On January 5, a mob armed with sticks, iron rods and acid bottles spread terror in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) as it went on a rampage, beating up students and professors and vandalising property.
Traumatised students locked themselves in hostel rooms and washrooms as SOS messages from JNU poured across social media platforms.
The attackers, who had their faces covered, severely injured 20 students and five professors of the varsity considered one of the most prestigious institutions in India.
These assailants, according to several witnesses, were associated with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad — a student body linked to India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
While the attack in JNU sent out shockwaves, drawing condemnations from across political parties in India, this was not an isolated incident. Three prestigious Indian universities — Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University, and now JNU — have witnessed violence in a period of less than one month.
This chain of events began on December 15, 2019, when Delhi police personnel barged into the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), allegedly roughing up students and vandalising the central library of the university.
As the news spread, students from other varsity campuses in Delhi — JNU, Delhi University and Ambedkar University — came in support of JMI students.
Earlier that day, students of JMI had gathered for a march against the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed by the Indian parliament three days earlier on December 12.
The CAA grants citizenship to “persecuted” religious minorities (except Muslims) from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The Act, described as discriminatory by many, including the United Nations, is seen as a prelude to the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
The current government has pledged pan-India implementation of the NRC to identify “illegal immigrants”. Detention centres to house those who do not make it into the NRC are already under construction in a few states in India.
While protests against the CAA had begun at the iconic Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in Uttar Pradesh on December 13, the news of severe police action in Jamia further enraged students.
Almost 500 to 700 students gathered to protest near the university’s main gate. According to A*, who is pursuing B-Tech at the varsity, police and the anti-riot force entered the campus while the protest was underway, wreaking havoc and injuring dozens of students. “I have never witnessed such brutality in my life. They beat us like animals,” he said.
Soon, protests against the CAA spread to campuses and several cities and towns across India. While demonstrations continue in several states post the Jamia attack, nearly 20 people have lost their lives, allegedly during police crackdowns, in the two states of Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh.
The clampdown on protestors and civilians in Uttar Pradesh has been the most severe. Apart from 18 reported deaths, dozens have been arrested and hundreds remain detained after the chief minister of the state, Yogi Adityanath, a fiery monk, threatened "revenge" against "rioters".
Days later, the chief minister’s office defended Adityanath’s actions by tweeting: "Every rioter is shocked. Every demonstrator is stunned. Everyone has been silenced after seeing Yogi Adityanath government's strict actions.”
However, despite the crackdown and arrests, the protests against CAA continue in several parts of India, bringing together students, civil society members and celebrities, including those from Bollywood.
In Delhi, the JMI campus is one of the key sites of protests. Since December 15, every day at around 11am, demonstrations begin near Gate 7 of the university, now referred by the media as ‘Jamia Square’, a reference to Tahrir Square of Cairo.
‘Jamia Square’ functions like a well-oiled machine. It stays abuzz all day with songs, slogans, poems and speeches. Ordinary citizens, politicians and celebrities come in batches to be part of the protests that continue until 5:30pm.
Amid the electrifying crowds, volunteers serve tea, samosas and food, ensure a passage to traffic, and clean the protest site every day after they wind up, only to begin again the next day. The organisers, the Jamia Coordination Committee — comprising mostly students, spend nights coordinating with people, chalking out schedules for the next day and, most importantly, working on ways to keep the morale going.
Not far from JMI, hundreds of demonstrators sit in the open as part of an ongoing non-violent protest since December 15. This women-led movement has endured one of the harshest winters in decades.
The steadfastness and grit of the women in Delhi's Shaheen Bagh have not only given a face to an otherwise neglected part of the city but have also countered stereotypes and the ‘otherness’ often associated with this Muslim-majority locality. The protest draws people, many first-timers to the area.
‘Jamia Square’ and Shaheen Bagh have become the epicentres of demonstrations against the CAA in Delhi and have emerged as new sites of political activity.
They have also brought forth new modes and languages of protest. At these protest sites, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Habib Jalib echo in the air as protesters carry portraits of M K Gandhi, Bhagat Singh and B R Ambedkar — the chief architect of the Indian constitution — forging a unity that the political parties in the opposition have largely failed to achieve.
