The historic movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) has witnessed unabated attacks from the government in the form of exclusionary laws, communally divisive campaigns and media trials. While bearing the brunt of such attacks, students and others who protested showed immense patience and resilience, worthy of inspiration.
The ongoing campaign against the government’s anti-farmer laws, and the solidarities emerging from different social justice movements are a testimony to the same.
Last year, we witnessed the rise of a people’s movement in which the role played by the students of Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) was crucial. This country has witnessed the crushing of political dissent in university spaces several times in the past, but the treatment meted out to the JMI and AMU students has been unprecedented.
It revealed how the regime has no regard for university autonomy, and the hate with which peacefully protesting bodies of minorities are seen by the state machinery. “This religion-based hate discernible in the police action is far more layered than the legal discourse of the use of force to disperse an unlawful assembly,” according to an analysis of the police violence on students in JMI and AMU on the night of December 15, 2019. And sadly, the National Human Rights Commission, legally mandated to investigate abuses of power, has been not just a mute witness but an accomplice to.
What did the NHRC report say?
The human rights body’s probe into the AMU violence – headed by Manzil Saini, a 2005-batch IPS officer – blamed the students for the violence, and found the use of force by the police to be justified and necessary. The NHRC merely critiqued the police for “unprofessional” behaviour such as caning students who were not protesting, and causing damage to university property. It further stated that these actions had no bearing “on the task of controlling law and order”.
In essence, Saini converted the “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” of students in both the universities into a “technical issue of crowd control”.
The NHRC recommended compensation for some of the injured students, and action against the policemen who indulged in some “unnecessary” and “avoidable” acts. However, it denied systemic accountability, thus failing to look into the role of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) under whose jurisdiction the Delhi Police operates, and the senior police officials who may have issued such orders.
Jamia Millia Islamia
In JMI, the NHRC launched investigations into the allegations of human rights violations by the police, after complaints were filed regarding the denial of legal and medical aid to at least 30 detained students at Kalkaji and New Friends Colony police stations. Subsequent complaints were also filed by human rights groups regarding police violence against students.
On one hand, the NHRC claimed that students did not take “prior permission” from the administration to protest – thus arguing against the students’ constitutional right to protest – and on the other hand, it paid no attention to the police violating their guidelines to seek permission before entering the university campus. Without any evidence, the report also claimed that the student-led protest was “coordinated and led by local political leaders”.
Failing to see the peaceful and constitutional nature of student dissent, as evident from several videos that surfaced online, it repeatedly mentioned the “need to uncover the real actors and motives behind the overall protest…under the disguise of students”, thus attributing “criminal intent” to the students participating in the democratic protests against CAA and NRC.
The report concluded that the protesters damaged public property, which has been held as the pretext for claiming that the protesters were violent and necessitated the use of police force. However, the Delhi Police refuted this claim and said that none of those who were involved and consequently arrested in the bus burning incident were students.
The report, however, weaved a narrative in which the police had no option but to enter the university campus, while at the same time not holding the police or its use of force accountable. This is evident from its use of the term “clash” to describe the nature of violence in JMI.
The NHRC also did not address in its report the severe lapses on part of the Delhi Police – the ill treatment of women students by male police personnel, the religion-based attacks on Muslim women, the attack on the mosque and imam, the verbal and communal abuse, the detentions and arrests of students and the extent of grievous hurt caused to those who were at the receiving end of disproportionate use of police force.
Instead of advocating the protection and strengthening of university autonomy, and the students’ right to protest, the report directed the commissioner of Delhi Police and other senior officers “to set up a robust intelligence gathering system”, thus granting sanction for an architecture of surveillance and control of university spaces in future. While the report briefly mentions AMU, it fails to note the striking similarity in police action in both the states.
Aligarh Muslim University
The Allahabad high court had ordered the NHRC to conduct an inquiry into police violence on AMU’s campus. During the probe, many students recorded their testimonies before the investigation team. However, the investigation did not take into account, even circumstantially, any videos of violence recorded by students on their phones. Added to that, the report also cited lack of CCTV footage as a reason to dismiss the inhuman treatment of students at the hands of the police.
Reiterating the police’s version, the NHRC report stated that the police had to “apply force” against the AMU students to “save the city from communal violence”.
While the police’s version claimed that students indulged in violence even inside the campus, the report failed to mention any particular incident of violence by students there. The testimonies in fact revealed how students fled from the gate, hid inside nearby structures to protect themselves from attacks by the police, and even pleaded with the police to go back, by waving their handkerchiefs to say that they were not protesting anymore.
Even as testimonies of students detained at Akrabad police station revealed that they were “verbally and physically abused in custody”, the report terms them as acts of “unprofessional behaviour” on part of the police, thereby treating them as isolated incidents. The report failed to connect medical records of injuries, and the fact that at least 22 students were detained in Malkhan Singh hospital for treatment.
The NHRC team tried to obtain CCTV footage of the respective police stations, but was informed by the SSP of Aligarh that it was not available. Instead of raising a red flag about the unavailability of the footage, the report concluded that these allegations are “neither proved not disproved”, owing to the “absence” of any evidence to verify the allegations of torture and verbal abuse.
In the most brutal police action that took place in room no. 46 of Morrison Hostel, the police completely denied having entered the hostel, a claim refuted by CCTV video evidence on record. It, however, similarly cited the “non-availability” of sufficient “material evidence”, as a reason to consider it “neither proved nor disproved”.
The NHRC upheld the police’s version by discarding the circumstantial evidence such as the fire inside the room, the recovery of teargas shells, the unconscious state of the gatekeeper, and the injuries on the students. The recommendations made in both the AMU and JMI reports are similar, including compensation for grievously injured students and action against erring police officers. It also recommended that the police force needs to be “sensitised” through “special training modules” in order to “inculcate professionalism”.
While the report overall discounted most testimonies and only attributed a diminished culpability on the police, the fact that acts of unnecessary use of force were carried out by the police is still established.
Besides obscuring the aspect of unethical and cruel police conduct while dealing with student protesters, the NHRC through its investigation also failed, or even refused, to investigate the social causes of the problem, including the anti-minority ideology that pervades the police conduct. In solely relying on the narrative of the law enforcement agencies, which was also the narrative of the ruling party giving orders to the police, the NHRC missed an opportunity to address the impunity.
The harassment of students including arrests and criminalisation have continued beyond the events of December 15, 2019. Still, there is no complete picture of the number of students chargesheeted in both the universities. But, what is clear from the nature of the chargesheet and the charges is that the state has no intention of prosecuting a crime, it is just using these cases to clampdown on students who are politically active and vocal in both the campuses.
With the political landscape of the country becoming increasingly repressive and authoritarian, autonomy and academic freedom are essential pillars for these institutions to survive in future. The legacy of two of the oldest and nationally renowned institutions, JMI and AMU, that nurtured the formation of an independent, secular and liberal India, is presently under systematic attack.
The author is a Delhi-based independent researcher.