“Candle light protest halted. Protesters detained by the police. They were taken to the Lajpat Nagar thana. But they are not there. Mother and sister of Umar Khalid were in the protest.”
The message flashed on my phone. I did not have to confirm the news. Nadeem Khan of ‘United Against Hate’ was the source. I got alarmed. Called Iliyas saheb, Umar Khalid’s father. He did not sound too perturbed. I could see the wry smile on his face when I heard him saying that some students and women wanted to take out a candlelight procession to mark December 15, a year since students of Jamia Millia Islamia protesting against the unequal citizenship law were brutally attacked by the police. It was not only to keep the memory of that cruelty alive but also to show that the resolve of the protesting students had not broken, and they still enjoyed solidarity from the community. When Umar’s mother and sister came to know about it, they decided to join the procession.
Iliyas saheb learnt that the protesters, including his wife and daughter, were taken away by the police. He rushed to the Lajpat Nagar police station. They were not there. From there he went to the New Friends Colony police station, to find that they were not there either. Then he called the SHO of Jamia. He refused to divulge their whereabouts, but said that they would reach home in half an hour.
Iliyas saheb was upset. Under which law had they detained women after dusk? How can they not inform where the protesters were taken? The SHO did not think it necessary even to respond to these queries.
An hour later, Nadeem informed me that the protesters had reached home.
The wait and anxiety ended at 9:30 pm, with a message from Iliyas saheb reassuring me that his wife and daughter had been freed.
I went to bed processing my exchanges with Iliyas saheb. He still had the audacity to invoke the law, after all that he and his family has had to go through and with his son, Umar Khalid, in jail.
So, I thought about the law, Jamia Millia Islamia and protests.
I had read that the vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia said that it was useless to follow up on the cases related to losses suffered by the university during the police attack on students. She told The Wire that they will not “lead to anything”. “There is no hope there. Instead we should focus on the future now.”
It was the evening of December 15, 2019. Messages rushing in, one after another. About students being attacked, bloodied. Frantic messages asking for lawyers. Then about lawyers running from one police station to another. Doctors. Human rights activists. Nursing houses. Hospitals. It was a long night. December 15 turned into 16.
I went to Jamia in the afternoon of the 16th, after finishing a recording at The Wire. The taxi driver was probably unaware of the mayhem that Jamia had gone through the previous night. He readily agreed. As the cab approached Jamia, I grew tense. On both the sides of the road leading to the university, there were students standing shoulder to shoulder. Even if there were no slogans, no noise, you could feel the tension in the air. My taxi driver panicked and requested me to allow him to drop me before the destination. I came out of the cab and walked towards gate no 7.
I looked at the faces of the young women and men lining the street outside Jamia. I was led to the locked gate of the university and the guard was asked to let me in. There were teachers inside the campus. Some ‘outsiders’ like me. We were guided to the library. Shattered doors, windowpanes, splinters of glass scattered all over. Blood everywhere.
A team from People’s Union for Democratic Rights, Rahul Roy, Saba Dewan, Harsh Mander, Syeda Hameed. Grim faces. We were led into a small conference room. And then the students came. Swollen faces. Bandages over eyes. Arm slings.
They spoke but did not let the pain distort their voices. They spoke clearly and steadily. It was not the physical attack but the communal slur, abuses, the sadist laughter of the police personnel which had hurt more.
Friends took down all of it in their notebooks. I could not muster courage to even take out my pen.
How many hours we were inside the campus, listening and thinking.
News came that Indira Jaising and Colin Gonsalves had gone to the Supreme Court with a plea to set up a committee to probe the police atrocity. The CJI-led bench felt it was not the right forum. But it did not stop it from advising the students to first vacate the streets. Only then would they be entitled to be heard. The issue of the damage to the public property was raised by the court.
The message was clear: you cannot protest and expect the courts to protect you from the state violence. It went to the right ears. At least in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
The previous night, the Uttar Pradesh police had stormed the campus of Aligarh Muslim University.
The guardians of the law had clearly told the citizens: it is between you and the state. You deal with it. We cannot put the poor government in a tight corner. You better learn to behave.
Syeda Hameed asked us to come over to her place for a cup of tea. I walked a few steps towards her house and then turned back.
Shadows had grown longer. The lines of the students thicker on all sides.
The students felt insulted, humiliated, violated by the state. The state rubbed salt in their wounds by claiming that the university authorities had called them. The proctor reacted strongly to the claim made by the Solicitor General in the highest court, refuting him. The VC drew applause as she announced that the university would file an FIR against the police.
A year after, she feels that talking about the violence and the FIR causes negativity. What is the use? Struggle for justice, in her eyes, is clinging to the past. Because the injustice was done in the past. So, if we have to move on, we would need to give up our obsession with the past.
The wise VC is also kind. She is motherly. The Wire reports, “In the aftermath of December 15, she had also met with Mohommad Minhajuddin, the student who had lost an eye during the episode. “I still speak with him regularly. I even called him today, told him that he should do a PhD,” she says.”
The VC takes pride in the fact that her students are strong. The only problem with them seems to be that they remember too much and refuse to move on.
It was with this obsession with the memory of justice that on December 15 this year, some students came out on the hopeless street of the Batla House and lit candles. They were promptly snuffed out by the Delhi police.
The memory of the light flickers still.
Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.