By Towfeeq Wani:
Having lived for many years in hostels, my sack of memories is mostly filled with my life in a residence hall. Over all these years I kept changing institutions and hostels to defy any attempt of settling at one particular place. As such, whenever I board a new hostel, I have what I call a ‘scale of comparison’ in my mind. I weigh every new place on this scale with the previous places I have stayed in.
Two years ago, when I got a chance to stay in the Hall of Residence for Boys of Jamia Millia, they said I was one of the lucky 1200 boys since the Hall can accommodate no more than that. My friends, who were not selected for the same, decided to live in rented rooms and flats in Jamia Nagar locality, around the University. Most of my mates were living in the hostel for the first time in their lives.
Two years later, they often tell me how living in a hostel completely changed them, for good as well as bad. For me, that had happened many ago. Now I despise having to hear and read such stories where students narrate how hostels changed all their habits and personality, and how they will miss it all their lives.
However, having said that, a few experiences which I had in my new hostel did change the way I understand the politics behind different actions. Experiencing less and observing more has helped me understand that nothing is devoid of politics and that every act is but a political one.
Having spent a few weeks in my new hostel, I observed that everyone working there belonged to the Muslim community. The warden, caretakers, mess workers, gardeners – all of them. I supposed this was how a Muslim minority institution functioned. Even though we had (and have) a lot of students from other communities living there, many of whom are my friends, there was nobody from other communities among the workers.
One fine morning, still half asleep, I noticed that the sweeper who came almost every day to clean our room was a Hindu. I could tell this from the different threads he wore on his wrist. It was no less than a revelation. I had finally spotted someone I had wanted to all this time. Moments later, when he had left the room, I was perturbed as it dawned on me that a person from a majority community was a sweeper or a janitor at the most, in a minority institution. At the same time, those belonging to the minority community held posts that I considered better off. Was it a reversal of sorts?
In the coming weeks, I noticed that not only him but all the other sweepers I saw were what I would describe as Hindus. In the meantime, I got friendly with the one who cleaned our room in the mornings, but I could never muster the courage to ask him what I suspected.
After a few months, I got a chance to visit Aligarh Muslim University, where I had studied earlier. As I sat with my friends, rekindling our memories, I told one of them about my observation. He wasn’t surprised at all. Instead, he asked me how come I hadn’t noticed that in Aligarh itself. He told me that they belonged to what the Hindus considered the lower caste. I was aghast! This is not what I had suspected at all. Of course, they were being paid for the job they were doing, but to think that they still were not able to break free from the strict caste and class divisions was alarming for me.
This incident taught me that there are so many minorities within a majority who are worse off than the larger minority itself. These people are often the most neglected. It also taught me that these manmade divisions and hierarchical orders creep up in every corner of the society, even in unimaginable places.
Once inside the Jamia hostel premises, it didn’t take me more than a few hours to notice that it was a walled enclosure. All around the hostel campus, there was a thick stone or brick wall. Over that, angle iron braces had been erected to support concertina wires further. Surveillance cameras had been installed at the entrance of every hostel.
At first, I thought it was meant for the safety and security of the students. Walls and concertina wires had probably been put in place to prevent the locals of Jamia Nagar or elsewhere to trespass on the university property. Things that are more loved, they told us, were to be protected in a ‘better’ way.
However, what they forgot to mention in this often repeated narrative is that humans do not qualify as mere things. They are not like gold bars you need to secure in Fort Knox. Too much ‘security’ leads to interference, which in turn ensures captivity, both of physical and psychological nature.
As months passed by and proving your identity at the hostel gates got more and more irritating, I understood what many students meant when they called Jamia a ‘security state.’ Similarly, in August 2015, when the residents of Hall of Residence for Girls raised voice against the sexist hostel policies for the umpteenth time, the administration reminded us yet again that it was for our own safety and security. Every night, as I sit on the balcony of my room overlooking the jungle of concrete that Jamia Nagar has become, I ponder over how much of security really makes us secure and at what point do we feel insecure due to excessive security.
While settling in my room on one of my first few days at the hostel, I opened the cupboard they had allocated to me. Before I was to fill it with my clothes and other belongings, I noticed a small poster of a certain student political organisation glued to its inside. At first, I thought a lover or a follower of this certain political organisation might have put it up there.
But then, it struck me, why inside the cupboard? I really could not answer this one for a long time. A year later, as I was researching for a story about the student politics of Jamia Millia, I came to know that the Students’ Union elections had last been banned in 2006, and there is little or no ‘political’ activity allowed on the campus. Guards keep roaming around, observing and monitoring the activities of the students. They have been vested with the authority to declare any assembly of students as unlawful, as and when they deem fit. Sometimes they even mistake the birthday songs as cries of unjust freedom and rebellion.
As I found out, the small poster inside the cupboard, as such, was metaphorical. It revealed to me at our very first encounter the state of affairs of the student politics on campus – that it’s hidden inside closets, if even present at all. Only that it took me some time to understand it.
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