How university administrations are silencing anti-CAA protests on campuses

On 16 December, hundreds of students from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, protested against the citizenship act and in solidarity with the students of Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University—both the universities had been the site of brutal police crackdowns the day before. Three days later, the TISS administration clamped down on protests within the campus. Pratik Chorge / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
31 January, 2020

On 20 December, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked students across India, who were protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 and the National Register of Citizens, to stage demonstrations democratically. Modi urged students to “understand their responsibilities and precious time, and also value the importance of the institutions in which they are studying,” as he addressed an election rally in Jharkhand. “Students also need to understand that some political parties and the so-called ‘urban Naxals’ in the garb of intellectuals should not train guns over their shoulder for reaping political benefits,” Modi said. He claimed that his government “acknowledges every issue raised by students.” 

It had been five days since a brutal police crackdown on students protesting the CAA at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi and the Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh. On the day of Modi’s speech, the Uttar Pradesh police came down heavily on anti-CAA protestors across the state—18 people were killed and thousands detained. In the aftermath of the crackdown on these two universities—and police brutality against protestors in multiple cities and towns in Uttar Pradesh—campuses across the country joined the anti-CAA protests. Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership spun a narrative that the protestors were ill-informed and instigated by vested interests. A day after the police action at Jamia, Amit Shah, the home minister, tweeted, “Some parties are spreading rumours and inciting violence for their political interest,” and asked students to read the act before protesting. The defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, followed suit and said that the student protests were instigated by “jihadists, Maoists, separatists.” 

As the scale of the country-wide protests increased, the BJP doubled down on its strategy of delegitimising the student protestors, and using security forces to quell the protests. The BJP’s efforts at dismantling the student-led protests are also reflected in the tussle between students and their respective university administrations, which have been co-opted into the clampdown. On 29 December, Ramesh Pokhriyal, the minister for human-resource development, reinforced the BJP’s narrative on students protesting against the CAA and the NRC, during a press conference at the party’s headquarters in Delhi. “As the education minister, I am repeatedly appealing to the young people to not let educational institutions to turn into hubs of politics,” he said. “Those who want to do politics, let them do it.” Pokhriyal further warned students that “Modiji’s government will not tolerate this at all.” 

Over the past two months, the administrations of several universities across India have disallowed protests, taken action against students participating in protests or supported the centre’s stance on the contentious legislation.  

English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad 

Less than a week after Modi’s speech in Jharkhand, E Suresh Kumar, the vice chancellor of the English and Foreign Languages University, in Hyderabad, wrote an article in the Indian Express, extolling the CAA and its backers. “The Citizenship Amendment Act is the latest in a series of epochal measures that reflect the ability, wisdom, vision and determination that are characteristic of not just good leadership, but of statesmanship,” he wrote. “And of the prime minister and his advisers it can be said, ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man.’” Kumar was of the opinion that the CAA is a “combination of India’s age-old spirit, and tremendous grit. It is an Act that helps define who we really are as a nation and a people.”  

That very day, the EFLU students’ union issued a statement condemning Kumar’s article. “He forgets how Prime Minister … termed a particular section of people to be the ‘infiltrators’ and stated that they can be identified by their clothes,” the statement said. “The VC must introspect on what grounds he says that ‘Indians following Islam will not be asked to prove their nativity’, when the Home Minister Amit Shah himself has repeatedly stated that the National Register of Citizens will be implemented throughout the nation.” The union criticised Kumar for referring to the case “of a Pakistani singer given citizenship in India when he ignores the case of India’s former president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed’s family, who was not included in the NRC in Assam.”  

On 30 December, the day after Pokhriyal’s press conference, the registrar of EFLU issued a notice that the college had decided to extend winter vacations till 17 January—the campus was supposed to reopen on 31 December. “The hostel will reopen from 17 January onwards, till such time no student is allowed to stay in hostels,” the circular said. According to the administration, the extension was to carry out renovation work at the hostels. The next day, the students’ union called for students to come to campus to protest the extension. Samar Ali, the general secretary of the students’ union, told me that “most of the students believe that the extension is to avoid the protests.” Ali said that Kumar wrote an article “glorifying the act and we had protested against this ... there was also an open letter from the students asking the VC to have a public debate with the students on the issue.” According to Ali, students had been planning seminars and discussions on issues of citizenship, and the extension was a ploy to stop all such activities.  

“The hostels were supposed to reopen on January 1 and the classes were to start from 6 January. On the night of 31 December, the administration issued the notice extending the vacation,” Ali said. “They asked all students including around twenty PhD scholars who were staying in the hostels to vacate by 3 January. Most students had already booked their tickets to return to the campus, lot of them had already reached campus and some were on the way.” She said that the students’ union requested the administration to postpone renovation work to the end of the semester, but the administration refused.

