‘I said sorry, but they did not care,’ German student tells Frontline from Delhi airport

Published : December 25, 2019 18:08 IST

Jakob Lindenthal at a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Chennai. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Jakob Lindenthal, 23, from Dresden in Germany, who was doing a Master’s programme in the Department of Physics at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras on an exchange programme, had to leave the country on December 23 after submitting an apology letter to the Indian government for taking part in a protest against the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Chennai last week.

Jakob became an icon of sorts among the protesters against the CAA after a picture of him carrying a placard declaring, “1933 to 1945; We Have Been There”, pointing to Nazi Germany, went viral on social media. Since he was in the country on a student visa and its rules do not permit “any sort of political engagement” in the host country, the Indian government, through its Bureau of Immigration's Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) in Chennai, informed the management of IIT Madras about his “political activism” and orally asked him to leave the country “immediately”.

Jakob left Chennai for Amsterdam via Delhi on December 24 after a three-member team at the FRRO office questioned him for an hour. His exchange programme in IIT Madras was for two semesters. He joined the institute in August and was supposed to be there until May 2020. The remaining semesters of the programme were to be completed in his country.

Jakob was not perturbed about having had to leave abruptly. He said he would continue his studies seamlessly in his parent institution. But what hurt him most was the way the Indian officials treated him. Talking to Frontline from Delhi airport, Jakob said he never knew the protest against CAA did not have any legal sanction. “It was a spontaneous decision [of mine]. I did not attach much thinking prior to my participation. People and friends told me that the Act was anti-people. They were seen in thousands. In fact, their spontaneity [in the protest] hit me. Along with my friends, I too took part,” he said.

He said the officials from the Indian government had e-mailed him, asking him to be present for a “discussion” on his residential permit. “I was in Bangalore then. I rushed to Chennai,” he said. But when the Dean of IIT Madras told him to meet the officials in Shastri Bhavan [where the passport office and other Central government offices are located in Chennai] for an enquiry on his visa, he realised the seriousness of the issue. “I understood that the protest did not have any legal permission. I told them that I did not know about it prior to my participation. I said ‘sorry’. But they did not bother to care. They told me to ‘just leave’.”

A team of three officers, including a senior woman officer, quizzed him for more than an hour. “While the officer asked me questions, the other two just watched. None, he said, wore any identification badges. A sort of laid-back attitude could be seen among the officials. It was not at all transparent. First I was told that there was a problem with my residential visa, though they had ruled out any administrative shortcomings in it. The conversation was more academic in nature initially, and cordial. The officer asked about my political leaning. But they were not satisfied with my explanation. I think they felt that I did not give them the views they expected. Mine are liberal in general,” he said.

The officials gave him a break of 15 to 20 minutes during the interrogation period. They questioned him about his opinion on the political narratives in Germany and asked him whether he knew about the visa rules of the host country. He was told that as a foreign student he had violated the rules. Any political activism was discouraged when he came to study, he was told. Jakob told them that he was not aware of such rules and in Germany such rules were not practised.

“They were not satisfied. I tried to convince them that I did not indulge in any illegal activities and had found nothing illegal in my participation in the protest too. It was a peacefully organised democratic protest, which, I presumed, was relatively a low-risk exercise. I told them I would give them a written apology, which they accepted. I gave them an informal apology letter primarily to not jeopardise my future assignments, if any, in India, a country I love most. I have many good friends here and I would like to return,” he said.

Jakob also said that his was not an act of aggression. “In Germany even students from abroad who are studying in its educational institutions are not prevented or vilified for taking part in peaceful democratic protests. Today we have emerged apolitical by nature and character and have cultivated general passiveness and tolerance. Any crime against humanity is discouraged. It was all relegated to the past. To convey this message of German humanism to the world, I held that placard in the protest that warned illiberal forces by saying, “We were there once”, he said.

After the “discussion” with officials was over, he was told to pack up immediately and leave the country. “I hardly had time to catch my flight since it was Christmas Eve. I rushed to the airport after vacating the hostel room and headed straight to the airport. There, at the entrance, I was greeted by a man whose identity I did not know. He accompanied me inside and helped clear all immigration formalities in time to catch the flight to Delhi,” he said.

He was waiting to board the flight to Germany at Delhi airport when Frontline contacted him on his mobile phone. He said all was well in Delhi airport. “No disturbances,” he said. Asked whether the German Embassy had come to his assistance, Jakob said he called them and briefed them about the developments. “They just gave me a list of lawyers’ names to contact. None of them I could connect. I just left Chennai. I wish to be back in Germany with my parents,” he said.

None in the FRRO or in IIT Madras could be contacted for their views.

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