VC of university stormed by police demands inquiry

The vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) in New Delhi has demanded a high-level inquiry into how police were able to enter the university’s campus on 15 December without permission and attack students causing dozens of injuries, some serious.

Police stormed the campus of the prestigious university after disturbances erupted in streets outside the university in the capital in anger against the amended Citizenship Act, which strives to make it easier for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh to become Indian nationals, while excluding Muslims originating from these countries.

Protests in Delhi’s Jamia area on 15 December involving thousands of protesters turned violent as agitators set fire to three buses and some other vehicles. The police then baton-charged the protesters and fired tear gas shells. The police stormed the JMI university campus alleging they were chasing protesters.

The Indian parliament had passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 earlier this month, and it was signed into law by the country’s president, Ram Nath Kovind. Critics say the act is discriminatory as it excludes Muslims.

Protests to the Citizenship Amendment Act first erupted in the country’s north-eastern states, at several places in the states of Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya, with internet and SMS services banned in many places in the three states.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has appealed to citizens to maintain peace. In New Delhi an emergency law banning large gatherings in various areas of the capital was imposed on 18 December as protests continued through the week and spread to various campuses.

Worst affected

The Jamia area of Delhi was among the worst affected, but the University of Madras in the southern state of Tamil Nadu was also stormed.

Other universities where protests have taken place – as much in solidarity with students at JMI after the police attack as against the new law – include the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, the National Law University Delhi and the University of Delhi in the capital, IIT Kanpur, Banaras Hindu University, Aligarh Muslim University, Lucknow University, Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama college in Lucknow in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, and Chandigarh and Panjab universities in Punjab.

Protests also occurred at university campuses in Kolkata, Hyderabad, Chennai, Kochi, Pondicherry, Bengaluru and Mumbai, including at IIT Bombay, as well as all over the southern state of Kerala.

Students of the University of Madras in Chennai organised a protest against the contentious legislation. On 17 December, police entered the Madras University campus and two students were taken into custody. However, they were released the next day. Police personnel continued to be stationed on the campus and unrelenting students said they would continue the agitation.

Storming of Jamia

However, a major focus has been on the storming of the JMI campus. Students said police entered the campus without permission, beating up students, injuring dozens and destroying university property. Police fired tear gas inside the university library and roughed up and detained many students.

JMI Vice-Chancellor Najma Akhtar, at a press conference on Monday 16 December, described some of the police actions as “atrocities”, particularly in the university’s library where students were innocently studying when they came under police attack. “That is not acceptable,” she said.

"We request that there should be a high-level inquiry into this entire matter. We will demand our minister [Human Resource Development Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’] probe how the police entered the campus without permission. The police entered the library and beat up the kids. They were studying inside. That is not acceptable. A high-level inquiry should be conducted to find out who was at fault,” she said.

Akhtar said: “I am saddened by the way my students have been treated. I want to tell them that they are not alone in this fight. I’m with them and I will take this matter forward as far as possible.”

“The police were not allowed to enter the campus; they forcibly entered. Our students were beaten mercilessly and were taken to the police station,” said Waseem Ahmed Khan, the university’s chief proctor, who described the storming as a “war-like situation”, involving tear gas, although police have confirmed no shots were fired.

He added that the police had not distinguished between students and “miscreants” in storming the university.

JMI administration in a statement said that the violence in the proximity of the university occurred during a protest organised by the people of the nearby areas and the JMI students were not involved.

Many arrests, but students later released

Later on Sunday 15 December, students, teachers and civil society members reached the Delhi Police Headquarters to protest against the police action and detention of students, demanding the immediate release of those detained and the withdrawal of the police from the Jamia area as well as a free and fair probe into what they said was unacceptable police brutality. Students maintained that they hadn’t indulged in violence.

Police claimed they had entered the campus while chasing those involved in arson and violence. They made many arrests.

