What happened in Jamia Millia Islamia on December 15, 2019, it turns out, was a clear indication of the skewed relationship between the police and unarmed college students trying to register their dissent with the government.
The Delhi police, in response, entered the campus and targeted students indiscriminately. Numerous reports and video footage have shown how they were forced to turn off the lights of their rooms, hide in the bathrooms, under the tables and cry in distress. As a Jamia student, many distressed voice notes came my way – of students crying and asking for help.
“We are hiding in the library. Whoever is outside, police is lathicharging them. We don’t know what to do, where to go,” was one sent by a female classmate. The police also beat up students, so much so that a student who had nothing to do with the anti-CAA protests, Mohommad Minhajuddin, lost an eye.
The library, which was covered in shattered glass and debris of broken doors and smashed windows and where chairs were strewn around was so badly affected that it took almost a month for it to reopen.
But normalcy wasn’t restored among students for a long time. For months afterwards, they felt unsafe inside their own campus. Parents who had once sent their children to Jamia Millia Islamia with pride were now apprehensive.
But contrary to what the police expected, not only did the anti-CAA protests in Jamia get bigger than they had been, but the Shaheen Bagh protest, which was in retaliation to this very episode of violence, gained momentum.
Students, in thousands, took to the streets to protest against the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The streets were painted with poems, and the protest site rang with slogans and speeches.
Many personalities visited the site to give speeches, including politicians such as Shashi Tharoor, noted lawyer Salman Khurshid and Bollywood Director Anurag Kashyap. Muslim women, both in Jamia Millia Islamia and Shaheen Bagh came to the forefront, and occupied public spaces with full authority and confidence, challenging all the stereotypes that exist about them.
Housewives took a public stance, illiterate people learnt about the constitution. The crowd, in thousands, weathered one of the coldest winters on the streets, celebrated the birthdays of their kids in the open and sang songs on stage.
As the protests grew in number, so did the controversies surrounding them. Two fake videos were tweeted by Amit Malviya, head of the BJP’s famed “IT cell,” one which purportedly showed a student chanting, “Hinduon se azaadi,” and another with a shopkeeper claiming that the women protesters took money to sit at the protest site.
Both were reported to be fake, the first by Newslaundry and the second by Alt News and Newslaundry after a joint investigation. Republic TV, without verifying the second video, ran a hashtag campaign, “#ProtestOnHire.”
On January 30, a Jamia student, my junior in college, Shadab Najar, was shot by a man at the protest site. While shooting, he said, “Azaadi chahiye thi na tujhey? Ye le.” You wanted freedom, take it.
Republic TV, again, without corroborating facts, ran a programme claiming that the shooter was a Jamia student, an anti-CAA protester, which was proven wrong later.
Despite a conscious effort to defame the protests, the women of Shaheen Bagh and students of Jamia kept going.
The protests went on for over 100 days until the coronavirus pandemic hit India.
The best part about these protests remained that it was a student and citizen-led one, without any leaders. In the absence of one leader, many emerged.
Among them was an 85-year-old dadi, or granny, who released a monologue asking Prime Minister Narendra Modi to come and sit at the protest site, in response to the allegation of it being a paid protest. In Jamia, the Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC) was formed, to oversee the anti-CAA protests in the university in the absence of an elected student body.
Meeran Haider, who has been actively involved in Jamia politics before, joined the committee along with hundreds of others. Safoora Zargar, too, joined the JCC. While Safoora had joined as the media coordinator, Haider was handling the media narrative. But they were no leaders. They were, among others in JCC, part of a committee – the media committee. The media committee was one of the many committees formed under the JCC. Others were media, legal, creative, mic, stage, and traffic control.
When JCC released CCTV footage placing the police inside the library of the university, Delhi Police – which had spent two months denying having entered the Jamia campus at all – conveniently accepted that its forces had indeed entered. But the statement conveniently changed from, “We did not enter the campus” to “We entered the campus to control the situation.”
Is it possible that the police is now, after the protests have lost momentum due to the pandemic and gatherings have been prohibited by law, punishing the students for being proactive in the Jamia protests?
Haider and Zargar have now been charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and Indian Penal Code with “sedition, murder, attempt to murder and promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and rioting,” in connection with the anti-Muslim riots which took place in Delhi In February.
And speaking of the Delhi riots, why has police not yet filed an FIR against BJP leader Kapil Mishra who openly called for violence just before the riots began? Why is it instead arresting young students whose non-violent records suggest their innocence?
How the Jamia protests ended
Some bits from an important speech I recorded on my phone on March 21, 2020, one day before the Janta Curfew was to take place, at the protest site in Jamia Millia Islamia by Meeran Haider included him urging people to leave the protest site to stay inside their homes.
