As he strides through the small lane leading to his dhaba, Mohammad Shahzad Ibrahimi, or Mamu as he is fondly known by students of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), looks like a man on a mission. Pleasantries and a few cups of tea later, Mamu recounts his oft-told story about how he came to open a dhaba inside the campus despite being a PhD in Urdu from the university.
After college, Mamu, who is in his early 40s, went to work with an Urdu news channel in Hyderabad, where lengthy debates would break out even over the pronunciation of a word. Realising that the politics at the workplace was bogging him down, Mamu decided to request for a transfer to Delhi, where his wife, another JNU student, lived. He was granted the transfer and moved back near his alma mater.
In Delhi, too, Mamu found the north-south divide at office disorienting. “People in that office would spend so much valuable time debating on the north-south divide, and you could see that it did not matter. So one day, I just woke up and quit. I realised then that a job is not my cup of tea,” he says. Mamu did not know what to do, but he sure knew where he wanted to be. “I wanted to get back inside JNU, because the ideals that run this institution are totalitarian. They do not require you to be of a particular kind,” he says.
And so, he went to the authorities with support from teachers and students at JNU, and asked them to grant him some place to start a dhaba. With the support he had drummed up, the authorities gave him a shop inside the administration block, and hence started JNU’s now famous Mamu ka Dhaba. Go to Mamu’s dhaba on any evening, and you will find students sipping on cold coffee and debating over plates of Maggi as they fight post-college lull. Mamu’s dhaba, one of the many on the campus but the only one run by someone who has a doctorate in Urdu, is in its 14th year now.
Despite its legendary status, Mamu ka Dhaba has not had a smooth run. Soon after he began his eatery inside the administration block, some officials complained of safety hazards and the smell of food. “I approached the authorities asking them to let me construct my own dhaba on the campus,” he says. They agreed, and Mamu borrowed money to construct a new space on the sprawling, picturesque campus. He paid Rs85,000 towards the construction himself and was assured that this would be adjusted in lieu of his electricity bill and rent. Five years later, Mamu alleges, he was sent an electricity bill of Rs120,000. He says he paid the amount, only to have another bill of Rs200,000 for rent a couple of years later.
“This was in clear violation of the assurance they gave me, which is in writing,” he says.
Mamu is not alone in this conflict. JNU has been in the news in the last few days for sending out eviction notices to the owners of the campus’ oldest eatery, Ganga Dhaba, and the Bittu recharge and utility shop. The Campus Development Council (CDC), in its last meeting, proposed that the allotment be given as per the highest bidder basis, which is a flight from the university’s pro-poor policy.
Outraged students have been protesting with various unions, issuing notices in support. Repeated attempts to get in touch with the JNU administration went in vain.
It now remains to be see whether Mamu can dodge this bullet.