Through a Glass Darkly: A Witness Account of the Aftermath of JNU's Protest March

"I saw a woman constable reach into the crammed jeep and pull out a young woman by her hair, while the police continued to frighten students with the threat of filing an FIR against them."

On Friday, March 23, I had guests for lunch, so I joined the peaceful protest march organised by the JNU Students Union (JNUSU) and JNU Teacher’s Union (JNUTA) only by 4 p.m from Ber Sarai. I walked with the academic community which has been fiercely opposing vice chancellor M. Jagadeesh Kumar’s attempt to rewrite the rules and impose them on JNU. This has been a two-year battle which is reported in the media daily.

We walked peacefully through Safdarjung Enclave, past Bhikaji Cama place, and on to the Leela Palace traffic lights. There, I decided to return, since I was not well enough to walk further. I reached home in an auto-rickshaw by 6 p.m, and at 6.40 p.m I got a phone call from my daughter, Mallika.

Mallika: Mum, I’m sorry I’ve got detained in a police van, and they are taking us away.

Me: Okay, I am at home, call me when you can.

At 7 p.m, there was another phone call. Mallika said, “They are taking us to Defence Colony police station.” I told her I would wait for them there.

I left the house immediately with two bottles of water in a jute bag. I found an auto-rickshaw whose driver knew the way and after a 20-minute wait in traffic jams, by 7.40 pm I was climbing up the stairs to an office. An elderly policeman said he did not know about the JNU students and that the thana was downstairs.

I asked a policeman standing guard, “Suna hai JNU ke student ko dakhil kara hai?” ( I heard you have admitted some JNU students?) He shook his head. I turned the corner, and there they were, crammed in a jeep. I started shouting, “Kidhar le ja rahe ho?”  (Where are you taking them?) The constables, about 20 of them, men and women, fell into a silence; then a woman constable reached in and pulled a young woman by her hair, and made her leap out of the van.

Me: Maine dekha hai, tumne kya kiya hai. I am a witness to your action. We are citizens. Tum Bharat vasi nahi ho. Mujhe pata hai tum ladkiyo  ko mar daal te ho. Mujhe maloom hai, Haryanvi police kya karti hai. Mujhe maloom hai Haryana ke log, bachon ko pait se nichod dete hai, aur mar dete hain. (I have seen what you have done, I am a witness to your action, We are citizens, You are  not inhabitants of Bharat. I know what Haryanvi police in Delhi do. I know that people from Haryana pull out babies from their womb and kill them.)

They looked shocked at my speech, then said “Chalo!’ and wanted to move the young women to some other place. The first van with five women left the station. They would not say where, so I jumped into the other van with my daughter and two other young women. I said: “We will not go anywhere till a lawyer arrives.”

A woman officer arrived and said, “Woh detainee nahin hai. Nikalo usko.” (She is not a detainee, take her out.)

I started yelling that “masoom bachche”(innocent children) had been picked up and sent to jail, and as citizens of a free country this was not acceptable. Finally, five women constables accompanied us in the van, with the police driver saying that they were taking us, “pata nahin kahan” (don’t know where), but for a medical examination. I said they haven’t done anything, so there was no question of medical examination. The police women had already threatened the young women saying that an FIR was to be lodged against them for seriously wounding a constable. I said “Ho hi nahin sakta”,  that this was an impossible allegation, but they continued to frighten the students with the threat of an FIR against them.

Security personnel stop JNU students during their protest at Vasant Kunj Police Station in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

The women constables, who were very young, kept insisting they had not touched the girls, except “haath pakda” (held their hand).  I had seen them and the violence which they had pitched Nupur out of the van by pulling her hair by the scalp. I continuously called on their Gods, including Kali to enumerate their karma, and asked if they did not have tender mothers, or grandmothers who would be aghast at their cruelty. If this was the price that Kurukshetra had placed on them – that five thousand years later, they were still disrobing women… They listened stoically and maintained that these women were not “good women” and that they were dancing and singing, as if that was their primary crime. In a moment of sudden friendliness, Rashi and I suggested that they admit themselves to IGNOU (Indira Gandhi National Open University) and get degrees and write the IPS (Indian Police Service) exam, to which they countered that they were quite happy doing what they did (beating up protestors, taking orders, and dismantling and demolishing and controlling crowds by force.) They said “Everybody cannot climb the ladder, and at this level also people were needed. Who would do this work?”

