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Delhi University at 100: Staging ground of history, scholarly success & coffee-shop romances

Delhi University marks its centenary in May 2022. One of 40 central universities, DU is a big draw for students from across India & is counted as one of its premier institutions.

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New Delhi: What the rock band Indian Ocean’s bassist Rahul Ram remembers best about Delhi University is its annual flower competition. 

Ram’s parents were professors at the university and he grew up on the campus, with its serene surroundings and professors and their families living together in close quarters.

“Every year, the university would hold a flower competition where all professors and staff would compete for the best flowers and the best garden,” Ram told ThePrint. “Every member of staff would be allotted a plot to beautify, and in a bid to compete, hours would be spent on looking after the patches.”

Delhi University, or DU, marks its centenary in May 2022. More than 4 lakh students competed for DU’s 70,000 seats in this academic year.

But what is it that makes DU — one of 40 central universities — such a big draw for students from across India? Could it be its history? Or is it the range of courses — 80 departments and as many colleges?

Could the draw be its location, right in the national capital? Is it the sense of newfound freedom, the free-spirited discussions, and camaraderie? 

As DU completes 100 years, ThePrint looks at its history, how the university has evolved and why it remains a coveted centre of learning for thousands of students from across the country.  

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DU’s history 

Delhi University as we know it today was established in 1922 — although its South Campus came up only in 1973 — as a unitary, teaching, and residential university by an Act of British India’s legislature, the Central Legislative Assembly.

The three original constituent colleges of the University of Delhi were St Stephen’s College — established by a missionary initiative, the Cambridge Mission to Delhi, in 1881 — the Hindu College founded in 1899, and Ramjas College, which was established on 14 May 1917 by educationist and philanthropist Rai Kedar Nath. 

All three colleges were previously affiliated with the University of the Punjab.

Debraj Mookerjee, an associate professor of English literature whose association with DU goes back four decades, said the three colleges catered to three different classes of students.

“While going through the archives at Ramjas College I found that St Stephen’s College generally catered to the children of British officials, while children of rich, well-read Indians studied at the Hindu College. Ramjas College catered to middle-class, working students who aimed to grow by learning,” he said.

It was the middle-class students of Ramjas who started the trend of working as newspaper delivery boys, throwing tubes of paper into the balconies of residents in Daryaganj, to earn an extra buck on the side, he said. 

As for the university itself, it began in a building that now houses the Ritz Cinema at Kashmere Gate, said Dinesh Singh, who was DU’s vice-chancellor from 2010 to15 . 

In 1933, the erstwhile Viceregal Lodgewhere the Gandhi-Irwin Pact had been signed two years before — became part of the university’s property. The colonial mansion now houses the vice-chancellor’s office.

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DU’s part in the Indian freedom movement 

The university had a significant part to play in the Indian independence movement, and stood witness to several landmark moments in its — and India’s — history. The ‘DU History Project’ is an attempt to capture just these moments.    

Professor Amrit Kaur Basra, who’s part of the team that’s currently going through DU’s archives, walked us through them. 

Take the Viceregal Lodge. Although the colonial mansion was built in 1902, the hunting lodge that predated it was a hiding place for British officials during the sepoy mutiny of 1857. 

It was in a dungeonlike and windowless room under the Viceregal Lodge that Bhagat Singh was confined after the Central Assembly Bombings of 8 April, 1929, and it was in that very building that he was tried, Basra said.

The university’s constituent colleges also played their parts in the independence movement. 

Students of Ramjas College hid the revolutionary Chandra Shekhar Azad when he was evading the British government. 

“He had disguised himself as a Sikh student and was living in the hostel under the warden’s protection,” Basra said.

Hindu College, which was initially set up in a humble building in Kinari Bazar, Chandni Chowk, was a place of great political debate during India’s independence movement. Its students were actively involved in the Quit India Movement of 1942, Basra told us.  

