On the evening of Sunday, December 15 , Maulana Mohd. Suleman Qasmi was standing at the iron gate behind the mosque of Jamia Millia Islamia. Hailing from Nuh in Mewat, he had taught Islamiyat/Islamic Studies at the university for many years before retiring in 1977. Since then, he had been the imam of the mosque on the university campus and lived in a modest dwelling behind the grand structure. The splendid mosque and its clean surroundings exude a spirit of serenity. The university is spread across a wide tract of land on both sides of the public road with more than a dozen gates for entry and exit. The white opulence of the mosque is in contrast to the prominent red brick facade that leads to departments constructed alongside well-kept lawns. One of the gates, right next to the Dr Zakir Hussain Library of Jamia, leads to the main entrance of the mosque.
That evening, there was a call by students of Jamia for a Gandhi peace march, which was joined in large numbers by residents from adjoining areas. Afroz Alam Sahil, a journalist who has written a book on Mahatma Gandhi’s connection with Jamia, explained why it was natural for students of the university to claim Gandhi’s legacy: “The truth is he [Gandhi] had a significant role in sustaining this institution. In fact, the founding fathers of Jamia have contributed more to the independence movement and the subsequent secular nation-building project than the ruling party of today.” That evening, the students were marching to convey to the government that they were against the new discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC). The Act goes against the basic tenets of the Constitution and makes naturalisation harder for Muslims while welcoming people from some other communities, including, of course, Hindus, from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh for grant of Indian citizenship. The new law will effectively marginalise 200 million Indian Muslims, who stand the risk of becoming stateless once the NRC gets implemented across the country, as was the government's stated intention. In terming immigrants “termites”, Home Minister Amit Shah echoed the Hindu nationalist hatred for Muslims. Against this backdrop, the bespectacled Maulana, with his snow-white beard, was keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings.
Around 6 in the evening, a horde of policemen in riot gear came sprinting across the campus and tried to break the imposing iron gate. Afraid of what might follow, the guard let them in. The policemen barged into the mosque and beat up people reading the namaz, not even sparing girls who had run inside for refuge. One of the men caught the imam by the collar and landed hard blows on him. When the guard, an ex-Army man, protested, he was manhandled and beaten. When someone pointed out that a mosque was a sacred place, a policeman thundered: “Haven’t you heard of the Swarna Mandir [Golden Temple] and what happened there?” The threat sent a chill down the man’s spine. He told Frontline later that he felt like retorting: “Haven't you heard of Indira Gandhi and what happened to her?” But he kept his mouth shut because “otherwise they would have killed me, they were so high on hatred”.
It was only when they “got tired of the fun” that the police left, he added. Ignoring his own injuries, the Maulana ran upstairs and for the next hour or so appealed for peace from the loudspeaker. Urging protesters and the police alike to maintain calm, he pleaded for restraint. But the police were not in a mood for negotiation. The rest of the night, until day broke, the Maulana ran around with his family and associates to help the injured and ensure their safety.
It was only later that they found out about the terrifying violence the police had unleashed on students inside the campus. Earlier in the evening, protesters had gathered around Jullena and Mathura Road. They turned from the police barricades to a side road when suddenly, without provocation, the police embarked on a violent lathi charge. The standard procedure in any protest is for the police to disperse the crowd. Instead, the police chased the protesters, dragged them and beat them with a vengeance that has not been seen on the streets of Delhi for decades. Even when the crowd was clearly retreating, the police went on beating people. Some students ran inside homes for safety, but the police warned the residents of severe consequences if they helped the students. The language that the policemen used made their intent amply clear to witnesses. They did not want to stop the protest. They wanted to show Muslims that they were second-class citizens.
Two buses were set on fire several kilometres away from the Jamia campus. A video purportedly showing a policeman pouring fuel on a bus was found to be false, and the Delhi Police denied it. No one knew who had set the buses on fire. Yet the police took it as a cue to wreak havoc on all protesters. By now the students had returned to the campus. A huge police posse streamed in through three gates and charged at everyone. They cornered around 200 students in front of the library and made sure they had no way to escape. Around 15 students raised their hands up to show that their protest was non-violent. The police responded by snatching their phones one by one and breaking them. Then the police systematically broke all the CCTV cameras in the vicinity and made the students kneel down. “Once this was done,” said one student who was present there, “they began hitting us with batons while hurling religious slurs. One asked me my age and when I said 21, he asked me whether I would bring azadi . One felt my stare too intent and crushed my prescription glasses. The beatings went on forever.”
