajput says they are struggling to get members for posts. “But we are trying to revive in LEC now.”
Both admit they don’t know much more than the basics regarding Nav Nirman.
Not that it worries LEC students. Says Rahul Laurabhiya, a fourth-year chemical engineering student, “Our needs are fulfilled, so we don’t need to agitate. Why not focus on studies instead?... I don’t think we need andolans or elections.”