After India achieved its independence, Ramjas College collaborated with Lahore University to start evening classes for students coming in from across the border, Mookerjee said.

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Coffee, burgers, and college romance

Swapan Dasgupta, an alumnus, well-known political commentator, and former MP, claimed that the DU campus is on par with those of some international universities where he eventually went on to study. Dasgupta graduated from the university in 1975, completed further studies at the School of Oriental Studies, University of London, and went on to do postdoctoral work at Oxford.

For many, their experience at the Delhi University campus was the most “freeing and liberating” time of their lives. 

Rahul Ram, who studied at St Stephen’s in the 70s, recalled the times he would hop onto a bus to travel around Delhi, because hardly any students owned a vehicle at the time. 

“In the 70s and 80s, owning a two-wheeler was rare among students,” he said. “Some boys would ride the old two-stroke bike, Rajdoot, but that was about it”.

Several St Stephen’s alumni spoke nostalgically about the coffee shops near Miranda House and Indraprastha College — both women’s colleges. These coffee shops became the starting point for many college romances. Burgers used to cost 50 paise and a masala dosa was Re 1, said Ram.

Fellow St Stephen’s alumnus Mani Shankar Aiyar, a Congress leader and former diplomat, spoke fondly of the time that Stephen’s students spent around Miranda House, Lady Irwin College, or Indraprastha College.

Aiyar met his wife Suneet Vir Singh, then a student at Lady Irwin, at a declamation contest.

Ram recalled the mince patties at the university canteen. “In those days, chicken wasn’t as easily available as mutton,” he said. “And if you wanted to eat these mutton patties, you would have to save up.”

In the days when public displays of affection were strictly looked down upon, romance took on a different form.

“In those days, you’d find no couples walking around hand in hand,” Ram said. “But every evening outside girls’ hostels, we would witness shy goodbyes between couples.”

College festivals were as much a rage then as they are now. Delhi University has more than 10 festivals held across various campuses over the year. Winter festivals may now be a thing of the past, but they live on in memory.

It’s these festivals that gave birth to Rahul Ram’s love for public performance.

“I played for a college fest for the first time with a jazz band when I was in Class 11,” Ram said. “We used to attend college fests and used to watch their performances wide-eyed in awe. The college fest that I first played in allowed one non-DU member and I joined them. After that, I became a regular and would play with rock and jazz bands at college fests.”

And even then, student interactions were as driven by college ‘hierarchies’ as they are now.

Students of the so-called ‘top colleges’ — St Stephen’s, Miranda House, Sri Ram College of Commerce, Hansraj College — wouldn’t interact with those colleges that were considered “lower-ranked”, said a former student. And the rivalry between St Stephen’s and Hindu College remains a thing of legend.

Aiyar spoke about how his alma mater, St Stephen’s, saw itself as a cut above the rest.

“The college had distanced itself from Delhi University so much that none of us Stephen’s boys could join the students’ union, nor did the professors join the DU teachers’ union,” laughed Aiyar. “We even had a joke about Hindu College that went, ‘Why did the chicken cross the road? Because it found itself in Hindu College.’”

Where did this sense of superiority come from? Perhaps from the fact that the institution predates the university, Aiyar said.

But life wasn’t always dictated by petty rivalries, and many friendships went beyond the boundaries of a college — such as the one between Dasgupta and then-Stephen’s student Shashi Tharoor, now a Congress MP. 

 “I remember making several friends who were from different colleges, and ours turned out to be a friendship that lasted a lifetime,” Dasgupta told ThePrint. “I still remember though Shashi (Tharoor) and I had different ideologies, we would always be up for a debate or a conversation. I remember how (the late BJP leader and Union minister) Arun Jaitley led the students’ movement during the Emergency and we become friends at the time.”

Professor Mukherjee recalled a time in college when he intervened to save a junior from being ragged.

