When the students rise

A student protests the CAA in Gauhati   | Photo Credit: AP

On the afternoon of Tuesday, December 17, two days after the police invasion that galavanised students across India to hit the streets, protests are in full swing outside the gates of Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) in New Delhi. It is a disciplined protest. Student volunteers stationed every dozen metres or so keep the protesters on one side of the road so that traffic is minimally affected. Others distribute bottled water. Some help pedestrians navigate the crowd to get to where they want.

The Indian flag is everywhere, waved by students chanting, “We want justice” and Inquilab Zindabad. The placards express the whole gamut of emotion, from a sober ‘No CAA, No NRIC’, to ‘Shame on Delhi Police’, to a poster, in the hands of a bespectacled girl student that simply said, ‘Blind leaders and blood-feeders’. The demonstrators have two simple demands: justice for the students of Jamia and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) who were beaten by the police on Sunday, December 15; and a rollback of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA).

Tahir Akhtar, 24, one of the protesters, is a JMI alumnus, class of 2018. He works at Barclays. “What are you doing here?” I ask him. “Don’t you have to go to work?” He shakes his head. “I was born and brought up in India. I haven’t come here from Pakistan or Afghanistan. Why should I prove that I am an Indian? If I am not able to prove it, I will lose my citizenship. But members of every other community except Muslims will get citizenship through the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. They are doing this to communalise things.”

But how long can they keep up the protest? What if the government doesn’t withdraw the CAA? “I haven’t been to work for a week,” says Akhtar. “I’ve taken leave to protest. I have informed my manager that I have to fight this law, fight for my life.”

At the crime scene

The gates of JMI are all shut and the guards won’t let anyone in. It takes a visit to the Chief Proctor’s office to obtain entry into the campus. Jamia’s central library, named after the former President of India and founder of JMI, Zakir Hussain, will turn 100 next year. Forty-eight hours after it was stormed by policemen, it resembles a crime scene.

It’s only five in the evening, but the steps leading to the entrance are deserted. At the doorway, the flower pots, smashed to pieces, have spilled their muddy entrails on the floor. Amid the jagged pieces of terracotta, shards of metal, a broken lathi, and someone’s ID card, and beside a glass panel completely missing the glass, lies a torn placard that pleads in capital letters, ‘SAY NO TO VIOLENCE’. Another one, a few feet away, says, ‘No Stone-Pelting’. Clearly, somebody, or something, has had a violent disagreement right here with some advocates of non-violence. In the main foyer inside, beneath the gaping holes in the book display, the Prime Minister’s visage, on the cover of Narendra Modi — A Charismatic & Visionary Statesman, peers unsmilingly into the distance. Under the label ‘New Arrivals’ are large, weapon-like pieces of broken glass.

“This library’s main entrance was closed on Sunday evening,” says Iqbal Mehndi, 25, the security guard on duty. That might explain why the cops had to break in. He gestures toward the reading room. “The police threw bricks to break those windows. Then they flung tear gas shells into the reading room, entered from different sides, and thrashed the students with batons,” says Mehndi.

Activists from the Students’ Federation of India protest the CAA in Kochi

Activists from the Students’ Federation of India protest the CAA in Kochi   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

The reading room is a vast tangle of overturned chairs, abandoned rucksacks, abandoned textbooks, and abandoned stationery. Tables are stacked haphazardly in one corner — a failed attempt to erect a barricade against the invaders. A couple of broken things look like cameras, but have wires sticking out. “CCTV cameras,” explains Mehndi, pointing to the walls. “They broke as many of those as they could.”

On a darkened patch of floor near one of the windows is a tell-tale remnant of Sunday’s violence — the melted shell of a tear smoke grenade. The label says it was manufactured at the Tear Smoke Unit (TSU) in Tekanpur, Gwalior. These grenades are to be used, the TSU website says, ‘to neutralise agitated crowd in near vicinity of police party’. Their advantages are that they are easy to throw, they generate a large volume of smoke, and ‘the plastic body starts melting on throwing and makes it difficult to throw it back’. TSU’s mission, in its own words, is to ‘help customers harness the power of Less than Lethal Munitions to achieve excellency (sic), customer satisfaction and sustainability’.

Customer satisfaction may have reached a peak inside the Jamia campus on December 15. No matter that the inner confines of a library reading room, marked every few metres with signs such as ‘Please don’t disturb the sitting arrangement’ is not a place one might expect a tear smoke grenade to be used.

Serious injuries

The police’s singular commitment to ‘neutralise’ was such that, according to Jamia’s Chief Proctor Waseem Ahmad Khan, more than 20 students sustained serious injuries. “By serious injuries, I mean students whose hands were shattered, legs were broken, heads were battered,” he explains. “Some have been admitted to Alshifa Hospital, some are in Holy Family Hospital, some in All India Institute of Medical Sciences. An M.Tech student, who was reading quietly in the library, has lost one eye.”