The two vans arrived simultaneously at the Jayaprakash Narayan Trauma Centre. Here we were met with a confusion of voices, and people. After an eight kilometre walk, the students were already exhausted. Six of them had been roughed up, including having their clothes ripped and body parts exposed to men.  However, they were alert. The women constables did not allow us to step out, and after about 20 minutes of waiting in a stuffy airless van, we went into the trauma centre.

Professors Moushumi, Urmimala and Himanshu, teachers from JNU, were fortunately waiting for us there. A police officer said, as soon as we arrived, to JNUTA representatives in our presence, “There is no charge against the young women, and if they wished to have a medical examination, they could, and if not, they could write “Medical Examination Refused.” After this, the women would be free to go.

After about half an hour, registration of the victims began. A clerk called out their names, photos were taken, thumb print taken. The young women were horrified that a peaceful march had degenerated into this calamity. Mallika says that she was standing with her former teachers from the School of Arts and Aesthetics, including Ranjani Mazumdar, before the lathi-charge started. When the police started hitting and beating students, she saw that one of the girls was disrobed, and standing in public in her bra, and her friend Rashi ran towards her, and Mallika followed her, and gave her dupatta to cover the young woman. The police then bundled several girls who had formed a circle around the woman, into a van.

Since Mallika had not been beaten, disrobed or scratched, she did not sign for a medical examination from the doctors who were at the computers. Rashi also refused medical examination. Mallika was traumatised by what she had seen, but she could see that I was even more vacant eyed, and since I have a neurological ailment, Multiple Sclerosis, she was terribly worried for me, and kept patting my back, hoping I would not collapse. For a young woman to have to go through this experience for no known reason is really horrifying. We were at the trauma centre with its endless whirl of activity and soul destroying loss of life and limb of incoming patients from 8.30 p.m to half past midnight.

The students went up one by one when called and filled a form, giving their names. The young medico or paramedic who was filling the forms would not accept that Mallika and Rashi did not want a medical examination. So she wrote “absconded” against their name. Moushumi noticed this and kept insisting that she should delete “absconded” and write “refused medical examination” against the names of the two women. A policeman who was present said if they had refused medical examination, they did not need a discharge slip. Moushumi said this was incorrect and persisted till Mallika and Rashi were also back in line, waiting for their discharge papers.

Students of Jawaharlal Nehru University protest in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

While the eight women were being registered, we were told that it would take two hours to get receipts of the statements that we had come to the trauma centre for. It was already 10 pm. The women were tired, there was nowhere to sit. The doctors and nurses were working in exhausting circumstances, attending to the knife wounds and victims of accidents that came in every minute. For those of us who lead sheltered lives, the scene was terrifying. People came in bleeding profusely, children cried, the mike blared calling out names and numbers. We suspected that the medicos who were filling the forms of eight women were politically biased, as they wrote incorrectly, that the women were assaulted by unidentified people, and had been brought into the trauma centre by relatives.

Moushumi: Aap ko lag raha hai ki police mar peet ke, inke relative ban gaye? (Does it look like the police who have beaten them up are their relatives?)

By then, CPI(M) leader Subhashini Ali, and a Left party Rajya Sabha MP had arrived, made their presence felt, laughed about their own experiences at the hands of the police, and calmed the students down. Their comrades included Vijoo Krishnan, also JNU alumni, who was visibly mediating between the police, doctors and JNUTA members.