 “I saved one of my juniors from getting ragged in college and took him for a coffee,” he said. “I even met Aamir Khan when Sarfarosh was being shot on the campus. My journey at DU has been a very interesting one.”

The “junior” he happened to save went on to become one of Bollywood’s biggest icons: Shah Rukh Khan. 

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Glowing reputation

Delhi University has its own charter, written by its then (1938-1950) vice chancellor, Maurice Gwyer — who was also Chief Justice of India from 1937 to 1943 — said former V-C Dinesh Singh.

Gwyer is also credited with the establishment of Miranda House in 1948. 

Singh believes it’s an academic vision — as Gwyer displayed — that’s the mark of a good vice-chancellor.

After the South Campus was set up in 1973, Singh said, DU became the hub of some extraordinary life sciences research that came to be recognised internationally. 

“A reliable, affordable test for HIV, and genome sequencing of rice as a part of global efforts were some of the efforts made by the departments in South Campus,” he said. 

Today, DU’s colleges are consistently at the top of the Union Education Ministry’s National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF). In 2021, in the ‘college’ category, Miranda House was at the top, followed by Lady Shri Ram College. There are three other DU colleges in the top 10 — St Stephen’s, Hindu, and Shri Ram College of Commerce. 

Student politics

Although never quite as politically inclined as Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), DU has had its fair share of political mobilisation. According to Singh, being in the national capital meant visits from eminent leaders, such as when Nehru would walk on DU’s lawns during his frequent visits to the campus, or the time Gandhi came to the university to solicit student support.

The period between 1970 and 1975 saw some major students’ and teachers’ movements in DU. In 1973, alumni recall that a violent clash between students resulted in the university shutting down for three months.

During the Emergency in 1975, more than 300 student union leaders — including then Delhi University Students Union president Arun Jaitley — who had participated in the anti-establishment movement launched by Jayaprakash Narayan were sent to jail. 

Dilip Simeon, a former Ramjas College professor, St Stephen’s alumnus and social activist, was a college student in the 1970s. India was still recovering from its war with China, the world was seeing anti-war and anti-imperialist movements, and there was a growing movement for the rights of peasants and workers.

“The impact of the anti-imperialist movements the world over was felt by students at Delhi University. It was the time of radical Left-wing opinion, and it felt like a revolution was coming,” Simeon, who joined the Naxalite movement in the 1970s, told ThePrint.

“The Indian Naxalite movement was a reflection or manifestation of what was happening the world over.  What we saw in India was an attempt to mobilise people as a rural insurgency similar to the one that gave rise to the Chinese People’s Army in the 1930s, but in the Indian context.”

Despite these instances, however, DU’s student movement was never as strong as that of JNU — which is still seen as a Left bastion.

Ram believes this could be because of a fundamental difference in the kinds of students who study at the two institutions.

“JNU is a residential campus while DU on the other hand has more day scholars than hostellers,” Ram said. “This gives the student interactions a different bent, and doesn’t give much space for such student movements to nourish.” 

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The controversies

DU isn’t without its fair share of controversies. It came under some criticism last year for its high cut-off marks for undergraduate courses, but will, like other central universities, conduct a Common University Entrance Test this year

In 2016, DU found itself in the middle of a war-of-words between the BJP and rival political parties over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s academic qualifications. The row that began over allegations of discrepancies in Modi’s BA in Political Science, died down eventually after DU clarified that the prime minister’s degrees, which dated back to 1978, were “authentic”.    

DU implemented a four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP) in 2013 but this was junked by the central government a year later after protests from students. The university resurrected the proposal last year.

In the year 2019-2020, DU suspended its then vice-chancellor Yogesh Tyagi over allegations of corruption. 

The university once again made headlines in 2020 after the institution’s oversight committee removed texts by two renowned Dalit writers, Bama and Sukirtharani, and one by author-activist Mahasweta Devi, from its third-year English literature syllabus.

(Edited By Uttara Ramaswamy)

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