The policemen smashed all the glass in the library and lobbed tear gas shells inside. Students who were studying in the library and were not part of the protest were assaulted. A young boy who sustained injuries all over his body and had both his hands broken told Frontline that he had never taken part in any protest in his life, but the barbarism he experienced had changed his outlook and he now stood with the protesters. The police also entered washrooms and girls’ hostels and misbehaved with resident students. A group of girls who had hidden in a washroom lay unconscious from 10:30 p.m. until someone found them at 6 in the morning.
A student who had locked himself in a building in front of the central library was filming the incident from behind a window with iron bars. Cops broke the windowpanes, abusing him and even throwing stones at him. “They tried to break the lock and enter but could not,” said a visibly shaken scholar. An atmosphere of dread and panic was created by the policemen. Outside the campus, it was worse, with the police lobbing tear gas shells, firing rubber bullets and beating anybody who looked like a Muslim. Sounds of gunfire and the effects of tear gas were felt deep inside the Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods of Okhla and Jamia Nagar near by, where residents locked themselves in with burning eyes. Rumours flew thick and fast of a curfew as people, fearing a lockdown, rushed to stock up on essentials.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remark in Jharkhand that the protesters could be recognised by their clothes seemed to provide a cue to TV news channels, which started suggesting that only Muslims were protesting the new law. Several victims later told Frontline that the policement who beat them during protests called them “ katuva ” (circumcised) and asked: “What problem do you have with Modi?” The police were unmistakably communalised and acted like storm troopers of the Sangh Parivar. They were indistinguishable from the plain-clothes baton-wielding men who were even more brutal in their violence and language. There have been allegations that some of them belonged to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. But the Delhi Police denied the allegation.
As the news spread of the brutal crackdown, some students were taken to hospital while others were taken to police stations where, in a complete disregard of the law, lawyers were not allowed to meet the detainees. The women’s rights activist Farah Naqvi, who was running between two police stations to ascertain who was inside, called December 15 a Black Day in the history of India: “Because that day and night, the Indian government, on the basis of its unbridled power, attacked unarmed students in a manner that is unacceptable in any democratic free nation. Can we, as citizens, not even exercise our right to dissent against a hard and unjust government stance?”
When the human rights activist Harsh Mander and a lawyer were finally allowed in, they found that the police had been thrashing detainees inside the station as well. One student, who was not well, was taken from the station to hospital several times without being given access to his panic-stricken family.
The manner in which the media covered the incident sometimes appeared as if the media were also part of the attack, said Yogendra Yadav of the Swarajya Abhiyan.
In the wake of the protests and their violent suppression, Jamia announced winter holidays and postponed all the examinations, a move that emptied out the university’s hostels and rendered students homeless. Against this sudden decision to close down the campus, the Vice Chancellor’s statement that the police had entered the campus without permission and that the university stood with the students rang hollow, and students demanded her expulsion.
As police excesses engulfed Aligarh Muslim University and several towns of Uttar Pradesh over the next few days, citizens in and around Jamia mobilised to register their protest. The State highway from Kalindi Kunj to Noida was blocked by residents of Shaheen Bagh in a leaderless protest that saw housewives sleeping on the streets in the bitterly cold nights and men cooking food for the entire community. Aasif Mujtaba, a research scholar from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi and a resident of Shaheen Bagh, told Frontline that the demonstrators’ only demand was that the CAA be rolled back because it subverted the secular character of the country. He stressed that the Shaheen Bagh protest was completely non-violent: “This is the most non-violent protest with not even a single instance of stone-pelting. Women and men are equally contributing and raising their voice against the diabolic agenda of the government. Under the garb of citizenship, the government wants to create a bigger rift in society. We are not fighting here as Muslims or for our religion, but we are fighting here as Indians for the Constitution that was given to us. This is civil disobedience 2.0. Gandhi started the first civil disobedience against the tyranny of the British, and this is against the nefarious BJP and the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] and by all means they will not succeed in creating a rift in society.”
Others at Shaheen Bagh pointed out that Muslims did not raise their voice when the Bharatiya Janata Party government intervened over triple talaq and scrapped Article 370 of the Constitution or when the judiciary ruled in favour of a Hindu temple on the site of the Babri Masjid. But this time the government had gone too far. They felt that the Modi government’s brutal suppression of the voices of India’s citizens would lead to its undoing.