It happened without warning. Some of us had returned to Delhi a fortnight before University was to reopen that fateful summer of ’75. The Emergency had been declared on June 25 while I was still on the train from Calcutta. There was a palpable air of eerienes on the Campus; in fact over Delhi as a whole. Then the bombshell hit us. College was going co-ed. For us it was almost a world turned upside down. It was the end of history. Catastrophe. Apocalyse. Doomsday. All rolled into one.
Looking back all this seems rather hilarious. I don’t know why we feared women so. But at the time we probably felt that the female of the species would lose its mystique. It was something like the dissonance caused by visualising your girlfriend brushing her teeth. In your teens, you don’t quite want to think of your girlfriend like that. At least our generation had such hang-ups. So, we worried about dressing up at the crack of dawn. No more jumping out of bed, hurriedly draping oneself in a kurta and rushing into KRC’s 8-40 class in tousled hair and crumpled pyjamas. Women were fine after class hours. In the cafe or the coffee house or, better still, at Cellar in CP.
Maybe, us Rez types also felt a pang of jealousy thinking about the dayscholars who would get to travel with co-eds on Univ specials. So, they would have an unfair advantage. In fact, the tables would be turned because, till then we held the upper hand: Women were allowed into rooms during daylight hours with the Block Tutor’s consent and the door kept open. This concession had been wrested from a reluctant Principal Rajpal in my first year (1972-73). Barely two years later, it would get withdrawn. We had every reason to resent the entry of women.
As Secretary and Chancellor of the Union in 1974-75, I was made to feel responsible for putting up sandbags against this impending deluge. Besides, I was running for President that year and the only issue was the entry of women. In our heart of hearts we knew protest was futile. Apart from the fact that the decision was official and women were swarming the corridors for admission interviews, the Emergency quelled any prospect of widespread protest action. But my election advisers were dead sure I was on a winning ticket thanks to my stand.
Whatever happens in Stephen’s makes news. At least, it used to. Newspapers and Magazines were full of stories about the imminent fall of DU’s last respectable male bastion. That was the first time I was interviewed by a magazine as prospective Union president. JS was still the reigning magazine and imagine my thrill when the interview appeared with a photo to boot. I got some 20 letters from friends in Calcutta complimenting my first media appearance but simultaneously blasting my stance.
Finally, D-Day arrived. Some 16 girls trooped into College amid unprecedented media attention. But they received a cold reception from us boys. Cafe seemed dead. For the first few days, women sat clustered in gender-divided groups. We had to be careful with language, attire, manners. “We’re back in school,” was the distressed remark of the male majority. My electoral opponent was reviled as “chamcha” for welcoming their entry. He didn’t have much hope anyway and his goose was cooked by his stance. In the event, there was no general election as decreed by the Government. A representative council was called where I was unanimously elected.
About three weeks had passed. The girls didn’t seem too bad really. They were rather friendly, a bit in awe of the fact that they were in “The” College. Gradually, the level of our hostility dropped; they almost became one of the boys. Now, 25 years later, I can say our fears were misplaced. And, as the cliche goes, some of them, Amrita Cheema and Poonam Saxena, for instance, are among my best friends even now.
Chandan Mitra, Publisher & Editor of The Pioneer, studied BA (Hons.) Economics and MA History at St. Stephen’s College between 1972 and 1977. He is the father of Kushan Mitra, a (well known!) IIIrd year English (Hons.) student.