“Agar sadan unki hai, toh sadak tumhari hai”—If the parliament is theirs, the street is yours. Afaq Haider, a student of the Jamia Millia Islamia, a public central university in Delhi, was urging other students to be prepared for a long fight against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. The doctoral scholar, who addressed the crowd from an elevated platform next to the main gate of the JMI, said that this was a fight for the protection of the Constitution and not for or against any religion. Haider asked the students to be proud of the fact that the Muslim community, which has no support from political parties or mainstream media, had led the charge.
It was 14 December, the second day of a protest by students of JMI against the Citizenship Act that had been signed into law two days ago. The act will facilitate Indian citizenship for migrants based on their religion. Members of the Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Christian, Parsi and Hindu communities from India’s three Muslim-majority neighbours—Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh—would be granted citizenship, provided they entered India before 31 December 2014. Migrants from the Muslim communities of these countries will not be entitled to benefits under the act, and will continue to be considered as illegal immigrants. Many of the students I spoke to believe the act is a precursor to a nation-wide implementation of the National Register of Citizens—which will be used as a tool to strip Indian Muslims of their citizenship. The union home minister Amit Shah has repeatedly asserted the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s resolve to enumerate a pan-India NRC.
The day before, the students of JMI had declared that they would march to the parliament to protest against the act. Shaheen Abdullah, a journalism student, told me, “The whole idea of marching towards the parliament was to make the legislators know that we are against the act, while the house was still in session.” As the students assembled, they were joined by local residents—JMI is located in Okhla, a Muslim-majority assembly constituency of Delhi. The march resulted in a clash with the Delhi Police, who had erected barricades and lathi charged the students as they reached the blockade. The police then used teargas to disperse the crowd. Multiple eyewitnesses told me that the use of force by the police was unprovoked and unilateral. The police also entered the campus and beat up several students, including Abdullah. He was detained by the police, along with 41 other students, and all of them were released late that evening.
Rameesh EK, a doctoral scholar, told me the protest had begun with the simple idea of marching to the parliament. He said that since it is a student-led protest, there was no long-term goal and they expected the protest to evolve as it goes. The protests were not being led by any one student organisation, but by several small student bodies. However, before the students could clearly articulate their plan of action, the police cracked down on the marchers with an aggressive display of force. Ironically, the police action seems to have had the opposite of the desired effect.
Unlike the first day of the protest, on day two, the students observed sit-ins on the campus as student leaders had called for restricting protests within the varsity’s premises. A call had been sent out asking students not to join with the locals who had assembled outside the campus again, though their participation was being debated and contested. A few Hindu students from Left student-organisations were also present. On all sides, there were discussions on whether the issue of religion or the protection of the Constitution ought to be the pivot of the protests. However, the students were unanimous in their anger and disappointment towards the mainstream media’s coverage of the first day of the protests.
The dominant narrative in mainstream print and television misrepresented the students as rioters or tried to rationalise the police’s disproportionate use of force against a gathering of unarmed students. The Indian Express printed pictures of students throwing stones and an image of a cop being injured. There were no pictures of any of the students’ injuries in the newspaper. The Hindu, too, used a similar picture highlighting the students’ aggression. Television channels mostly ran footage of students chasing television journalists and camera persons out of the campus. One student, who I met in the university canteen summed it up as, “The Hindu walon ko hamari injury nahi dikhayi deti kya?”—Can The Hindu not see our injuries?
Over two days of the protests I spoke to at least fifty students, local residents and working professionals, who had come to show their solidarity. Most of the students told me the anger against the government and the judiciary—under Narendra Modi—was simmering for long. The demolition of the Babri Masjid, the Batla House encounter and the subsequent smear campaign run by the media against the university, were yet to be forgotten, and now there was Modi and his ministers’ open hostility towards Muslims, even on public platforms. The students said that earlier they had trusted the secular culture of India, and the majority community. But now, as one of the students said, “What would be left of us after they will have our citizenship stripped?”
