The Courts Must Not Let Down Jamia’s Students

When the SC bench talked about the destruction of public property, how could it not talk about the disturbing images of students being brutalised, which had moved the rest of us to tears? 

It should not surprise us that the Supreme Court refused to take suo motu cognisance of the violence at the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia.

“Just because they happen to be students,” the bench said, “doesn’t mean they can take law and order in their hands, this has to be decided when things cool down. This is not the frame of mind when we can decide anything. Let the rioting stop.”

The court rightly wanted the rioting to stop. But who was rioting?

How was it assumed that students were indulging in violence?

When advocates Indira Jaising and Colin Gonsalves stood before the bench, they were acting as the officers of the court. Their duty is to help the court. Sadly, the judges refused the suggestion that they watch some of the videos shot on campus.

Instead, the bench, comprising Chief Justice S.A. Bobde and Justices B.R. Gavai and Suryakant, said, “We are not to be bullied like this. If you want the court to hear the matter then this violence has to stop.”

The court spoke in contradictory voices. It claimed that it was not against protests but they had to be peaceful. At another point it said that if the protests and violence continued, it would not hear the petitions.

It felt that it could do little since there was a law and order problem and the police had a duty to control it.

That was precisely the point. The police are expected to maintain law and order but here, as in many cases, they were actually the problem.

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The court was upset with the destruction of public property and was stern in its belief that mere studentship does not earn concession and  impunity.

Who can dispute that? But when a responsible voice like Gonsalves told the court that he was at the police station the previous night, it should have realised the gravity of the situation. 

We had started getting messages of distress from the students trapped in the library and facing the force of the police. We could do little. The roads to Jamia were blocked by the police. Some of us rushed to Kalkaji police station and spent the night there, trying to get the students who were injured and bleeding out. Yet they were taken away by the police. 

Students raising their hands leave Jamia Milia University following a protest against a new citizenship law in New Delhi December 15, 2019. Photo: Reuters

“Can someone at the top be requested to ask the police to stop this madness?” one of them desperately asked me.

Top? Who is at the top? The Delhi police answers to Union home minister Amit Shah.

A friend who is supposed to ‘know’ people who matter said that the police could not have acted with such force and determination were it not the wish of the ‘top’.

On Sunday night, hundreds gathered at the police headquarters demanding an end to the police brutality and release of the students.

Meanwhile, the proctor and the VC of Jamia clarified that the police had entered the campus without their permission. Why did the police not think it right to take the help of the university authorities to identify the students and separate them from the “rioting rowdies”?

December 15 CAA protest at New Delhi. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

It was not the duty of the students to stop rowdies, it was the job of the police. But since it could not do so, it did what it does normally. Find some culprits anyways! In their pursuit, the police went far from the scene of the burnt buses and broke the gates of the library to assault the students studying there.

It is not the physical assault that has injured the students, it is the humiliation that has wounded them. To be paraded with their hands raised, surrounded and beaten up and abused.

The police does have a duty to contain violence but it does not have a right punish protesters. To say that it would make them forget about protesting is simply unacceptable.

When the bench talked about the burning of buses and destruction of public property, how could it not, in the same breath, talk about the disturbing images of students being brutalised, which had moved the rest of us to tears? 

Sadly, violence is not something that disturbs the court. Only that it should be the right violence. That is what former CJI Ranjan Gogoi meant when he dismissed a plea to investigate the assault on Kanhaiya Kumar. That was nothing if not a murderous attack. But the court thought that to bring it up was like flogging a dead horse. 

Also read: Not Speaking Out Now Is a Sign of Being Complicit

Coming back to Jamia, the court wanted violence to end. It wanted a proper frame of mind to hear the matter. 

The police has satisfied itself. There are bloodstains inside the library, broken glasses everywhere. 

More than this are the scars left on the souls of the young who thought they were performing the Gandhian duty of opposing a move of the state they felt was unjust. This is the only way to earn citizenhood. 

Is it too much to ask that the court stand by citizens who are faced with the unequal power of the state?

Pratap Bhanu Mehta has warned us to not look up to the Supreme Court:

“We look to the Supreme Court for a semblance of constitutional deliverance. We have no idea how a court will rule. But one of the lessons of our recent history is that we misunderstand how a Supreme Court functions in a democracy. The Supreme Court has badly let us down in recent times, through a combination of avoidance, mendacity, and a lack of zeal on behalf of political liberty.

“We often explain this away as if this were the failing of individual judges. A particular judge might be compromised, or too scared to challenge the executive or they may simply be obtuse in their reasoning. In law as in politics, we carry on with the game, somewhere reassured that mistakes are idiosyncratic, and are possibly retrievable by the very processes that secured them.”

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court passed the file on to the Delhi high court. Will Mehta be proved wrong this time when the high court finally hears the pleas on behalf of the students?

Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.