Nasir Chaman, 22, was in his house at 5.30pm on December 15 when his phone started buzzing with messages about violent protests in Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia.
Over the next couple of hours, the messages kept coming in — including videos and images of police excesses against students in Delhi.
“We could see policemen barging into the college and a mosque. They used tear gases and lathis on students,” said Chaman, a second-year law student at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).
Soon after, AMU students started giving out calls to stage a protest march in the campus in support of Jamia, but Chaman joined them only after a phone call from a fellow student at 7.30pm. “I was told that two Jamia students were killed in police firing.”
It turned out to be a rumour. But it seems to have been the trigger for what was to follow.
Four days later — the protests led to violence for which students and the Aligarh police blame each other — Chaman was on a bed at the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College Hospital (JNMC) in Aligarh, his right hand injured while trying to dunk a tear gas shell into a bucket of water to defuse it. His thumb may have to be amputated.
In the bed next to him, was a 26-year-old chemistry research scholar whose right hand has been amputated at the wrist. He said he simply got caught in the melee.
The injured students were visited repeatedly by the AMU vice chancellor and registrar, who came to check on them. “They came here thrice today. Each time, both of us closed our eyes and pretended to be unconscious,” said Chaman.
“The VC and Registrar are our guardians, but they closed their eyes when it really mattered.”
PERMISSION TO ENTER
The AMU authorities confirmed that as the protests spread on Sunday, they permitted the police to enter the university’s campus.
“We were in a dilemma. We could have let the situation deteriorate or called the forces inside. We chose the best possible option for our students’ safety,” said the university’s registrar, Abdul Hamid, an IPS officer who is on deputation.
What followed was a five-hour-long clash between the students and the police – a confrontation that involved stone-pelting and alleged firing by agitators, and a lathi-charge and the use of water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets by the police, which also barged into the campus’s hostels and guest houses in search of protesters.
According to multiple accounts, between 95 and 125 students, some local residents, policemen, and teachers were injured. The students alleged that they were “hunted down” and “beaten with a vengeance”. They also alleged police brutality and torture after they were detained.
Police, however, deny any excess.
The internet and text services were suspended in the entire Aligarh district after the clash. The university was prematurely closed for “winter vacations”, and students asked to pack their bags and leave at short notice.
Charges of attempt to murder, among others, were pressed against protesters and 26 people were arrested – only seven of them are from AMU.
As an uneasy tension settled over the university in the aftermath of the violence, AMU authorities have been left trying to bridge the trust deficit with angry and dejected students. Meanwhile, the police are at pains to prove that their action was proportional and justified.
IT BEGAN PEACEFULLY
The student protests in AMU over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, first started on December 11.
On December 13, nearly 1,500 students protested against the law that fast-tracks citizenship for “persecuted minorities” from three Muslim-majority countries in India’s neighbourhood.
The agitation coincided with the first stir in New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia. “They [the students] were screaming and angry, but the situation was resolved without any violence. Everyone behaved responsibly that day,” said Aligarh’s Superintendent of Police (City), Abhishek, who goes by one name.
Sporadic protests in the campus were staged on December 14 as well.
By all accounts, no protests were scheduled for December 15. Then around 5.30pm, news of violence in Jamia began to trickle in.
“I received phone calls about firing by the police in Jamia. The students there begged for the media to be sent, asked us to visit Delhi to support them,” said Salman Imtiaz, the outgoing president of the Aligarh Muslim University Students’ Union (AMUSU). Fresh student polls are yet to be carried out in the varsity.
“I went to the AMU library canteen and called a general body meeting to condemn the police action in Jamia. We led a protest march from the library to Bab-e-Syed [the varsity’s main gate],” said Imtiaz.
Initially, the protest march comprised of only a few dozens inside the campus premises.
A small police team was stationed outside the main gate. The two sides were separated by a large iron gate. “The students were being led by Imtiaz. They submitted a memorandum and things seemed fine,” said the SP, Abhishek.
At around 6pm, the SP said he got a call from AMU authorities. “The proctor’s tone was grave. He said more students were gathering and were threatening to bring down the gates. Soon, some protesters began pelting stones, but we didn’t have sufficient force there. It took us time to assemble and prepare with water cannons and tear gas shells,” the SP said.
By then, the number of protesters had swelled to over 1,500. Registrar Hamid said that over two-thirds of the people were outsiders. “Even outsiders had gathered in large numbers,” the SP said, corroborating this.
By around 8pm, half-an-hour after Chaman joined the protest, the gate was brought down and the two sides were face-to-face – with no barrier between them.
Imtiaz said that there were about a dozen men in their 40s, who were certainly not students, who were pelting stones. “I tried to stop the protesters from turning violent, but something similar to a bullet hit my chest. I blanked out. Later, I found myself in a hospital,” said Imtiaz, who has been booked under a host of Indian Penal Code sections, including attempt to murder, and is in hiding.
In no time, it became a free-for-all. “There was stone pelting from three sides and my men were at the receiving end. We couldn’t have let the crowd out of the campus. I spoke to the district magistrate and sought permission from AMU administration to enter the campus,” SP Abhishek said.
The FIR registered after the violence alleged that some protesters were firing using country-made pistols, though no one was hit.
Police say they first used water cannons, then resorted to tear gas, and finally to rubber bullets.
The violence spread inside of the campus, right up to the residence of the VC and the registrar nearly 500 metres away from the main gate. Some protesters hid in the three guest houses on the campus premises, a few entered the hostels, and the rest fought a pitched battle on the streets.
Tazeem Khan, a 20-year-old third-year undergraduate in the Urdu department, said that when the gate broke and the police charged in, he and some students ran to a guest house. Some hid in the toilets. Some others hid in the guest house rooms.