An assistant professor at JMI opines that while she cannot predict the course of these protests, it is clear that such demonstrations have led to solidarity. Requesting anonymity, she said, “The right-wing uses a crass narrative, which is divisive. It can possibly be countered by pluralistic means that bring people together.”
JMI is not new to resistance. Founders of this university, established as a part of the Non-Cooperation Movement in the 1920s, have fought against the British during India’s independence struggle.
However, the varsity has witnessed assaults earlier as well. Two students of JMI and one inspector of Delhi police had lost their lives in a controversial encounter in 2008.
Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, had criticised the university, accusing it of footing the “legal fee of terrorists”, after the varsity decided to provide legal support to its students in the police encounter in the vicinity.
Neyaz Farooque, author of the acclaimed book ‘An Ordinary Man's Guide to Radicalism: Growing up Muslim in India’, says the recent protests and assertion seen in JMI is a reflection of the fact that the university has largely fought back the initial setback after the Batla House encounter. However, he thinks, “The age-old stereotypes and bigotry against Muslims, and by extension the JMI, is so pervasive that it will not diminish so easily.”
As JMI stands stereotyped, JNU has also become a constant target for the right and ultra-right-wing in India. The witch-hunt against JNU began in February 2016, following an event organised on the campus against the capital punishment of Indian parliament attack convict Afzal Guru.
Despite its high academic standards, JNU and its students have been vilified by a section of the media, being called 'anti-nationals' and ‘urban-Naxals’.
Politicians belonging to the current regime have even urged the government to shut down the varsity for a few years, terming it as a hub of 'immoral' and 'anti-India' activities. Apart from assaults from the outside, an ongoing tussle between the varsity administration and students and faculty has also affected academic activities on campus.
In June last year, Avijit Pathak, a professor of Sociology at JNU, in a scathing account referred to the environment at the university as "toxic" due to actions of the "competent authority".
Many in the university have been lamenting the systematic degradation of the vibrant culture and political positions that the JNU has been known for.
Since 2016, funding for many centres, including the varsity's library, has been cut. The number of research scholars per faculty has been reduced. Timings of hostels and famous dhabas of the university are being regulated. Political and social graffiti that gave the campus a unique character is under the constant scanner of the administration, while its vice chancellor wants a decommissioned military tank on the campus to “instill nationalism”.
If these measures were not enough, the university administration significantly hiked the hostel and mess fee last November, making JNU the most expensive central university in India.
The hike, students and faculty members say, will severely impact almost 40 per cent of the varsity's students who come from underprivileged backgrounds. Since November, students at the campus have engaged in prolonged protests, seeking a rollback of the fee hike. When the students tried to reach the parliament to press for their demands, they were met with force, resulting in injuries to many.
Historically, JNU students have a reputation of not giving up fights easily. Two days after the January 5 episode, the university campus hosted an event where faculty and current and former students addressed a huge gathering and the media.
Among them stood its former student union president Kanhaiya Kumar, who shot to the limelight in the aftermath of the February 2016 ‘Afzal Guru event’. While recounting the role of JNU in India’s political history, Kumar declared that the “government has committed a grave mistake by knowingly or unknowingly choosing an enemy with brains”, and that the students will fight back.
In the 1970s, university students, including many leaders of today’s BJP, played a significant role in the Jayaprakash Narayan (JP)-led movement against the declaration of emergency in India at the time.
That movement not only challenged the power of then prime minister Indira Gandhi but also shaped the socio-political scenario in India for years to come.
Almost 25 years later, today, with students from across campuses backing each other and with civil society and several celebrities throwing their weight behind students, many say the ongoing protests might turn into BJP’s ‘JP Movement’.
Nakul Sawhney, a well-known documentary filmmaker and social activist, says that while he cannot predict the future of current protests, he thinks this movement is unique.
“While CAA targets a religious community, the current movement counters it by bringing all communities together. This student-led movement is crucial. It has to be engaged with and seized,” he added.