“We told them that there are a lot of students from disturbed places like Assam, Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh, some of which are under curfew. We had asked for alternate accommodation for these students,” Ali said. After two days of protests by around thirty students, the administration agreed to provide alternative accommodation and travel allowances. The university’s doctoral students had to submit applications for UGC scholarships by 15 January—another contingency that the administration had not planned for in its haste to start “renovation work.” After the protests, the administration then decided to make the submission process online. But almost seventy final-year PhD scholars working on their thesis were still denied library facilities at the campus. 

Ali said that the administration adopted a hostile tone in their discussions with the students’ representatives. “They sounded threatening,” she said. “They said they had screenshots of students who were posting against the university. During the vacation, when one of the students, Nandu Parvathy had protested by holding placards saying ‘No NRC, CAA #civildisobedience,’ she was warned by the proctor and the guards.” She told me that there is heavy surveillance on the campus, and “whenever students gather somewhere in the campus the guards will come and enquire.”   

Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh 

Aligarh Muslim University, which was to reopen on 6 January, extended its winter vacation after the violent crackdown on protests by the police on 15 December. The administration said that the campus will be reopened in a “phased manner” after a review. But the students’ union said that students were asked to vacate hostels without any information on when they could return. “They are shutting down the campus to quell the protests,” Salman Imtiaz, the president of the union, told me. 

Nirma University, Ahmedabad 

At Nirma University in Ahmedabad, the administration identified students who had participated in the protests and sent messages to their parents asking them to restrain their wards from taking part in such activities. On 17 December, law students from the university participated in a protest in front of the Sabarmati Ashram. “It was an absolutely peaceful protest which saw participation of around fifteen hundred people, including students,” Abhishek Khandelwal, an alumnus, told me. “After the protest was over, I had met the district commissioner of police, who said that everything was fine.” 

Khandelwal, who is also a coordinator with Young India Against CAA-NRC-NPR, told me that the Nirma administration identified at least eight students who had participated in the protest “from the photographs of the protests published in the media ...  These students were made to sign an undertaking which states that they had participated in the protests in their individual capacity, and that they will not participate in any such protests in the future.” A week later, on 24 December, the parents of these eight students received a message from the administration: “It has come to our knowledge that your ward was involved in protest against the recent issues. The police and Intelligence Bureau have taken details of your ward from us. We at our end have counseled the students to refrain from any such events and we expect the support from your side also.” The message further said, “This is also to inform you that if your ward continues to participate in the protest the police might create a record against him.” 

Khandewal told me that “Many educational institutions across the country are intimidating and restraining students from participating in the protests.” He added that some of these cases “are not coming out in the public, because the students do not want to be expelled or targeted for this.” 

Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai 

Some university campuses resorted to using previous court rulings—which had banned specific protests on their campuses—to clamp down on the current protests. Tata Institute of Social Sciences, in Mumbai, was one such institute. On 19 December, the TISS students’ union announced a solidarity strike. “The student community of TISS is extremely disturbed by the violence unleashed by state forced against peaceful protesters and expresses its solidarity with dissenters across the country,” the union said. “The disciplinary rules like attendance on campus makes it an environment where there is very little space to organise such events,” Maitreyee, a treasurer of the union, told me. “So, we had sought the support of our faculty.” She said that the teachers’ association “issued a letter endorsing the student’s protests.” 

The same day, the acting registrar of TISS issued a circular restraining the faculty and staff from participating in the protest. “TISS being an institute funded by the Government of India, the staff and faculty cannot join any form of protest while on duty,” the circular said. “This is against the Conduct Rules and their absence from duty to join protests will be treated as unauthorised.” The circular was based on a previous court ruling—in March 2018, the TISS administration had approached the Bombay City Civil Court to stop student protests against hostel and mess charges for post-matriculate scholars. Based on the administration’s argument that students were disrupting the daily functioning of the institute, the court issued an interim order restraining students from protesting within 100 metres of the main gate of campus. 

TISS deployed the same order to restrict participation of its faculty in the anti-CAA protests. “This order is a big barrier,” a TISS student told me on condition of anonymity. “Even for sloganeering they threaten us with issuing show-cause notices. In the past, what we have seen is that if fifty students participate in a demonstration, they single out a few students and send show-cause notices, in an attempt to divide the students.” 