All this while, an RSS worker who had threatened the girls by saying things like “Do you know who I am? Have you any idea who I am? I will pull out your face, I will twist it.” was present. She had travelled in the other jeep, and frightened the girls with her menacing tone and is reported by one girl to have said to the women constables, “Maro. Peeto. Video Lo.” (Beat them up. Make a video.)

This RSS worker watched carefully as Subhashini hugged us and said goodbye. I had never met her before, but was glad she had spent time with us, as we were just not used to the circumstances in which we had been placed, and they were political veterans. Having no party affiliation whatsoever, Mallika and I were just comforted by the kindness of humans who were strangers to us. Mallika’s father and her two sisters, and brothers-in-law, from different cities, called through the night, desperately seeking information of our condition and whereabouts.

We were left with the police, who were standing about, scrutinising all of us, taking photos with their mobiles and keeping company with the RSS woman, who was either a political representative or a police woman in plain clothes. Some healthy looking young constables were also waiting to get their medical legal receipts made to prove that they had been assaulted by the women!

It may be noted that none of the police were wearing badge names, and when asked they said these had been torn off by students. One policeman, who had been very friendly to me, showed me his arm and said a plastic cord had been tightened around his arm and that his arm had been burnt by cigarettes. I could not see anything unusual. Simultaneously, a man who had his arm broken, was standing nearby and said he was present in the demonstration. One of the women students showed me her ripped clothing kept in a plastic bag.  It had a horrible smell, which she said was because the water cannon had dirty water. The police had given the victims some kurtas to wear, all brand new, to replace their clothes that were torn.

The forms had finally reached the last counter. The doctor who was typing in the last formatted versions kept writing, in spite of remonstrations, that the victims “had been assaulted by unknown assailants, and had been brought in by relatives”. It took two hours for the error to be corrected.

Meanwhile, a young woman medico said tersely, “Yes, you may have issues, but we are dealing with serious cases, and you are wasting our time by wanting these corrections.” Absconded seemed to her to be the right word for stating that a person did not want a medical exam, and unknown persons/assailants was the term they used for what was clearly police harassment. I asked her worriedly, “Is everyone here from the RSS?” since the process was so slow that it was only by 12.20 a.m that the final discharge forms were finished.

Credit: PTI

My last glimpse of the trauma centre was of a young worker, pale as newly harvested corn, who had had his throat slit with blood  pouring into his shawl. The two medicos who had been irritated with us suddenly shot out of their chairs and called for attendants, who took the man to the appropriate surgeon. Yes, this rigmarole we were in was bizarre, but nothing like the real life of people who lived in the Dickensian world of being knifed and hung, punched and beaten, and fell off beds, and off motorcycles, and children too, who fell at midnight. I thanked the nurse who had said, “Achha, police jabardast bacchon ko lagayi?” (Oh, so the police gave it nicely to these children?). I was really grateful for the aphorism with which she described our story, though these were adults who had been traumatised by the long drawn out drama.

Outside, the 18 male students who had been detained but refused to enter the trauma centre, were also escorted back to JNU with us. We arrived on campus at 1 a.m. The students were singing vociferously, “We are JNU.” One of the young women who had been disrobed said, “Please make sure no photos or videos are circulated of my naked body.” Her friend and she had cried bitterly when they had been put into different vans, and when reunited cried again, because one had been paraded naked, and the other had been near scalped. By the time we reached JNU, the students pleaded to be dropped inside the campus as they were too tired to walk to their hostels. But, of course, the police remembered that entry into the campus is not permissible! When I got off the bus, I said to Moushumi, “They did their job, and we did ours.” I know that the practice of the state is to be what it is. Legalising criminality is not the job of the police, particularly among their own cohorts.

This is what I saw and experienced in the aftermath of the peaceful protests which were broken up by police violence in the form of unprovoked lathi-charge, water canons and aggressive behaviour on March 23, 2018.

Susan Visvanathan is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, JNU

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