Bond with Jamia stronger now, can’t wait to return, say students

Students protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act at Jamia Millia Islamia, in New Delhi on December 16, 2019.   | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

On a frigid December night, Sarah Khan shot up in her bed, frantically coughing, flailing about in the smoke filling her room from a tear gas shell lobbed in by the police. She knew she had to escape the reading room at the Jamia Millia Islamia, where she was preparing for the next day’s exam. Waking up with a start from the nightmare, she tossed and turned for the next couple of hours before slipping back to sleep in the safety of her house in Bhopal.

Panic attacks, sleeplessness and lack of appetite became the norm for Ms. Khan, 21, a postgraduate student in applied psychology, for days after the campus siege by the Delhi police on December 15, which left in its wake not just shattered windows, battered doors and overturned benches, but also broken students.

“We were like soldiers there. It was like a ritual, reach the protest site at 10 a.m., return by 10 p.m.,” recalls Ms. Khan, who along with hundreds of students stridently opposed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens, on the campus in New Delhi, and back home.

The subsequent unprecedented turn of events took Ms. Khan, now referred to as a krantikari (revolutionary) at home, by surprise: the police lathi-charged students, male personnel did not spare even female students, and worst of all, the campus turned unsafe. Still, Ms. Khan, whose brother lives in Bhopal, and parents in Saudi Arabia, proudly calls Jamia her second home.

For a week at least, she underwent medication for anxiety, and skipped the vacation ritual of meeting relatives. Instead, Ms. Khan remained mostly glued to her phone, keeping track of the nationwide protests on a WhatsApp group. Only daal-chawal (rice with lentils), the first meal after her escape from the violence at the Jamia campus, seemed acceptable, even back home.

Left with two semester exams, the university abruptly declared a vacation following the violent siege, and realising she had to be unhurt for her family’s sake, she returned to the “sleepy” city of Bhopal on December 17. Now, her next exam has been postponed to January 21.

“I can’t wait to go back,” she quips. “I feel like I have abandoned the fight for a cause. I wish I was there at the Shaheen Bagh sit-in, led by women on New Year’s eve.” In Bhopal, as part of an incipient collective of artists and students, Parinde, taking part in protests has become routine for her.

Preparation for her exams have taken a back seat, she says. “I have been following the news, and read the CAA and the rules regarding the National Population Register, and am spreading awareness in the family.”

Her affinity for Jamia, she claims, has intensified after the protests. “As per the ‘us versus them’ principle in psychology, even if you’re divided, when an external force tries to shut you down, you become one. That is how we became one unit,” she explains.

On December 12, when the police lobbed tear-gas shells inside the campus, it was the first inkling that they could come inside too. A handy box of salt was the only protection each student carried. “Rubbing salt on the face, or taking a pinch on the tongue can reduce the effect of tear gas,” says Ms. Khan, who’d borne a sore, freckled face during the protests, being at the forefront most of the time and having faced two shells.

Students set up water points, salt centres and food spots to replenish themselves, before returning to the protest site. “It was like a movie. If it all hadn’t turned violent, we would have flaunted the entire episode as cool. But the way things unravelled, it ceased to be a good memory,” she says, adding that her Kashmiri friends joked morbidly that New Delhi was finally experiencing the Valley’s reality.

Only when campus security guards came running towards students asking for help did they realise the police had breached the gates. And Ms. Khan, who first ran towards the reading room along with a few friends, was whisked away by a stranger to her friend’s apartment. “He was an angel in disguise. There were boys guiding us on the way, on the phone, the whole time, telling us to take right, then left through a maze-like route. We had to be quiet, and were running on our toes, lest the police should hear us. We couldn’t even breathe,” she recalls.

On reaching the apartment at Noor Nagar, they first shut all doors and windows, and prepared some daal-chawal. But the realisation that their fellow students were still bearing the brunt of the police action on campus, quickly dissipated their appetite and they left their plates untouched until about 3 a.m. “It was the longest night of my life. It seemed like a funeral.”

A Development Communication postgraduate student, Paoni Patidar says she is a proud student of Jamia as it showed the country the way. “I want to be a part of protests once I go back,” she adds.

Cautioning her against getting too involved in agitations, her parents have asked her to return to college, which reopened on Monday, at least a week later, so that she could gauge the situation first from friends.

“For at least a week I was mentally disturbed, angry at the situation. And my mother accompanied me to the Iqbal Maidan protest. She could see how much it affected me,” says Ms. Patidar.

The campus won’t be the same again, she adds, “Because my library is broken and there has been bloodshed.”

Sensing the situation spiralling into violence, her parents asked her to return on December 15 morning. “While I was in the train, a friend hiding inside the reading room called me saying ‘the gates were shut, the lights off’. She asked me to open the gates. And some engineering students couldn’t take their exam because of the tear gas,” she recalls.

Journalism students were sending the media videos and writing stories. “On the first day of the protest, I had even video-called parents from the site. But we didn’t know it would turn this bad,” Ms. Patidar says, her voice trailing away.

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 9:17:08 PM |

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