According to Maitreyee, despite the state’s violent crackdowns, and restrictions placed by administrations, student movements have witnessed a new lease of life. “Earlier, students were scared to participate,” she said. “With the larger fight across the country and the powerful student solidarity that has come up in the last few months, we have also been able to fight the smaller battles within our campuses. Now, we are on the roads everywhere across the city.” 

All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi 

The administration of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences issued a similar warning to students, resident doctors, faculty and staff ahead of a call to participate in a candlelight march and poetry recitation at the campus on 19 December. The same day, the registrar of AIIMS, issued a memorandum: “There should be no activity in the nature of strike, dharna or demonstration or gherao at, or in, or around the AIIMS at all.” He used a 20 May 2002 order by the Delhi High Court that banned strikes and demonstrations within a radius of 500 metres of the campus. Despite the registrar’s warning, students, resident doctors and faculty members participated in the march. 

Arts Faculty, University of Delhi 

On 27 December, the proctor of Delhi University, Neeta Sehgal, issued a notice asking for additional information on organisers of protests at the Arts Faculty. The notice demanded that students provide notification to the administration at least 24 hours before any protest.

Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi 

Banaras Hindu University also warned students against holding any CAA protests. On 15 December, just as students’ protests were gathering momentum, the BHU administration sent out a warning. The registrar issued a circular, which said that the police had informed the administration that Section 144 was being implemented on the campus. “Others could join these marches and dharnas with the intention of spoiling the communal atmosphere and could commit any serious criminal incident,” the circular said. 

Sri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi 

According to multiple news reports, on 23 January, the principal of Sri Ram College of Commerce, Simrit Kaur, withdrew permission for a scheduled panel discussion on “Why Is The North-East Protesting?” The event was being organised by the North-East Cell—a group of SRCC students hailing from the region—and included Amrapali Basumatary, a professor at Kirori Mal College; Leki Thungon, a researcher; Pradyot Manikya Barman, the erstwhile maharaja of Tripura; Nayan Jyoti, an activist and scholar from Assam; and Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, a deputy editor at The Wire. The principal cancelled the event just an hour before it was to start, based on a letter by the SRCC students’ union, which is led by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad, the RSS’s student wing. According to a report in The Wire, the union shot off a letter, which said, “This seminar is based on one-sided ideologies on the CAA Act which may indulge [in] violence and misleading information among the students ... Being a responsible institution, SRCC must not accept this seminar which is against the norms of social welfare.” 

According to The Wire, “the principal decided to cancel the event after the student union members came to her office with police personnel from the Maurice Nagar station and some Intelligence Bureau officials who told her that ABVP members may resort to violence inside the campus if it is allowed to be held.” 

Dr BR Ambedkar University Delhi 

On 23 January, the Dr BR Ambedkar University Delhi, also known as AUD, refused entry to Prakash Karat, a politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Karat was scheduled to speak at a discussion on the CAA, the NRC and the National Population Register, which was organised by the Students Federation of India, the student wing of the CPI(M). 

According to multiple news reports, as Karat stood on the campus gates, the university issued a statement, which said, “Due to impending Delhi elections, the Model Code of Conduct is in force. Accordingly, the university advised the students to seek permission from District Election Officer (Central) to organise the event.” The Indian Express reported that the organising committee was asked to get permission at 5.30 pm, just half an hour before the DEO’s office shuts. The report quoted Elizabeth Alexander, the chief of the SFI’s AUD unit, as saying, “The event was not violating any code since none of our speakers are ministers or candidates in the upcoming Delhi elections.” According to the Indian Express, the “ABVP’s Badal Prakash said he had written to the administration saying the event was illegal.” 

Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay 

According to multiple news reports, on 28 January, the IIT Bombay administration sent out an internal email to students with 15 rules of conduct. India Today reported that Rule Number 10 of the email said, “Residents shall not participate in any anti-national, anti-social and or any other undesirable activities.” There is no explanation of what defines these proscriptions. The Print reported that the first rule in the mail said, “no distribution of any poster, leaflet or pamphlet will be allowed in the hostel without permission from the respective hostel council or the Dean of Student Affairs.” The mail also prohibited “speeches, plays and music or other activities that disrupt the peace of the hostel environment.”  The students of IIT Bombay have been protesting against the CAA since 11 December. 

So far, the Jamia administration is the only university to openly support students protesting against the CAA and condemning police violence on campuses. “Hurt by the way students were treated, I’m with them,” Najma Akhtar, the vice chancellor, told the media after the violence unleashed in the Jamia campus over the 15 December weekend. “The police entering without permission and then beating students with sticks are not acceptable.” The Jamia administration has filed a case against the Delhi police for violence against students and damaging property. 

This is a developing story, and the list will be updated as more incidents come to light.