Meanwhile, students from across the country have risen overwhelmingly in solidarity with JMI and AMU students, to condemn the police violence and to oppose the CAA — from AASU in Assam, to IIT-Madras and FTII, Pune.

The National Law School of India University, Bengaluru, condemned the CAA and police brutality against the protests organised by JMI and AMU students. This move, said the Student Bar Association in a statement issued on Tuesday, “is intended to bring about a chilling effect on freedom of speech and to curb dissent”.

At the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, students staged a silent protest holding placards that said ‘We want democracy, not police Raj,’ and ‘Defend the right to protest’. Students and faculty of the Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister, signed by 172 people, about the repression of students protesting against the Act.

Students of the University of Hyderabad were detained on Thursday morning as they tried to reach the venue of a protest meeting.

In solidarity

In Mumbai, over 600 students from Tata Institute of Social Sciences took out a rally on Monday. They were joined by faculty. Outside Mumbai University’s Kalina campus, around 200 people, from a coalition of organisations such as the Social Democratic Party of India and the Students Islamic Organisation, gathered to express solidarity with JMI and AMU students.

Over 100 students of the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, gathered and shouted slogans condemning police brutality. Students of Chennai’s Loyola College too held demonstrations. In Puducherry, members of the Students’ Council of Pondicherry University gathered to demand the immediate release of the detained students.

Protests in Kolkata against the NRC and CAA

Protests in Kolkata against the NRC and CAA   | Photo Credit: REUTERS

At Cochin University of Science and Technology and the Central University of Kerala in Kasaragod, students joined their peers on campuses across the State to support the agitating students of JMI. Members of the Students’ Federation of India and the Kerala Students Union protested at the Calicut University campus and protests were held on campuses under Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam and Pathanamthitta too.

Though it is not illegal for the police to enter a university campus, the standard operating procedure is to take permission first. “The police entered the Jamia campus without permission,” confirms Khan. The Delhi Police have maintained that they entered the campus only to flush out anti-social elements.

“If their intent was to catch anti-social elements, why did they beat up the guards?” asks Mehndi. “Most Jamia guards are ex-servicemen. They had served the country at the border, in extreme conditions. Did they deserve to be beaten like this for doing their assigned duty?”

Is it vengefulness?

There is a widespread sense that the police crackdown was disproportionately violent. “You know, even for using lathis, there are norms,” says Shikha Kapoor, Associate Professor in the Department of Adult and Continuing Education and Extension, JMI. “Typically you target the lower half of the body, the legs, to intimidate crowds into dispersing. It’s understandable if people get hit on the legs. But here, they have bludgeoned students on the head with lathis. How do you explain this — is it vengefulness or law enforcement? Forget the physical injuries. Can you imagine the mental trauma these youngsters must deal with for the rest of their lives?”

Mohammed Mustafa, 26, an M.A. student, has both his hands in plaster. A native of West Champaran in Bihar, he came to Delhi and enrolled in Jamia because he wanted to become a civil servant. On that fateful Sunday evening, as he sat in the first floor reading room of the old library building, preparing for the UPSC exams, little did he know that his life was about to change, thanks to the actions of some civil servants.

“Around 5.30 p.m., the police stormed the library. They started beating us mercilessly. I told them I have nothing to do with the protests. They wouldn’t listen. I tried to protect my head with my hands. They hit me so hard that both my hands are broken,” he says. A friend lifts Mustafa’s shirt to reveal the deep welt marks left by the blows on his back.

Not in Jamia alone

Though aggrieved, almost every Jamia student I speak to makes it a point to stress that what AMU students are going through is far worse. “They were stripped and beaten. They were tortured. I can send you videos and testimonies,” says Akhtar. There is a general sense that AMU and Jamia were systematically targeted because they are minority institutions. “There were men with the police who were not in uniform. They were also beating up our students. Who were they?” asks Khan.

“The police even barged into a reading room meant exclusively for women students. Some women have complained of molestation,” says Raihan Shahid, 25, a student of International Relations at JMI, who was in the library at the time of the attack. He shows me around the reading room in Ibn Sina Block, which saw the worst of the police excesses. In addition to broken windows, broken chairs, and broken cameras, there are bloodstains on the staircase, and on the walls. The washbasins in the toilet are filled with shards of what used to be mirrors. On the floor are balls of crumpled tissue soaked in red.

In the far corner of the reading room just outside the toilet, under a desk are a pair of fashionable-looking heels. On another desk, an abandoned leather handbag. There are pens, pencils, erasers, and sample question papers on several of the desks. Torn pages of a notebook are strewn across the floor. I pick one up at random. The words, in blue cursive handwriting, are uneven but clear. “Tell me something about yourself,” reads a question at the top of the page. The answer begins right below. “My name is Farha Parveen. I am from Sherkot. My mother’s name is Halima Khatoon. She is a homemaker. My hobbies are preparing food and listening to music. My goal, I want to be a teacher…”

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 2:13:13 PM |

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