As a teacher of history, I have taught about Bloody Sunday, the event which sparked off protests in Russia in 1905.
Yesterday, I lived through Bloody Sunday right in very the campus I teach at: Jawaharlal Nehru University.
It was a balmy afternoon when my research group met at my house. A student presented a chapter of her thesis, on which there was an extensive discussion. One of the students took photographs of the meeting, saying she would post them on her Facebook page with the ironic caption “lockdown in Jawaharlal Nehru University” to emphasise that academic activity continued.
The students dispersed at around 5.30 pm, mostly headed to nearby dhabas for tea.
One of them, along with my niece, stepped out towards Sabarmati Dhaba. The Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association had given a call for a meeting at 4 pm and a sizeable number of teachers were around even at 6.30 pm.
My niece saw a group of students, many masked and holding lathis and rods, assembled outside Periyar hostel. She continued towards the dhaba only to find herself, other students and teachers set upon by this group. She ran for her life and hid under a table at 24/7, a popular eatery outside Sabarmati. She saw students being thrashed and teachers fleeing to escape this armed mob – which included women too.
Large stones were hurled. To escape, many students ran into neighbouring Sabarmati hostel for shelter. The masked group chased them into the hostel, battering everything in their way, from windows to doors – creating scenes of terror. As many as 15 students took shelter in a room and prevented the door from being broken down by the sheer weight of their bodies.
Later, I met one of the mess workers from the hostel who had escaped being beaten by locking himself in an office room. One of my colleagues, Sucharita Sen, had also been hit by a stone on her forehead and was admitted to the trauma centre at AIIMS. JNU Students’ Union President Aishe Ghosh, clearly a target, was hit on the head, and bled profusely.
I began to receive calls from students who were holed up in their hostel rooms, fearing attacks. Apart from recognised students from left groups, many Muslim students sought advice on what to do. I advised them to stay in their rooms until the situation settled.
But rather than settling down, trouble came from another quarter as militant, Bajrang Dal type groups mobilised from surrounding villages like Munirka and Ber Sarai, amassed at the main gate, and now posed a threat to the safety of all of JNU’s residents.
We rushed to the main gate on a call from the teachers’ association. The situation was ugly. Slogans such as “Goli se uda do saalon ko” (blow them off with bullets), “tukde tukde gang waalon ko” rent the air, punctuated with “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”.
I felt as though I was in a gladiatorial arena, awaiting with dread the bloodthirsty mob which might be “allowed” to push their way in. The popular ‘Azaadi’ slogan associated with Kanhaiya Kumar was inverted to “Naxalvad se Azadi”, “Naxalvaadiyon se campus mukt karo”.
While standing at the gate, I had a strange sense of déjà vu. It seemed as if were back in 2016 when popular anger was being whipped up by organisations linked to the ruling party against alleged ‘anti-nationals’ and supposed seditionists at JNU.
It fed into the agenda of the BJP and its cohorts to whip up aggressive nationalism around supposed threats to the nation. JNU was to be invoked as the enemy within, just as Pakistan was the enemy without.
It reminded me of a larger reality – that today was part of a continuum of assaults on the university, which curiously began within days of the present Vice Chancellor taking office. I have been privy, as the head of my centre, to the systematic hollowing out of the institutional edifice of the university, including the highest bodies such as the Academic Council, as well as the ignoring, mocking at and suppression of voices expressing differences, let alone dissent.
I remembered how it was only the courts to which we had turned which gave us some redress. I have spent the last three years as a petitioner in the court and every month, many of us teachers contribute to a legal fund to monetarily support the teachers and students who have moved the courts.
All this while, on Sunday, we were frantically calling those who we knew in the media and in the police to intervene. I wrote in a JNU alumni group that we needed support, including the presence of sympathisers in large numbers. Soon, groups of students and teachers from Jamia and Delhi University began to reach Jawaharlal Nehru University. Gradually, they outnumbered the groups baying for our blood. We could now turn to escorting marooned students to their hostels or outside campus.
In all this, the security personnel were glaringly absent. When my husband came into the campus at 6.30 pm, there were many police personnel at the main gate, but none where they were required. The police later said that they had been asked not to come in by the Vice Chancellor. The police was given permission to enter only after images of the reign of terror streamed continuously on television channels.
We were somewhat relieved when very senior police officials, including a JNU alumnus, personally directed operations.
This raises many uncomfortable, unanswered questions about the attitude of those responsible for the functioning of the university. Was it merely the apathy of the administration towards the privations of certain sections of students and teachers seen by them as troublemakers, or was there complicity or connivance by the administration as is perceived by students and teachers?
Whatever the answer to that is, there is a clear failure of leadership at the university. Let alone leading from the front, no responsible official of the university was to be seen anywhere.
Then I stop and ask myself: was this unexpected from an administration which has only carried out the wilful destruction of the university? Had not the Vice Chancellor, as perceived by students and teachers, been appointed to do the bidding of the powers that be, namely, to destroy this university, which was seen as a beacon of the values of the constitution?
When I walked back home much past midnight, it was not with an injury from a heavy stone which hit me on my forehead as it did others, but a heavy heart, as if a big stone had settled on it.
Cry, my beloved campus. Cry, my beloved country.
Sucheta Mahajan is a professor at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.