Aysha Renna, a masters student in History, who was also roughed up by the women police personnel, told me that she believed the act discriminated against Muslims and as a Muslim it was her right to stand against the atrocities perpetrated by “the Hindutva government … for a long time.” Afzal Rahman, a resident of Okhla, had a head injury after one of the cops beat him with a lathi as he marched with the students on 13 December. Rahman told me, “In the current scenario, there is a vacuum in the opposition in the country. I believe student communities around the country are filling up those spaces.” He had joined the protest to encourage the students’ resistance. Hidayatuallah and Mohammad Dabar Khan, both local residents, told me they believed the current government was against the minority community and now when their citizenship status was at risk, they felt compelled to come out and protest.
While day one of the protest was defined by the police action, day two saw the student community grappling with the ideological moorings of the protest. The protestors appeared to be divided on where to anchor the protests—religion or the Constitution. Some students believed they were being targeted by the government, through the act, because of their religion and so it was essential to talk about and rally people around the religious identity. They wanted the student leaders to let the local residents join the protest and fight against the act in the name of religion. One of the students, Sibahathullah Sakib, told me that the locals should not be “misunderstood” because the Muslim community has been “feeling targeted for long.” He said that the community stayed silent on the “Babri judgment” but “CAB became a trigger.” He added that the “social media space is such that we can’t even freely speak our mind. The protest was a culmination of anger caused by the system’s anti-Muslim behaviour.” This group of students had given up hope of support from the majority community and hence wanted to focus the movement around religion.
That day, at the protest site near the main gate of the university, some of the younger students would occasionally take over the microphone and ask for the locals to be included because “as Muslims they should fight together.” However, senior student leaders, mostly doctoral scholars, would soon take over and urge the students to protest only within the campus and stick to constitutionality.
The majority of the students were of the opinion that the protest should only demand a repeal of the act and there ought to be no talk of religion in the speeches. They wanted people from all religions to join the protest and felt that a focus on Islam would obstruct participation. Many students also told me that they had decided to keep the protest within the campus because any provocation by the locals would invite reprisals by the police against students as well. “We don’t want to put your careers at risk,” said one of the speakers to the students, when the local residents gathered outside asked to join in.
A few meters away from the protest site, Mohammad Shahrukh, an electrical engineering student, stood with a placard that read, “NRC kya masla kya? La ilaha illallah”—What is the issue of NRC? There is no god but Allah. Shahrukh said that he was not trying to communalise the protest. “When you are being targeted for belonging to a particular religion, how can we have a movement without talking about that religion?” He added that, “They say we need the support of majority but if the majority had supported us, we should never have been here in the first place.” Notably, barring the Rashtriya Janata Dal, which has no member in the current Lok Sabha, no political organisation has yet expressed its support for the students of JMI.
Despite the difference in opinions, the students wanted to be there on campus as a show of resistance. Farheen, a student who did not want to disclose her full name, had made graffiti on a wall in the campus. The graffiti shows Shah asking a visibly Muslim individual, “Do I know you?” Farheen told me that Shah’s “every statement includes Muslim.” She believed that Shah wants a “Muslim-free country.” She said it was “depressing” to see friends being beaten up by the police for a peaceful demonstration. “And the media did not show it,” she added. “Where is the media? So, I painted. If I’ve the opportunity to make graffiti on every wall of the college, I’ll do it with similar pictures.”
Outside the university gate, the locals continued to protest and block the road, even as the students refused to join them. The local residents had come out on the streets like the day before, but were leaderless and not organised. Every now and then, they would echo some slogan being chanted inside the campus, only to fall silent in a while. Dressed in burqas, some of the women among the locals made a human chain and sat blocking the road. When I spoke to them, they were furious with the media. They said that it was journalists who had been showing them in a bad light and had let them down. One of the women, who refused to give me her name, told me, “I’ve two small babies at home to look after. But today I’m here. Because their future is at risk. Why don’t you support us? Why don’t you tell the government the bill is against the Muslims?”