Not just CAA, it’s a struggle against authoritarianism: Academics unite against police brutality

21 December 2019
On 15 December, the Delhi Police detained over fifty students of the Jamia Millia Islamia and forced the unarmed students to march to the vans waiting outside the campus with their hands drawn up, treating them as criminals. The police had forcibly entered the campus, lathi charged students who were protesting peacefully and lobbed tear-gas shells at them.
Adnan Abidi/Reuters
On 15 December, the Delhi Police detained over fifty students of the Jamia Millia Islamia and forced the unarmed students to march to the vans waiting outside the campus with their hands drawn up, treating them as criminals. The police had forcibly entered the campus, lathi charged students who were protesting peacefully and lobbed tear-gas shells at them.
Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Over a week after the Indian government passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, university campuses across the country are doubling down on their opposition to the legislation. The controversial act has been variously described as draconian, discriminatory, bigoted or downright unconstitutional. While the currents protests against the act first began in Assam, on 4 December, before the bill was passed into law, student protests gained momentum 13 December onwards—the day after the act came into force. Over the next three days, as campus after campus declared their defiance, several states, most of them ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, unleashed their police forces on students protesting peacefully. This included Delhi too—the Delhi Police comes under central rule and reports to the ministry of home affairs, helmed by Amit Shah.

By late evening on 16 December, as reports of the crackdowns and students accounts of police brutality reached nationwide, at least forty universities across 17 states had joined the resistance. That day, a statement of solidarity “condemning the recent police action and brutalization of students at Jamia Millia University and Aligarh Muslim University” started to circulate in various international academic networks.

In Delhi, the Jamia Millia Islamia had borne the brunt of police action—two consecutive days of lathi charges and tear-gas shelling—while the Aligarh Muslim University, in Uttar Pradesh also witnessed similar police atrocities. Other campuses were also policed, but nothing compared to what the students of JMI and AMU endured. Nivedita Menon, a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and a signatory, told me, “It’s very clear that the students of Jamia and AMU are being targeted as Muslims—as Muslims who do not have the same rights that Hindus have.”

By 18 December, the statement had gathered 10,293 signatories from over 1,100 universities, colleges and academic institutions across the world. Scholars from every major academic institution in India, including JNU, Delhi University, all the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Statistical Institute, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, among many others from every state in India have signed the solidarity statement. According to Aarti Sethi, a fellow at Harvard University, in the United States and a signatory, “The number of signatories in such a short time, from so many places and affiliations, speaks to the outrage and horror that the national and international academic community feels at the unmitigated violence unleashed by police.” She added that the overwhelming support from academics working and living in India “shows the depth of resistance to this attack across the university community” in the country. She dismissed the government’s claims that only a few universities were making trouble. Sethi said, “What is happening is that scholars and teachers across the entire country are watching in horror as the govt wages a war on the fundamental principles of the university and the constitution.”

Judith Butler, a US-based philosopher and gender theorist who also signed the statement, echoed Sethi. “The struggle right now is against this racist law, but it is also for both academic freedom and freedom of speech, critical thought and the rights of dissent,” she told me. Bharatiya Janata Party leaders have countered critics of CAA by claiming that it will protect minority migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. But Butler said that the law, which is “meant to offer protection to people from neighboring countries from persecution, is itself persecutory.” According to her, the CAA “establishes Muslims as undesirable, and sends a clear message to Muslim citizens that their own rights are imperiled.”

Amrita Singh is an editorial fellow at The Caravan.

Keywords: Citizenship (Amendment) Act Jamia Millia Islamia Aligarh Muslim University BJP
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