I was one of the idealists who wrote slogans to make sure fellow protestors didn’t indulge in any violence or retaliate with stones and bricks no matter how hard they came at us. “Flowers, NOT sticks and stones”, “No stone pelting,” and “Say no to violence” were some of the things we wrote as students.
It was naïve but how do you sit in Jamia Millia Islamia, out of all places, and watch violence unfold right before your eyes? We stood close to the fence inside the campus to ensure our message was heard loud and clear, especially after we learnt the news of buses being burned and saw a dark cloud of smoke looming nearby. That message needed to be out there more than ever.
It was then that we were asked to back up and move further away from the gates and fences because the clash on the streets had gotten intense. We then saw the police chasing people outside with lathis. The roads were a haze because the tear gas had taken over. It was the same pattern that we had seen on December 13. Only this time, they had instilled enough fear amongst people to empty the roads and lawns inside the campus.
Just as we had decided to move back in, tear gas canisters started to fall from all sides, in the lawns. Along with my classmates Asif* and Aisha*, I managed to dodge one from falling on our heads. I vividly remember the face of a student who, although was a stranger, held my hand and helped me run, assuring me, “Sab theek hai. Kuch nahi hua hai. (Everything is fine. Nothing has happened.)”
There were apprehensions about the police coming inside the campus but we had to stick together. After forming human chains and running back and forth, a lot of us were separated. The noise of chaos was getting closer but even then, something in our hearts told us that we were safe as long as we were inside the campus and the police wouldn’t go to the extent of trapping us in here.
But trap they did.
At one point, I crouched behind a guard room alone, where at least eight tear gas canisters had been shot. One burst just a few inches away from me and triggered an asthma attack, but I shoved my shawl into my mouth and ran to the place most of the students seemed to be heading.
I knew getting inside one of the buildings would further entrap us, but we agreed that hundreds of people in the library together would be safer than out in the open where we were struggling to even breathe, let alone open our eyes.
We were wrong.
The library was the worst place to be in. They had already entered, used tear gas in the confined space and beaten up everyone they could get their hands on. Because there were broken glass doors, people had been hurt. I saw a girl with glass near her abdomen picked up by a boy, in his lap, running to find a safe space. Multiple boys, with glass stuck in their feet, limped and ran.
I managed to find my classmates, Srishtee*, Uday* and Aisha*. We hid near the door of an elevator and watched policemen beating up students mere metres away. If the policemen found us, we would be thrashed like the rest of them. Uday insisted that we talk to them, assure them that we had nothing to do with violence and ask for help. The policeman agreed at first – only for the other policemen to grab and detain Uday. The remaining three of us were asked to leave the campus immediately. They didn’t care if we would get stuck on the streets.
Since getting out of the campus was not an option, we decided to simply stand where the central guards near the Old Library, opposite the Masjid, stood. It was then that they sent the detained boys including Uday to “negotiate” with the rest of the protestors and get them out in the open. In the process, communal, anti-Muslim slurs were used against protestors inside the mosque and on the street. “Mulle m*******d, masjid mein chhup gaye jaake (They are hiding in the Masjid),” they said. When the protestors retaliated verbally, they started to make an example of the detainees by beating them with lathis.
I was saved by another policeman who said to the one with the lathi, “Jazbaati nahi hona hai (Don’t get emotional).” The second time when the central guard saved me, he was told, “Tu peechey hat! Kaise guard kiya hai tum log ne? Jahan ka khaate ho, wahin chhed karte ho. Sharam nahi aati? Sab mile hue ho. Pakistan chale jaao na. (You move back! How have you guys guarded them? You make holes wherever you eat. Are you not ashamed? You are all in this together. Just go to Pakistan.)”
Then he looked at me as I begged him to let them go and said, “Jab patthar phenk rahe the tab yaad nahi aaya? Yahan koi parallel government nahi chalti. (Did you think of this while [you] were throwing stones? Cannot run your parallel government here).”
One of them continued to force us to get out of the campus. However, we knew it was the worst thing to do at the moment because we would then get caught among those on the street. In no way would we be able to prove our disassociation from the violence then. The three of us managed to sneak behind a bike and then to the back of the Old Library.
From there, we watched those being beaten on the streets. Even those hiding inside the central guards’ room were found and thrashed. The policemen broke their phones since they had been recording the cuss words they had used for students inside the mosque. They broke the CCTVs inside the central guards’ room as well. I wanted to record that too, but did not want to suffer the same fate and risk the lives of those with me.
About an hour later, we joined a crowd of close to a hundred students trapped inside the library that was allowed to get out. Luckily, we found a faculty member in the process, who escorted us through the alleys of Batla House. At the Batla House Chowk, we ran into our classmate Ahmed* and his flatmate Aslam* who resided in that area.
They took us in for the night as we tried to process what we had just gone through, how we had made it out alive, how we had ended up there, as individuals and as a nation. We comforted our parents on the phone even though it wasn’t enough. We spent the night thinking about the safety of our detained friend. We shared the pain of our mutual traumas, comforted each other, and prayed for the well being of other students and mourned the remnants of our university.
Healing is a long process. Maybe we’ll take all our lives to heal. Maybe we never will. The memories are bound to haunt me every time I step inside my campus for the next two years. But one thing is for certain: December 15 made me realise that my power to resist and my intolerance towards injustice can only get stronger.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
Samreen is a student at Jamia Milia Islamia.