A "Messy" Protest and some CM intrusion
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well if one has not dined well.” Considering Virginia Woolf, while quoting this, might not have sauntered through the halls of the gallant messes of our grandiose institute and peeped through round-the-clock bustling kitchens, unsuspecting outsiders stay largely oblivious to the teething troubles curtained behind those infallible mess counters! Just akin to nimble machinery that services over thousands of its customers multiple times every single day, our very own IIT-B messes have established a benchmark of diligence and punctuality, if not for quality :P A lifeline to all the residents of the campus, occasionally even this formidable machinery breaks down, the ripples of which etch themselves everlastingly into the pages of history!
The late 70s was a volatile time for the country, the institute, and its messes. Mirroring the mood of the nation that had freshly emerged from the Emergency period commotion, and with the brewing mistrust and discord permeating between several institute unions and the administration, strife was inevitable. With the institute functioning sans any notable disruption in its former two decades of existence, be it academic or administrative, the two-week closure of the institute that happened in March 1980 was unprecedented and elicited a sense of forlornness even decades later. Even though earlier in 1965 there had been a 10-day mess worker’s strike, it was tackled in a climate of reconciliation, negotiation, and peace with the institute’s staff and their families volunteering to keep the kitchens running.
In March 1980, anticipating unrest and counterproductivity due to an influx of casual workers who might demand permanent employment later, the institute administration saw it fit to expel workers who had served for less than six months. Reflecting the prevailing atmosphere of confrontation and chaos, and abetted by a few radical students, the mess workers went on strike and threw the student life into disarray. Concurrently, by sheer chance, the institute also had to oust four undergraduates for failing to comply with academic standards, thereby evoking some students and the academic staff to come out in support which intensified the protests even further.
Hunger strikes were organized, classes were boycotted, and director De’s office was gheraoed with students upholding their charter of demands. A record sixty-three "high-strung" general body meetings (GBMs) were held in the institute’s ten hostels over a period of just four days. With even a few members of non-teaching staff jumping into the bandwagon, IIT-Bombay was in a state of siege! In the words of the then DoSA Prof J.R. Isaac, he along with the director was "literally kept locked in the office from the morning - with students sitting on the ground, blocking all exits". The police were called to escort them out, the Ministry was contacted and the institute was closed with immediate effect.
The average student, a scapegoat in this conundrum, was asked to vacate their hostels within three days until the situation cooled off. Even with the situation diffused and normalcy restored within three weeks, a trail of bitterness and mutual recrimination ensued leaving the institute psychologically polarized, fracturing its inner harmony and uninterrupted functioning.
However, given the institute’s history, not all the “messy” conflicts have been despondent or devoid of elation, some of them even foreshadowed a glimpse of quintessential leadership. The tenure as the H-4 mess secretary of the illustrious former defense minister Manohar Parrikar was not without incidents. Inaugurating his political career through a hostel rebellion against the prosaic and unvarying ‘sabudana’ pakoras served for tea, the stalwart vanquished the mess election against the general secretary. A stickler for accounts, many a time he even caught the mess workers stealing potatoes, onions, and tomatoes in their lungis.
One of the most notable episodes during his tenure was the flash strike by the mess workers, well before the infamous one in 1980. Parrikar unfazed by this sudden development stormed into the kitchen with 40 of his comrades and cooked meals for the entire hostel. With some of his mates still recounting the lunch as one of the best-cooked meals they’ve ever had, the workers were left aghast and returned to their work immediately after that. No doubt the Madhouse’s mess secretary, whose prime focus has been said to bring down the mess bills, progressed to be listed as one of the most inspirational and incorruptible leaders of the country.
With food being one of the strongest elements that bind people together, the above two contrasting anecdotes serve as a testament that the journey from the kitchen to the plate has not always been so rosy!