University officials met with the police commissioner to get at least 50 of the university’s students released from custody. “Our university officers worked the whole night to get their release,” Vice-Chancellor Akhtar said, adding that the safety of the students had been the university’s first priority on the night.

The university said they had a list of over 200 Jamia students injured on the night – some seriously. Many of them had been injured inside the library.

The vice-chancellor questioned how police could enter the campus of any university like that, saying that, if the issue was not tackled satisfactorily, it could happen again as the university was situated in the city centre, with its boundaries not so clearly demarcated.

“And Jamia should not be targeted; it is a peaceful university. Here kids come from all over the country to study. They are safe here, so do not target or defame them and make them feel insecure,” she said, referring to mobs outside the university who sought to put the blame on university students.

A statement issued by the Jamia students said: “We have time and again affirmed that our protests are peaceful and non-violent. We stand by this approach and denounce anyone indulging in violence. We have maintained calm even when students have been baton-charged and some female protesters have been brutally thrashed. Violence by certain elements is an attempt to slander and undermine legitimate protests.”

The university had been demanding a bypass around the university for many years so that the JMI campus could become secure, Akhtar said, adding that there had been much damage to university property, which was currently being assessed. Costly pieces of equipment and facilities were destroyed or damaged.

Protests spread

On 18 December members of the Jamia Teachers’ Association organised a peace march to express gratitude towards all educational institutions that backed JMI students in their protest against the new nationality law. Around 200 teachers took part in the peaceful march.

But violence has been reported in various parts of the country over the controversial legislation and after police action in New Delhi against students, several university campuses have been on the boil.

Protests on campuses have occurred at Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Mumbai, Kolkata and many other places. Students of a number of universities across the country took to the streets to protest police brutality at Jamia and the controversial new act. Thousands of students are demanding the withdrawal of the Citizenship Amendment Act. As protests continue, many universities have declared holidays.

JMI’s Akhtar said the university was among the first to bring forward its December vacations, but nonetheless many students were still on campus at the time of the police storming as many of them lived far away. “We will try to facilitate their return [home],” Akhtar said.

At Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, students staged demonstrations and shouted slogans. The security forces violently stormed the campus using tear gas on the agitating students and arrested many.

The internet was suspended in the city and AMU authorities asked students to vacate the hostels. The university authorities also announced that the winter holidays would run from 16 December until 5 January, whereas previously they had been scheduled to begin on 23 December.

Harsh Mander a prominent human rights activist, said he would file an official complaint of serious police ‘atrocities’ over at AMU on Sunday 15 December.

Students of Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama college, a 125-year-old Islamic seminary in Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow also came out in support of AMU students. Uttar Pradesh Director General of Police OP Singh said: “A group of students at Nadwatul Ulama college in Lucknow tried to come out of the campus in protest but were not allowed.” They threw stones from inside the campus but no one was injured, he said.

A group of students at the Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, said Delhi police had used excessive force against JMI students and demanded that the government withdraw the citizenship law.

Students at IIT Bombay in Mumbai and Jadavpur University in Kolkata marched through the city expressing their solidarity with Jamia students.

Students of Hyderabad’s Maulana Azad National Urdu University condemned the police action at JMI and shouted slogans against the government and police. A university official said that the student unions called for a boycott of several examinations starting from 16 December.

Government ‘unfazed’

Unfazed by protests, Union Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah said: “The government is firm on implementing the citizenship law and we will guarantee that people who have been denied their rights for so many years are given nationality.”

Meanwhile, Union Human Resource Development Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ has exhorted the students to stay away from violence and maintain peace on campuses.

The minister tweeted: “I appeal to all students to stay away from violence and maintain peace on campuses. Please do not pay heed to rumours. At this point, we need to propagate feelings of peace, harmony and brotherhood. We should not indulge in an activity which is not in the interests of the nation.”

On 17 December, the United Nations raised concerns about “excessive force” used against students. Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesperson for the UN secretary general, said: “We call for restraint and urge full respect for the rights of freedom of opinion and expression and peaceful assembly.”

University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma contributed to this article.