Today marks exactly one year since the horrific display of brutality by Delhi Police on a revered space of education that’s supposed to function as a bastion of free speech and democratic discourse. On 15 December 2019, Delhi police unleashed their callousness on Jamia Milia Islamia in New Delhi, leaving several students injured and the campus almost destroyed. The incident attracted widespread criticism and set off nationwide protests.
The crackdown followed a series of direct and indirect attacks on universities across the country in the recent past. After one year, a lot has changed for the students and the campus. We take a look at what exactly went down on the day, its background, and the aftermath.
The protests and the violence that followed have its origins in the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill, which both the houses of the Parliament passed by December 9, 2019. The bill became Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), after receiving the presidential assent on December 12. The Act seeks to grant citizenship to undocumented immigrants of Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist, and Christian communities who escaped religious persecution from the neighboring countries Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh.
Many believe that the Act, when combined with the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) has the potential to be used to discriminate against Muslims on a large scale, considering a similar situation that ensued during the Assam NRC that left out a large number of bonafide citizens. It was this conspicuous feature of the Act that led to its widespread opposition.
Protests and rallies were organized at many places and several university campuses became centers of resistance. Students of Jamia were among the first to organize protest meetings and rallies against the Act.
On 12 December, a large protest gathering was organized outside the Jamia campus between gate 7 and gate 8 and saw an attendance of almost 800 students. The Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association (JTSA) gave a call for a sit-in protest to be held on December 13. The protest recorded a great turnout from students and teachers alike.
However, a march that began later was disrupted by the police. Several students were brutally beaten and tear gas shells were fired onto them. A shell exploded in a student’s hand and severed his thumb. According to a fact-finding report by the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), at least 100 students were injured that day. But the students of Jamia did not back down.
The protests continued that night as well, which was the source of the iconic picture featuring Chanda Yadav, Ladeeda Farzana, and Ayesha Renna that later went on to become an image of resistance.
What transpired on the fateful day—December 15?
Although there was no formal appeal made, hundreds of people attended the rally held on December 15. People gathered just by word of mouth and through social media. The rally which started at noon, had reached the nearby Surya hotel around 4 pm where there were barricades and a heavy police presence. As the rally moved towards Mathura Road taking a different route, eye witness accounts revealed that the police started firing at the procession.
The infamous bus burning that dominated the news cycle and was used as a tool to derail the conversation surrounding the incident happened at this point.
The Delhi Police had repeatedly denied firing at the protesters, but the Safdargunj hospital confirmed the admission of two students with bullet injuries. An NDTV investigation uncovered the videos of the incident that proved the firing indeed took place. Almost a month later, the Delhi police backtracked and admitted to opening fire as “self-defense”.
The firing was followed by tear gas shells and brutal lathi charge on students. The whole area was seen to be covered with smoke. Many students managed to escape and get back to campus. Soon, police entered the campus in large numbers from Gate 7, near the library. The mosque next to it was almost destroyed. The police started beating up students and it has been reported that most violence took place in this area.
The police then entered the reading hall and started thrashing students indiscriminately. Several videos emerged on social media showing students being beaten up. Students started posting about the incident and called people asking for help.
A PhD scholar, who was an eyewitness shared his account of the day with us, requesting anonymity. He recalled that the police attacked the reading section of the library and it felt like “an organized terror gang had attacked with tear gas shells.” They attacked the ground floor of the reading section, beat up students and broke the glasses of the AC reading hall, he said.
I was doing my work sitting inside the PhD section and I came out around 5:30 for tea, he said, adding that he saw the smoke coming from Mathura Road along with another friend. They had no idea that police had started chasing some of the students outside the gate. They found that the canteen was already closed and within no time, a tear gas shell was thrown over it. The students inside the campus had no idea that the police had already entered.
“I came back to the PhD section in the library. Suddenly all students who were inside the campus started to run towards the reading hall to take their bags and books, so they could leave the campus. But there was no chance to come out from the reading hall,” he recounts.
The sudden rush towards the library had created a panic. The police entered into library’s main building, although it was closed, and threw tear gas shells inside the hall. A majority of undergraduate students got trapped in the reading hall.
