When I came to know about the violence that took place on campuses from November 2019 to January 2020, I reached out to students with disabilities at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). I contacted them mostly after six weeks or so, after the initial media frenzy was over, as I wanted to understand how were they coping.
I am compelled to share this piece now because what I have noticed so far is that when an incident happens, there is a great deal of noise about it in the media, especially social media. Different versions of the same event are introduced, which dilutes the authenticity of the original incident. It has the potential of creating doubts in the minds of people.
So I chose to focus on first hand accounts of students with disabilities.
The very first student I spoke with was not someone with a disability. He found himself trapped between the police hurling stun grenades and the panicked students trying to find safety. In the process, he was caught and beaten up so savagely that they well could have left him with a disability, as is visible from his injuries.
“You want my statement, right?” Tazeem asks curtly.
The 20-year-old, studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree at Aligarh Muslim University, has not been able to use his hands since December 15, 2019, when police unleashed alleged brutal action on the students on campus.
Tazeem was a bystander to the attack till a stun grenade injured a friend of his just 100 metres away. Within a few moments, a tear gas grenade fell at his feet. He rushed inside the guest house near Gate Number 3 with a couple of his friends to protect himself from what he calls are “gundas who wear khaki”.
Knowing full well that police could break open the door, Tazeem and his friends ran and hid inside an adjoining bathroom.
“They broke down the door and the boys who had not joined me were badly beaten up. I could hear them scream. They started to break the toilet door but we pushed back as hard as we could.”
After a while, he could hear a voice, “There are some boys inside, let us wait, you guys go on, search the other rooms”. The students cried out for help. After breaking the bathroom door down, the police, says Tazeem, mercilessly beat him and his friends.
While recounting this story, Tazeem’s voice loses its curtness as he describes how five policemen beat him up continuously for 10 minutes. “They said, ‘Keep beating them, the cameras are switched off.’ They pulled me by my collar and put me in their jeep. They verbally abuses us all, asking us to go back to Pakistan. At that moment, I felt that I was being seen neither as a student, nor an Indian citizen,” says Tazeem.
“My condition has virtually left me without hands. I can’t eat, I can’t put on my clothes and I basically can’t do anything on my own. I feel completely disabled. All my chores are done for me by my friend, Paras. I don’t like this. I don’t want to live like this and I wish nobody has to. I was a photographer and now I can’t use my hands [to handle the camera],” he says.
Even though Tazeem is most likely to recover from his physical injuries, he says that he still wakes up at night in a cold sweat and with tears in his eyes. He says that that he can’t focus on anything. “Even when I talk about it, I start crying.”
This begs the question, what about those students who aren’t going to recover from their physical injuries?
Twenty-year-old Zuhaib Ahmed Khan, a student of Mass Media in Hindi at JMI says, “People who may have become disabled because of the horrific acts of police brutality need to get counselling and learn to accept this truth and train their mind. I have been blind from the beginning so I have no memories of the past but people who may have lost their vision now or have become disabled may feel that their life is over, which is not the case at all.”
Zuhaib elaborates, “I feel that they are trapped between two lives. Remembering the past and being fearful of the future. We need to provide them support so that they and their families can embrace disability and learn to live with it. Even be proud of it one day. I am ready to talk and counsel such peers who may be in need”.
There is one such student, Mohammad Minhajuddin. The story of the young man, studying for an LLM degree at Jamia, had been initially reported by the media. But after the initial frenzy died down, Minhajuddin went home to recover from the trauma of it all, say his fellow students.
Zuhaib is right and students, including Minhajuddin, who have been injured in the hands of police not only need counselling but an empathetic attitude from the administration and their peers.
Arsalan Tarique, a partially blind student pursuing an MBA in International Business from JMI, thought that he would be safe inside the old library even though he could hear protesters and police outside the campus. However, he was wrong.
“At around 5.30 pm on December 15, 2019, I heard some explosions. I was in the library. The police entered the campus around 6 pm and I didn’t want to go outside as I didn’t want to get hurt,” Arsalan says.
“Officers broke down the door of the library and they started to beat us all. They hit me on the forehead first, then on the head. I turned around to protect myself but they beat me on my back and shoulders. I was in a state of haze, when I turned around a policeman hit me on my eye. My glasses broke but they didn’t stop at that. I tried to run and I bumped into an officer. I told him that I am blind, I wasn’t protesting and I was here to stud,” he says.
The policeman replied, “I’m here to beat your blindness out of you.”
“They verbally abused me and continued to beat me with a rod. I somehow managed to get away,” he says.
Sheikh Mohammad Kaish, the convenor of JNU’s Visually Challenged Students’ Forum explains that the political scenario now has posed a threat to the strong disability unity that existed in the campus. “As a university, for the longest time, we had a left leaning ideology but in the recent years there has been a radical shift with the newer generations coming in with a right leaning ideology,” he says.
As a result, Kaish feels that the disability movement has started to scatter. “When we took a stand against CAA-NRC there were some that did not align with us and said they agreed with the government. This ideological difference is causing a disturbance not only in JNU but across the disability sector. The first thing that should come to our mind is our disability. When I went to school I went as a blind person and not as a Muslim,” he says.
A second year history MA student from JNU, Shashi Bhusan Pandey recants when he was thrashed by police for protesting against the university’s hostel fee hike on November 18, 2019. “Nobody was being spared. For them any protester is an anti-national. I was asked by a police officer as to why I had come to a protest if I was blind,” he says.
Police, he feels, are as culpable as media organisations who are keen to give the movement a communal angle.
While interviewing the students, listening to them and especially while transcribing their responses, I could sense their helplessness, anger and the sense of betrayal. What was most palpable was a feeling of seclusion. A common question posed by all of them was – ‘why did this happen to me?’
It was clear to me that most of the students who shared their experiences with me identified themselves as students with disabilities.
Most of them do not have any political leanings, they were at the site of violence for academic reasons. They had their views and some of them were protesting and expressing their dissent as students and as citizens of the country. Now, seeing that they have been targeted by authorities because they belong to a particular religion, they are hurt, offended and even confused.
Only one student I spoke to felt that had it been anyone else, the police would have used the same reckless force, and held fast to the notion that the violence was targeted at them not just because of their religion.
Based on my discussion with the students, it is their ‘student with disability’ identity which seems to be stronger than a religious or any other identity. The fact that it is being used against them, and to polarise them now on campuses is shameful.
Some students with disabilities were participating in protests and others are simply bystanders. Some were hunted, beaten up and received serious injuries. Police should not be entering campuses and beating up any student in the first place but the fact that they have no empathy at all even when a student says he or she has a disability and on the contrary, use the fact to mock and beat them up, is reprehensible.
Except the mandatory medical check up and visit by senior authority figures in some cases, none of the students I spoke to have received any support from their university administration. Some students have been severely affected by this violence. There is no support like counselling being offered to them. They are very much on their own.
People with disabilities who are protesting are willing to face the consequences (though no one expects police to behave the way they did with students, irrespective of their disability) but when they are not participating, and get caught in the middle, they find themselves more helpless than people without disabilities.
The question remains whether police considers them just as human as you or I.
Shameer Rishad is the convenor of Javed Abidi Foundation, set up in 2019 as a tribute to the late disability rights activist. JAF has been working on forming a cross-disability youth network on university campuses for the past six months or so. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.