On 19 December 2019, civil-society groups, student organisations, and the left-wing parties organised two major marches in Delhi to protest the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. Scheduled to begin at the Red Fort and Mandi House respectively, these marches were part of the anti-CAA protests happening across the country the same day. Ahead of the protests, the Delhi police imposed Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure in an attempt to prevent people from gathering in large numbers. Section 144 prohibits the assembly of more than four people in any given area. At least seventeen metro stations were also temporarily shut down, and the internet was suspended in parts of the capital.
When protestors continued to gather for the marches, the police detained more than a thousand people and forcibly put them on buses that were then taken to different locations in the capital, including the Surajmal Stadium in West Delhi’s Nangloi area and the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium in the Bawana area in North West Delhi. In light of these detentions, the remaining protestors from both the marches decided to converge at Jantar Mantar. As part of the crackdown, the police also detained a bus of protestors traveling from the Jawahar Lal Nehru University to the protest site at Jantar Mantar.
One of the marches in Delhi was originally scheduled to start at Mandi House and conclude at Parliament Street, around three kilometres away. Several students from the JNU Students Union had arranged private buses to pick up people gathered at their university—which included students and other people—and take them to the protest venue. Traditionally, buses are allowed to go inside the campus. But that day, “the buses were not allowed inside campus, and we had to get to the gate,” Bishnupriya Chakrabarti, a 23-year-old JNU student told me. Police personnel were also present at the university. “The police did not let us go for quite sometime. After some negotiation, they let this bus leave,” she said, referring to the bus she was on. “Just before we boarded, we got news that a lot of people were detained at Mandi House, so we redirected the bus to go to Jantar Mantar as there was a joint protest happening over there.”
The bus left JNU a little after noon, carrying over fifteen people, the majority of whom were students. The passengers told me that as the bus moved past Mandi House, a little over two kilometres away from Jantar Mantar, two policemen slowed it down and came aboard. They then tried to pressurise the driver to manoeuvre the bus as far away from the protest site as possible. As the police directed the driver, the students on the bus raised slogans such as “Delhi Police, down down.” The students eventually negotiated with the police, and got the bus to slow down and come to a halt at a location near the Lady Irwin College.
At around 1.30 pm, as I headed toward Mandi House, I noticed the bus standing still and a significant police presence surrounding it. When I reached the bus, the passengers told me that they had been detained for over forty minutes. They were chanting, “Delhi Police, go back,” and demanding that the police release them, and allow them to join the protests. Aishe Ghosh, the JNUSU president, was also present in the bus and was trying to negotiate with the police on where they could be dropped. Notably, the bus that was detained was a private one, and not a police or a government bus that could be directed to comply with the authorities.
Referring to the police action, Hari Govind, a second year student from Hyderabad Central University who was also on the bus, told me, “It was hijacked. They moved into the bus.” After the bus was halted, two police vans and a truck carrying policemen reached its location. The police stood at the gates of the bus blocking it—three policemen stood outside both doors. The students were told that they cannot leave the bus. Such police mobilisation around a bus of protestors—primarily students—was a glimpse into the government’s push to quell peaceful protests against the CAA.
The Delhi Police were resolute in not letting those in the bus reach Jantar Mantar. “Tell me anything that’s legal about this,” Govind said. “This is very arbitrary and the police are doing whatever they want. How can you detain passengers in a bus, can you please explain it to me? We are in a fascist state.”