He added that the people trapped inside felt that they could be shot if they tried to get out. They turned off the lights and tried to console people who were weeping. They started tweeting and asking for help, especially from Ambedkarite organizations thinking that “only they could come out against this terror attack.”
Students, including women, who tried to escape in different directions—upstairs of the library, polytechnic building, the mosque, washrooms—were all chased and beaten up. When they tried to hide in the washroom, it was found that the police entered there as well.
After this, the police asked students to put their bags on their heads and walk out.
According to the witness, the police passed comments like “Azadi nahi chahiye? Kyun chup ho saalon? Haath utha kar chalo.” (You don’t want your freedom now? Why are you silent? Put your hands up and move).”
Students were sent out of campus in two different directions. 15 students were caught and detained on and off-campus without any charges against them. These students were thrashed at the police stations they were taken to and were denied medical aid.
More than 200 students were injured and admitted into Al-Shifa, Holy Family, Safdarjung, and AIIMS hospitals. Two students suffered gunshot injuries and a student lost an eye due to the lathi charge. Many suffered fractures and many more were bleeding profusely when admitted to the hospital. Students also suffered minor injuries like swellings and rashes caused by tear gas shells, minor fractures, and sprains.
Post the incident, a winter break was declared.
To escape accountability, the police had changed their claims multiple times. An FIR filed by the police on 16 December named seven students, mostly from political parties on campus, as instigators. Later that night, 10 different people were arrested from the campus.
As of now, 22 people including Jamia student Asif Iqbal Tanha and JNU student Sharjeel Imam have been arrested concerning the violence. The investigation has been transferred to the crime branch and then to the cyber cell but no personnel from the department has been charged till now. The case filed by the university against the police is still in court.
A manufactured social media discourse suggesting conspiracy theories about the incident was spry for very long. Several fringe TV News channels and online media demonized the students and tried to spin different narratives.
It took three to four months to fully restore all the damages caused on the campus. Vice-Chancellor Najma Akhtar, who strongly voiced against the police at the time told the Indian Express that the incident had severely affected their students’ physical as well as mental wellbeing.
A student who was at the Mathura Road that day told us that it has been extremely difficult to get over the events of that day. He says he was disturbed mentally and it took him close to three months to start being normal again.
Another student who had gone out on that day to a nearby neighborhood to conduct an awareness session on CAA and NRC said that he considers himself extremely lucky as the kind of damage, he witnessed later was traumatizing. He says that it managed to instill a sense of fear among students.
The outrage following the incident set off protests across the country. Students from several premier institutions came out in support of Jamia and carried of demonstrations. It also acted as a catalyst for the anti CAA and NRC movement and gave rise to one of the most extensive and impactful sites of resistance, Shaheen Bagh.
However, attacks on university spaces continued. Around the same time, Aligarh Muslim University was attacked and less than a month later, Jawaharlal Nehru University witnessed similar brutality from students of right-wing student organizations and Delhi police. On 30 January 2020, a man opened fire at the protestors outside Jamia. Police attacked the campus again on 10 February and the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) found that 45 students were sexually assaulted.
The crackdown on students and vocal university campuses has risen in the past few years. Rohith Vemula’s institutional murder and the despicable cover-up campaign by the union government lay bare the realities of campuses across the country. The subsequent movement was actively crushed by the government with several student leaders and activists falsely implicated on severe charges. The trend continued whenever a university campus decided to speak up. Campuses that are supposed to function as spaces for dialogue are being demonized for doing their job.
The current government’s support and funding for right-wing student organizations has created a power imbalance in campuses, severely affecting students from marginalized communities. Meanwhile, other student organizations despite having huge cadres on campuses don’t seem to receive similar support from outside the campus.
But can it be completely attributed to state oppression alone? No. The campus movements originating from the struggles of the students from marginalized communities often get appropriated to suit the narratives of the privileged. The instances like Jamia violence are an everyday reality for people of Kashmir, Muslims, and Dalits in this country. If it takes an extreme incident like this one for liberals and progressives to take cognizance of realities, where exactly do we stand as a country?