Giving examples from Islamic history, he said, “I salute all the women and men here for ensuring that our protests reach such heights. Today, I have come here to make a suggestion. Coronavirus has reached our country. And we know that this virus can spread this wildfire. We don’t want to die with corona, do we? This is not a time to get emotional and say ‘we will not get up’, ‘the protests will not stop.’ But we need to understand that if we take precautions, we will have half won the battle against coronavirus.”
Urging the public to leave the site, he promised that the protests will not “end” here, but will only be “postponed” to a later time.
He took 20 minutes to get the audience comfortable before he finally said, “Looking at this situation, I appeal to all people to stay at home and protest from within the safety of their homes, especially the elders. Let us protest symbolically. If we stay safe, our area will also be safe. My word is not the last word, so you all are free to do as you please, but this is my only suggestion.”
The protest at Jamia Millia Islamia, which had just completed hundred days wrapped up soon after this speech. “We are not giving up, but are leaving because we are concerned for the safety of our fellow protesters,” one student said to me while leaving the site.
There were three things which ensured his speech had an impact: that he constantly gave examples from Islamic history to support his views, that he constantly asked the audience if they had any other input and that he didn’t explicitly ask people to end the protest, only to temporarily discontinue it.
On April 1, ten days after the speech, and after ensuring that the highly enthusiastic protest was peacefully dispersed, Haider was called for interrogation by the special cell in Lodhi Colony, accused of inciting the communal violence which had occurred in the latter part of February in northeast Delhi.
At around 10 pm on the same day, he was arrested.
Haider was a PhD student at Jamia and president of the youth wing of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Delhi.
Since then, Safoora had taken on the active role of updating the media about his arrest. Ten days later, she too was arrested by the Delhi police for allegedly leading the anti-CAA protest at Jafrabad metro station in February, just before the Delhi riots broke out.
What is common between both of them is that they were both part of the JCC. They both dealt with the media, and were the most highlighted members of the JCC because of that. What was also common between them was that they were fully dedicated to their cause, and weren’t willing to take a step back.
I would often see Meeran in the protests at not just Jamia but also at Shaheen Bagh. He was always surrounded by a group of people, and always sported a smile.
Once, in the evening, while returning from the protest, I stopped at a cafe to sit down and file my story. On the other side of the small cafe, was Meeran and his group of friends, all activists. When he spotted me, he waved.
The month was February. At that time, there were many controversies brewing around Shaheen Bagh and the conversation quickly came to that. “I don’t know why some people can’t see beauty in this honest protest and are out to communalise it. There is not a shred of violence that has occurred on the premises of our protests, yet people are trying their best to malign it by creating fake narratives around it.”
We ended the conversation with him saying, “No matter how much we are targeted for our protests, we will not be afraid.”
The date was February 10. The JCC had planned a big march from the campus to parliament, similar to the one planned in the beginning of the protest on December 13, 2019. The police, however, had different plans. They barricaded the whole campus area and stopped the students from proceeding.
The students claimed that this time, the police, even though they didn’t enter the campus, were more brutal. They didn’t carry just lathis and tear gas, but they were strategic about how to suppress the protest.
Women students accused the police of kicking them and even punching them, and removing their hijabs forcibly.
Safoora was one of the first women taken to a nearby hospital because of suffocation.
After a day, I called her.
She was emotional and spoke about all the difficulties she had faced so far during the protests. She spoke with utmost clarity and articulated her fears very boldly. “Today, the female police were extremely brutal as they were pinching and pushing us, even more than the male police. They manhandled and molested us, and were trying to scare us.”
She then spoke about the issues of managing the protests in the absence of an elected student body. “All our plans for the protest reach the police’s ears before even students hear them. But we can’t do anything about it, as we can’t remove anybody from the JCC group, since it’s a big group and we have to be inclusive, we can’t refuse to add any Jamia student.”
The conversation, however, didn’t end on the same note that we began on. Safoora was stronger, more dedicated, and she said, “No matter what, we will carry on the protest.”
It reminded me of the couplet,
“Ranj se khugar hua toh mit jaata hai ranj,
Mushkilein mujhpe itni padi ki aasan ho gayin…”
As a Jamia student, I shared her worries, but as a journalist, I wished her safety and said goodbye.
After her arrest, I opened the last message on the Jamia Coordination Committee media group, only to find that it was hers. “Meeran Haider has been a big critic of this government since its first tenure in 2014. He was arrested in a speedy process that took place under the cover of the COVID-19 lockdown, when the entire nation is staying inside their homes,” she had written on behalf of the entire JCC.
Since her arrest, there has been no activity on the group and most members of the JCC, who were actively involved in the anti-CAA protests are now living with the fear of a similar fate.
“One weak link, and the police will say we are terrorists,” one member said, requesting anonymity.