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Have a jam and a sam but give us our dhaba

- ‘Human rights’ crusade at St Stephen’s
The dhaba at St Stephen’s College. Picture by Prem Singh

New Delhi, Oct. 9: As befits a leading campus, the polemics at St Stephen’s have grown serious, tossing about with accusations of UN covenants on human rights being transgressed.

The issue is whether a tin-shack dhaba on the college premises should be allowed to sell chicken rolls with its nimbu paani. The principal says an unappetising “no”; we’ll move the National Human Rights Commission, threaten the alumni.

Like the roll itself, the issue is layered, its somewhat bland exterior coiled round a soul of spice and tang.

It’s about human rights and Stephanian “lore and heritage”, says an online petition to “save” the dhaba — a five-decade-old feature on the campus — that has secured 895 signatures from members of the Association of Old Stephanians.

College administration sources claim the alumni and some teachers are using the dhaba’s 65-year-old owner, Rohtas, as a pawn in their long-running feud against principal Valson Thampu over his decisions such as increasing the reservation for Christians and Dalit Christians.

To many alumni, the dhaba, started by Sukhia and now run by his son Rohtas and grandson Mitrau, is as much about family sentiments as college tradition.

Arjun Mahey, an ex-student whose family have been Stephanians for generations, recalled how his grandfather “desired only one thing” from his deathbed: “Sukhia’s samosas, which my father fetched for him.”

The small shack with space for barely two people to stand is located just outside the college cafeteria, run by the St Stephen’s administration. It traditionally offered just a menu of four: nimbu paani, barfi, samosa and gulab jamun, the last two being fondly called “G-jams” and “hot sams”. The cafeteria’s fare includes rolls, mince cutlets and omelettes.

College authorities say Rohtas and his son “recently” decided to sell chicken and vegetable rolls too, and were told to restrict their menu back to the four traditional items or leave the campus.

“We have a college cafeteria. Today he is selling rolls; tomorrow he will sell hamburgers and then God knows what else,” Thampu said.

Rohtas has stopped selling rolls these three weeks, his plight stirring the alumni enough to launch a “Save Rohtas and Sukhia dhaba” campaign that accuses Thampu of being anti-poor.

Calling the dhaba a “phenomenon” and a “college institution”, the petition says its removal “will be tantamount to a sacrilege”. It cites how all “eminent alumni make it a point to get themselves photographed with him (Rohtas), as the dhaba is considered part of Stephanian lore and heritage”.

Alumni association president Arvind Malhotra alleged Rohtas’s son had been barred from the campus. “The intent seems clear: after Rohtas, the dhaba would cease to exist,” he said, adding: “(It’s) one more reason not to visit the college.”

Rohtas has been tight-lipped and hopes to reach a truce with the authorities so that his son is allowed back in and the family can continue to earn its bread from the dhaba.

People close to him hint that Rohtas believes he has become a pawn in the battle between Thampu and some alumni-supported faculty members that has in the past led many teachers to quit.

Several teachers and former students claim Rohtas has been selling the rolls for the past five years and that the college administration is just looking for an excuse to evict him now. Some current students corroborated seeing Rohtas sell rolls during the couple of years they have been at the college.

His rolls, apparently, never sold well, with the students preferring the cafeteria’s fare. But to alumni like Abu Dhabi-based Ketki Saxena, it’s not about the rolls but the man.

“While everyone is talking about the samosas and nimbu paani, which I honestly don’t think are that great, and the contested chicken rolls which, frankly, I find unpalatable, Rohtasji as a character and a person is irreplaceable,” she said.

Saxena recalled how Rohtas “repays friendship with gestures of infinite sweetness and simplicity, such as when I happened to mention that I was feeling faint before an exam, he, unasked, delegated someone from the café to send me successive glasses of nimbu paani”.

She testified to Rohtas’s gentle sense of humour, saying he calls all smokers “bholi and bhola” — an inoffensive way of saying that it isn’t smart to smoke.

To Mahey, removing the dhaba from the premises would be “a very real act of amputation”, part of a design to remove memories “systematically”.

College officials deny they want to evict Rohtas. They say that when a government audit in June found the college didn’t charge any rent from Rohtas, they prevailed on the auditors to omit this from their report.

“The dhaba is part of college tradition and the administration doesn’t want Rohtas to lose his livelihood,” an official said.

At a recent meeting, the college assured the alumni association the dhaba would stay but insisted it couldn’t sell the rolls.

The alumni association, which considers everyone among the college’s 10,000-odd former students a member, wields considerable prestige. It boasts in its ranks luminaries such as Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, bureaucrat-turned-MP N.K. Singh, and politicians Sitaram Yechury and Mani Shankar Aiyar.

The dhaba campaign, however, does not have official backing from any politician or bureaucrat.