December 15 was a chilly evening at Aligarh Muslim University and students were heading back to their residences after appearing for the ongoing semester examinations. But who knew that the night would become so dark and full of terrors?
Only 48 hours before, Aligarh SSP Akash Kulhari had promised a crowd of thousands of AMU students that he would be there to support them for nights on end if they chose to protest in a democratic manner.
“Aap democratic tareeke se apni baat rakhiye, mei aapke sath khada hu. Aap 40 din yaha protest kariye, mein aapke sath khada hu (You protest in a democratic way, I am with you. If you say you will protest for 40 days, I am with you)”, he said.
The students, impressed by the stand of the police, decided to adhere to his instructions.
Two days after the long dark night, we are now at a “university” which is surrounded by the state police and the Rapid Action Force (RAF). Thousands have been forced to leave the university, which has suspended the ongoing examinations for now. After the protest turned violent, the administration announced the closure of the university till January 5.
On that night, thousands of students had spontaneously gathered at Bab-e-Syed, the main gate of the varsity, to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the brutal actions of the Delhi Police towards the students of Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia – which ironically happens to be on the HRD ministry’s list of top 10 universities in India.
But for how long was the administration really ready to listen to the melody of dissent? The diverted traffic routes, large barricades and hundreds of policemen indicated that something else was in store.
Visuals from Aligarh Muslim University.
Security Forces throwing stones and using tear gas on AMU students who were protesting against #CABBill2019 .
— Md Asif Khan آصِف (@imMAK02) December 15, 2019
As the protest grew, the police moved to suppress it.
Soon after, the police alleged that students had started pelting stones at them. Immediately, the floodgates opened, the police aimed tear gas shells and lathis at students and stormed onto campus.
Protesting students were forced to move defensively and run for cover to avoid the spate of violence that was unleashed. Among those injured was AMU students’ union president Salman Imtiaz, who was the first person who had readily agreed with the SSP to stop the protest the other day to prevent any untoward situation.
The sound of shots being fired soon mingled with ambulance sirens as injured students were ferried to hospitals. Within hours, the whole campus had been vandalised, rooms were set on fire and many were left injured – including the innocent gatekeeper of a hall. All this, the police claims, was done to prevent ‘law and order’ problems.
ANI quoted AMU registrar Abdul Hamid as saying: “The situation in the campus is tensed, some boys and anti-social elements came and pelted stones, so we have requested the police to take action to control the situation.”
The registrar should now come out and give a statement on whether the police was able to “take action” and “control” the situation or not. But it’s more than likely that he will only try and justify the police brutality the campus became witness to.
Away from the merits and demerits from the Act, incidents like this should serve as a reminder as to how the idea of universities as places of learning is being crushed by the present dispensation.
India’s higher education may have its stars, but there’s a dark mess just beneath the veneer that it must also contend with. According to National Assessment and Accreditation Council, 68% universities are either average or below average.
So as the education system continues to teeter, the Modi regime will always be remembered as the regime that declared war against established and reputed academic institutions of the country for daring to express dissent.
Since colonial times, Indian universities have had a history of redefining democracy and student movements. Each time the state thinks itself supreme, it is students who have stood up and reminded it that it is citizens who make up the heart of democracy – not the government.
If democracy is alive today, it is because of students who attended the call of the freedom struggle to boycott their classes and protest against the British; it is because of the students who rose and dared Indira Gandhi to withdraw the Emergency. Democracy lives on because of students who chose to keep it alive when even institutions like the Supreme Court failed to do so.
At a time when free speech is a privilege limited to a few rather than being a fundamental right, at a time when the unlimited power has been vested upon the police, it is universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University, AMU, Jamia Milia Islamia, Jadavpur University and countless others that are keeping the fight to dissent alive and kicking.
The youth from the universities who have challenged the King showcased their dissent despite facing all odds – many are even fighting for their lives.
But who is protecting them? The custodians of the universities have chosen to stand with the government.
Civil society must stand up in order to have a say in India’s future – for an India which produces minds that are productive and constructive.
This is a crucial chapter in India’s history. The time has come to preserve a culture where having diverse opinions is not a crime, where students are encouraged academically, where critical thinking and public opinions are valued and students are not thrashed with lathis for expressing dissent.
Sayantan Majumder is a second year B.Sc.(Hons) Chemistry student at Aligarh Muslim University.
Photo: Screenshot from YouTube