“The police broke open the guest house door. They thrashed the students. They called them “traitors”. The police then tried to break open the toilet door , but 11 of us stood firm against it. The cries of the other students were so terrible that we didn’t dare open it,” said Khan.
For about the next hour, the police did not try to break the toilet door but repeatedly asked the students to come out. In that period, Khan said he and other students made frantic calls for help.
In an audio clip sent by Khan to a WhatsApp group around that time, he is heard saying in a quivering voice: “We are hiding in the toilet of the guest house. The police are beating the boys real bad. Someone please come and help us, or we will all die”.
The police eventually broke the door, brought out the 11 students and allegedly thrashed them with the butts of their guns and lathis.
Chaman was hiding in another guest house when a tear gas shell landed next to him. The students were carrying packets of salt (in the belief that it protects from tear gas shells) and buckets of water. “I picked up the gas shell with my bare hands and had just dipped it in a bucket when it burst,” said Chaman.
Nadeem Akhtar, a 22-year-old student of modern history, said that he was way behind in the crowd of protesters when he was hit by a rubber bullet in his forehead around 10.30pm. He regained consciousness 12 hours later to know he had suffered a head injury and is among the few students still hospitalised. “I had come out to protest peacefully to show my sympathy for Jamia students beaten by the police,” said Akhtar, who belongs to Bihar.
The chemistry research scholar whose hand is amputated did not want to be named because his mother still does not know about his injuries. He said he wasn’t even aware of the protest.
“I had been to the city for shopping. I returned to the campus in the late afternoon, studied for a while, left my laptop in the laboratory and had dinner. As I emerged from the mess at 9.15pm, I heard loud noises and went to see (what was happening), but got caught up in a stampede. I turned around to run, but stumbled and fell. I don’t remember anything after that,” he said.
Dr Mohd Kashif of JNMC said that a tear gas shell burst near the student’s hand. “When he was brought to the hospital, only one finger remained. He was awake and asked for a painkiller. He then requested me not to inform his parents. His hand has been amputated from his wrist,” said Dr Kashif.
Another student, who did not want to be identified, said that when he and two others refused to come out of their hostel room, the police broke open a window and fired a tear gas shell inside. “My room went up in fire. My laptop burnt. We were left with no option but to run out,” he said.
Meanwhile, as injured students began to be brought to JNMC (the hospital is affiliated to AMU), doctors there began sending private ambulances to the campus. A 28-year-old ambulance driver, who asked not to be named, said that he made two rounds to the campus and returned for the third when some policemen allegedly smashed the window of the van, pulled out his key, and thrashed him with lathis.
He suffered a dislocated left shoulder, and is still wearing his arm in a sling.
The SP said that the situation was brought under control hours a little after 1am. There were 30 injured policemen by then, but none of them in serious condition. The number of injured protesters ranged between 50 and 80. Another 15 teachers and staff members were hurt, said the registrar.
AFTER THE ARRESTS
Tanzeem Khan, like many other students, was rounded up in a police gypsy and taken to Gandhi Park police station. His fingers were fractured, but he alleged that he was not treated immediately. “When I asked for water, the policemen called me a Pakistani and said they would urinate in my mouth,” alleged the student.
He was taken to a district hospital around 11.30pm and given a painkiller and an injection. “Inside the hospital, a policeman began beating me with a stick. It was only when his colleague said that I would die, that he stopped,” alleged Khan.
His injury was not treated at the hospital, and he was taken to another police station in the early hours. There he met another injured student, Ashutosh. “A policeman told Ashutosh that he too had turned into a traitor with the AMU students. Ashutosh responded by placing my head on his lap,” said Khan.
Nine students were kept at that police station till December 16, allegedly without food and medical treatment. “When the family of another prisoner arrived with food for him, all nine of us pounced on that and ate what we could,” said Khan.
SP Abhishek denied all allegations of police excesses, but did not respond to specific questions about the charges being aired by the students against the police.
PROTESTS OUTSIDE, UNIVERSITY SHUT
On December 16, protests erupted in many other parts of Aligarh, forcing the police to release all the arrested 26 people on bail.
On the morning of the 16th, the university announced the postponement of all semester exams and advanced the winter vacations that were actually scheduled from December 23.
“Nearly 12,000 hostel students were asked to pack their bags and leave within hours of the violence. A student from Tripura could not afford flight tickets to return home. I arranged his accommodation at a friend’s home. Many women students found themselves out on the streets. This was unprecedented in the university,” said Dr Arshi Khan, professor in department of political science. “Things are much worse here than in Jamia, but not too many people know because of the Internet ban.”
Internet and SMS services in the district continue to be suspended on Friday evening.
AMU registrar Hamid said that when police are called to a varsity campus, there is always the danger of excess. “Our VC has sent a message to students that an inquiry has been requested. On the face of it, it seems there were excesses and a magisterial enquiry will clear up things,” he said.
“Our children suffered due to outsiders and their anger against us is justified. But they need to realise that they shouldn’t have moved (around) with violent mobs,” said Hamid.
He added that efforts are being made to bridge the gap between students and the administration. “We facilitated the travel of students. We are paying for all medical expenses of the hospitalised students,” said Hamid.
AMU spokesperson, Omar Peerzada, said that nearly 100 buses with security guards were dispatched from Aligarh to different parts of the country to help students return home.
“Every student living within a 350km radius was sent (home) by our buses. We also had five buses for Jammu. We requested the Railways to halt all long-distance trains passing through Aligrah. The students without train tickets were accommodated in them,” said Peerzada.
While the registrar acknowledged that it will require much effort to bridge the trust deficit, he said it could have been worse.
“Fortunately, no one died.”