At DU yesterday, Delhi Police watched as ABVP members attacked protesters

Police presence outside the Jamia Millia Islamia metro station. On 15 December, police responded to protests by JMI students against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act with extreme force. The next day, several protests were held in solidarity with JMI, at universities across the country, including Delhi University. Ishan Tankha
17 December, 2019

In one of several country-wide protests that erupted on 16 December, students of Delhi University organised a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, as well as the police crackdowns on students of Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University that had occurred the day before. According to protesting students at Delhi University, members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad attacked them, while the Delhi Police either looked on, or joined in. The students later decided to shift their protest to Jantar Mantar.

“As two ABVP women were dragging me by hair,” Mudita, a student of Indraprastha college, told me, “women constables of Delhi police stood motionless right there, not doing anything.” (Some students interviewed for the piece requested that their last names not be published.) These women members of the ABVP proceeded to assault and drag Mudita out of the campus premises, breaking her spectacles in the process, she said. In the meantime, she added, the women constables looked on silently and appeared amused.

Mudita’s description of the Delhi Police giving ABVP members a free hand to attack students during a largely peaceful protest resonates with the accounts of twelve other protesters and student leaders I spoke to at Delhi University on 16 December. A running thread in all these accounts was the skewed power equation between ABVP members and other student organisations, with the partisan behaviour of the Delhi Police tilting the balance in favour of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s student wing.

On 9 and 11 December, respectively, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was passed by the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. The president, on 12 December, gave his assent to the bill, following which it was published in the official gazette on the same day, granting it the status of a law. In the days that followed, multiple universities across India became sites of protest against the law, which facilitates Indian citizenship for six non-Muslim communities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Muslims from these countries who enter India will continue to be treated as illegal immigrants.

At JMI and AMU, the police responded to protests with brute force, entering the campus and attacking students with lathi charges and tear gas. At the former, tear gas was used liberally on the campus premises, including within the college library. Over a hundred students were injured, and around fifty were detained on 15 December. According to a statement put out by the human-rights activist Harsh Mander and the lawyer Ali Zia Kabir Choudhary, scores of women students were allegedly sexually assaulted with the lights switched off.

Several political organisations of Delhi University, including the All India Students Association, the Students’ Federation of India, and many others, registered their opposition to the CAA and expressed their solidarity with the students of JMI and AMU. On the morning of 16 December, students of the political-science department at DU gave a call for a peaceful protest in front of the Satyakama building in the Faculty of Arts, which was responded to by five other Master’s of Arts departments. An appeal was also made to boycott the examinations being held that day.

“We made an appeal to the students to consider what had transpired in Jamia Milia and AMU and if they thought that what had happened there was wrong, they were free to join us,” Vikash Kumar, a student of political science at Hansraj College, told me. “Close to three hundred students voluntarily joined the protest.”

The protest, which kicked off at 9 am, went on smoothly for close to two hours, although Mudita told me that three or four ABVP members at the spot attempted to provoke the students gathered there. “All their comments were intended to elicit a reaction out of us, as part of a larger agenda to abet violence and later label the whole protest as a violent demonstration and effectively delegitimise our stand,” she said. In the meantime, according to Abhigyan, a student of political science at Ramjas College, university officials called in the police to shut down the protest, since the examination hall had been closed.

According to numerous accounts, somewhere between 11 and 11.30 am, the strength of ABVP members present at the protest site grew to around a dozen. Around 11.30, the protest took a violent turn, as ABVP members began abusing and pelting stones at the protesting students. Some ABVP members attacked students with police lathis, while the police attempted to move the protest away from the Satyakama building.

Following this, students reassembled at gate number 4 of the arts faculty, where rounds of sloganeering ensued. This quickly escalated into another bout of aggression, as ABVP members selectively targeted student leaders. Abhigyan told me that a few of the ABVP women members approached Shreya, another student. “When the women were about to hit Shreya, I stepped in and close to ten–twelve ABVP goons attacked me while the police took their own time,” he said. “I was beaten and Shreya was attacked and two–three comrades were also beaten up. This sort of behaviour from the Delhi Police is not new. Even when we wanted to protest the abrogation of Article 370, Delhi Police refused to give us permission to protest and had us caged in barricades while ABVP goons were roaming freely raising slogans.”

According to several students at Delhi University, members of the ABVP attacked the protestors, and the Delhi Police did not prevent them or intervene.

According to Kawalpreet Kaur, of the DU law faculty, at gate number 4 the Delhi Police told the protesting student organisations that they were unable to offer the nearly three hundred students protection from the ABVP members. She added that the ABVP members also specifically targeted Hijab-wearing women and Kashmiri students. “It was obvious that the Delhi Police was protecting ABVP cadres,” she said. “How is it that twenty students were allowed to disrupt a protest by over two hundred students? The disruption was allowed deliberately by the Delhi Police to enable ABVP to polarise the campus and make the right issue—solidarity with students of Jamia, AMU and opposition to CAB—disappear behind a false binary of the Left and the Right. The attempt here is to create a perception of what [the finance minister] Nirmala Sitharaman said about Jihadis and Maoists getting into university activism.”

In the meantime, panic spread within WhatsApp groups of certain DU students, warning of a mass gathering of ABVP members on their way to the arts faculty, carrying knives and rods. This never materialised. When I arrived later, around 1 pm, once the scene of the protest had moved to the university plaza, I witnessed close to twenty ABVP members weakly raising slogans, with 300 students who were against them. The Delhi Police had couched itself in between the two camps.

I was later joined by my colleague, Appu Ajith, who headed closer to the ABVP camp while I was standing some distance behind them. Suddenly, a commotion erupted, and I saw a number of ABVP members running behind a person I realised, with a jolt, was Ajith. As he ran from the university plaza yard, he shouted to me that the ABVP members were hitting him. I moved over to confront them, briefly, and Ajith got away without injuries. Minor scuffles broke out between the two camps but members of the Delhi Police were prompt at breaking them apart. However, they ignored the antics of the ABVP members, who behaved with an air of nonchalance, as if this was their turf.

For many I spoke to, the protest was reminiscent of the violence that had erupted at Ramjas College in February 2017, when an invitation to Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid—JNU students at the time—and other guests, to address the students in the college, had snowballed into a fight between members of the AISA and the ABVP. At the time, the Delhi Police force also reportedly acted as passive bystanders, or stepped in on behalf of ABVP cadres. Given the history of violence in DU between student organisations, it was not surprising that a WhatsApp message suggesting a large-scale attack by ABVP members ended up stoking a wave of fear amongst students. Nevertheless, three of the students to whom I spoke—Abhigyan, Vikash and Kawalpreet—conveyed to me their intention to see through the protests in a non-violent manner, while resisting incitement by the ABVP protesters.