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A lesson in solidarity from Jamia Millia Islamia’s teachers

  • The faculty at the university has stood by their students against both CAA and police brutality
  • Professors have provided refuge, and made sure their students are safe even at great risk to their own physical safety

Teachers and students protesting inside Jamia Millia Islamia.
Teachers and students protesting inside Jamia Millia Islamia. (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

On 13 December, the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre (AJKMCRC) in Jamia Millia Islamia hosted an exhibition by Azadeh Akhlaghi, an Iranian artist who recreates the most horrific death scenes in her country. Imran Alam, a professor in the department, was charged with the responsibility of documenting the event. “All of a sudden, we started hearing sounds. It felt like thunder but it wasn’t a thunderstorm," says Alam.

A few of his colleagues and he rushed across the road, from where the sounds were emanating. “Our eyes started burning, it was tear gas. As we got closer, the burning became more intense—our noses started burning, our throats started collapsing."

It was on this day that citizens from the locality had organized a march to Parliament, to protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), which has now sparked nationwide protests. The police barricaded the area from the university’s gate No.1; there were clashes between the police and protesters—a mix of students and locals from the area.“Around 40 students were detained that day, and in solidarity other students remained on campus until their friends were released," says Majid Jamil, president, Jamia Teachers Association (JTA).

Two days later, the violence escalated. Alam was on campus and at around 5.30pm,he started hearing sounds once again and rushed to the source. He noticed crowds would advance on the streets and rush back along the main road as the police came up ahead. But then the police began marching in. The crowd dispersed quickly, and the roads were deserted, he tells me when we meet on campus earlier this week. “Then they started firing inside the campus from the main road. There was chaos. I was near the reading room, and the students in the library were still studying," he says.

“I don’t know what the orders were. It is hard to imagine...the police entered through the main gate, entered through the reading room, threw tear gas inside, students were stunned. Before they could realize what is happening, the police started lathi-charging." All the gates were covered by men in uniform. Alam, with a few students, hid behind the reading room as tear gas shells fell almost right next to them for close to 45 minutes. “They were just beating students. It was so horrific."

When things calmed down, he got up to escape and heard his name. “Imran sir!" someone called out from the next building. A few girls, evidently terrified, were hiding there. Alam frantically messaged the director and the provost, got a security guard and escorted them out of the building, dropping them to a friend’s home where they would spend the night.

Jamil too had come to campus, urging both police and protesters to stop. “I got up on my car and pleaded with everyone—protesters and police—to leave. My window was smashed," he says. “After that, a lot of the teachers spent the night outside the police station or rushing across hospitals to offer any help they could," he adds.

That night, as various students’ unions and civil society members gathered outside the old Delhi Police headquarters in protest, the Jamia teachers coordinated efforts to make sure students were safe.

On 18 December, three days after the incident, as our autorickshaw rattled towards gate No.13 of the university, there was a neat boundary in place with rope, and volunteers were directing traffic as protesters behind them screamed chants rejecting the CAA. There were police buses, and officials armed with lathis and riot gear sat in large numbers on the side of the road. Inside, the walls were covered with graffiti that echoed the student sentiment out on the streets. “Be Safe. Police Ahead," read one.

Gathered in the courtyard were close to 500 teachers, holding up placards thanking various institutions, both national and international, for the solidarity they had shown the students of Jamia, signs rejecting the CAA and condemning the violence on their students. As they walked silently towards Ansari Auditorium to address a press conference, the soundtrack was provided by the students outside—“Inquilab zindabad, CAA murdabad!"

The teachers have stood by their students all through. Perhaps the most powerful symbol of this solidarity came from the following incident: “The JTA meeting was on—and news came that police is advancing again. So we charged out and made a ring to make sure we are in front if anything happens. Our role was to pacify the students and not let them feel they are alone or being silenced," says assistant professor Sohail Akbar.

The attack on the students came as a terrifying jolt. They were labelled everything from Maoists to Islamists and accused of torching buses (later, the police arrested 10 non-students in relation with the incident) by both government officials and people. As assistant professor, AJKMCRC, Fathima Nizaruddin puts it: “People should realize, if this is a pattern across the country, it will come for your kids in colleges as well. This narrative helps no one."

Teachers marched in solidarity with the students and thanked other institutions for supporting Jamia. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Teachers marched in solidarity with the students and thanked other institutions for supporting Jamia. Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Her colleague Anugyan Nag adds, “When we hear this kind of discourse from the public, ministers and media, it’s very unfortunate. The Jamia community is very aware of what their losses could be, and they know how to protest. We don’t need to teach our students that,"

Over the two days after 15 December, teachers spent their time quelling rumours—the hostels were not closed, no student had died, as the reports suggested. Still, traumatized by the attack on their friends and the volatile atmosphere in and around the institution, many of them left the campus.

Akhtar had received a call from one of his colleagues saying his daughter and four other students were stranded at the Jasola (Apollo) Metro station. “I got them home to my place," he says. “Sitting with them, I watched all the videos of students being beaten up in the library, all the horrible visuals. I could sense their fear also. When things calmed down, my assistant managed a car and got them home."

As uncertainty looms large and trauma lingers, Alam scrolls through images of the library he shot the morning after the incident. A jacket caught in a shattered window, a stray shoe on the floor, exploded tear-gas shells on desks.

Teachers and students continue their fight. “We have constituted certain committees, we will strategize on our next steps and our fight against the CAA will continue," says JTA president Jamil.

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