In this exclusive report from Aligarh city, journalist Zulkarnain Banday speaks with students and teaching staff at Aligarh Muslim University about the recent crackdown by Indian security forces on peaceful protests against anti-Muslim citizenship laws.
Sitting on the newly installed stainless steel benches of the central canteen at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Wajahat Sayeed, a 23-year-old Physics student recounts the horrors of the evening of December 15 when Indian police entered the campus to “punish” peaceful student protesters on the request of Vice-Chancellor, Professor Tariq Mansoor.
“The sheer scale of the brutality was unprecedented, I have never seen police behaving like this in any other university but Jamia and AMU,” says Wajahat.
The turbulent scenes at the university shocked not only the students but professors and non-teaching staff alike. As reports of police brutality started trickling out, support for the university and the students grew across India.
“We were protesting peacefully at the university gate when the police and Rapid Action Forces (RAF) barged in and started firing rubber bullets, teargas shells, stun grenades and resorted to baton charge,” Wahajat recalls.
One of the premier universities of India, AMU is situated in the heart of Aligarh city, around 140 miles away from the capital New Delhi, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Considered as the tinderbox of communal tension, the state is currently ruled by the hardliner monk from the BJP, Yogi Adityanath.
According to the senior superintendent of police (SSP), Akash Kulhari, the police did resort to “mild” baton-charge in “self-defence” to disperse the “violent mob”. However, all the witnesses 5Pillars spoke to recollect the siege of their university, which took place under the cover of darkness and amidst a clampdown on internet services in Aligarh.
“On the face of it, it seems they wanted revenge. By any stretch of the imagination you can’t say the police acted to disperse the crowd, they wanted to punish and terrorise the students,” says M Salman Imitiyaz, the former president of AMU’s students’ union who is currently in hiding.
More than a hundred students have received minor and major injuries due to police violence. Fearing reprisal from police and university authorities, most of the students did not want to register their names at the Jawahar Lal Nehru Medical College and Hospital (JNMC), a standard procedure in Indian hospitals.
The Vice-Chancellor’s office immediately put out a statement justifying police action against students by calling it “timely and a necessary step”.
The students had gathered at the Bab-e-Syed gate, a huge entrance structure made of pink sandstone, after news about the brutal crackdown on students at Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi reached AMU.
According to Salman, it was a peaceful protest in solidarity with the students of Jamia.
“The momentum and mobilisation of students rattled the university authorities and they wanted to crush us”, he added. Salman was injured in his chest when a teargas canister hit him at a very close range.
Tanzeem Khan, a 20-year-old BA student is currently admitted at JNMC with multiple fractures in both his arms. Sweat gleamed on his forehead while recounting the horrors.
A frail yet defiant Tanzeem told 5Pillars that the police chased the students to their hostels. “They thrashed the security guard and broke the front door. We ran and reached guest house number 3. The police chased us there as well”, he added.
Allegations against the police include dragging students from their rooms and brutally beating them up in the courtyards and parks. Tanzeem said: “I, along with my friends hid in the washroom for two hours, but they broke the door and dragged us and then beat us with bamboo and polycarbonate sticks.”
Over 200 CCTV cameras are installed on the campus of AMU, however, the students allege that the university administration had turned the cameras off. A single clip from a CCTV footage surfaced on the internet in which the security forces are seen thrashing the students and bundling them into their vehicles.
Tanzeem said: “While beating the students, the police was shouting “Inko aache se maaro camera band hai (beat them properly the cameras are off). At least 40 policemen were beating us like animals.”
He also claims that he was taken from one police station to another. “When I was bundled in the police vehicle, a barrage of anti-Muslim slurs followed. They treated us as if we were criminals.” Many students told 5Pillars that they were called “Jinaah’s progeny” and Islamophobic slurs like katua (circumcised).
“At the Banna Devi police station when I asked for water, I was told by the policeman that they will urinate in my mouth. My injured hand was shivering and profusely bleeding for the whole night,” Tanzeem said.
There are around four seriously injured students currently admitted to the hospital. One of them is Mohammad Tariq, 26, currently being treated in ward number three. His hand has been amputated from the wrist. Son of a retired vending factory worker, Tariq is a research scholar studying chemistry.
“I can never hold my pen again” laments Tariq. “I don’t want my mother to know what has happened to me because she is a heart patient and won’t be able to bear the shock.”
Hundreds of thousands of people hit the streets when the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) was passed in both upper and lower houses of the Indian parliament. This law will exclusively grant Indian citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Jains from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan – not Muslims.
Students mainly from Jamia and AMU, which are both minority institutions, were at the forefront of the agitation that has now galvanised the country.
According to Indian government figures, 25 people, mainly Muslims, have been killed, including an 8-year-old boy in the nationwide protests. 18 were killed in Uttar Pradesh, five in Assam and two in Mangalore.
Violence like “Kashmir and Palestine”
Dr Hamza Malik, president of the Resident Doctors Association (RDA) recounted the horror. He said: “I saw Kashmir and Palestine at AMU campus.” Adding that the weapons used on students are used in war zones like Kashmir and Palestine.
“Our ambulances were attacked, drivers were thrashed and all this happened because the university administration allowed it to happen, they are hand in glove with the police in suppressing students,” he said.
5Pillars spoke with an ambulance driver who was slapped multiple times. He alleged that he was abused and window-panes of his ambulance were smashed by Indian security forces. Around 20 government and private universities were ferrying injured students and civilians to the hospital.
Room number 46 of the Morison Hostel in Aftab Hall also bears the testimony of police brutality. Broken window panes, charred quilts, and fire that has left the residue on the walls of the room.
The university is shut. The administration has preponed winter vacations and the authorities have asked students to vacate their hostel rooms. A group of female PhD scholars told 5Pillars that they were dragged from their rented apartments and hostels outside the university campus.
“Even during the sine die we are given at least 24 hours to leave the university. However this time we were asked to vacate rooms as soon as possible,” says one of the disgruntled scholars.
“When we tried to argue, we were threatened with suspension from our departments. It is both illegal and immoral,” says another scholar who claims she was abused and “literally dragged” from her room.
Forced evacuation of students
The claims of forcing students out from their hostels were denied by the university proctor, Professor Afifullah Khan. “This is completely false,” he said.
During winter vacations, it is the discretion of the students whether they want to remain on campus or go home. However, this time they were not given any choice whatsoever.
When 5Pillars asked Professor Khan about the students being given choice, he said: “Why should students stay in their hostels when the university is closed?
“The elaborate arrangements were made for all the students residing within 350 kilometres from the university. The buses ferried them and each bus was accompanied by at least two policemen.” A preliminary fact finding report by rights groups Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) and the Quill Foundation concluded that “the entire incident is a shocking display of police brutality and impunity in the face of peaceful democratic protests by AMU students.”
The same view was reiterated by the Chief Justice of Allahabad High Court when he squarely stated that, “You (state) have made it a war-like situation.”
The Court was responding to a petition demanding a judicial inquiry into the acts of violence and arbitrary detention at AMU.
The High Court further directed the District Magistrate to ensure all necessary medical aid and assistance to anyone injured as a consequence of police violence at AMU. The next hearing is on Thursday 2nd January 2020.
Meanwhile, there are barricades at every intersection leading to AMU. A huge contingent of armed forces, comprising mainly RAF and local police are stationed outside the university. The campus and its vicinity remains visibly militarised.
Zulkarnain Banday is an independent journalist and researcher based in New Delhi. He has previously worked with Hindustan Times and has been published in The Statesman, Caravan Magazine, The Dawn and Project India Magazine.