Delhi Police detains protesters marking one year since “black day” of Jamia brutality

On 15 December, around thirty protesters assembled in Delhi's Batla House locality for a candlelight march to mark the anniversary of the police brutality inside Jamia Millia Islamia during the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Courtesy Nehal Ahmed
17 December, 2020

On the evening of 15 December, around thirty people gathered in Delhi’s Batla House locality, near Jamia Millia Islamiya, for a candlelight protest to mark the anniversary of police brutality inside the university campus. Exactly one year ago, amid protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the Delhi Police had stormed the university to launch a brutal attack on students, lobbing teargas shells inside the campus, breaking into the library and indiscriminately assaulting individuals inside with lathis. The protesters sought to conduct a peaceful march to a nearby mosque, and mark the incident a “black day” in history. But they said that soon after they assembled, the Delhi Police surrounded the peaceful protesters and began detaining them without offering any explanation or information about where they were being taken.

Faroaghul Islam, a Jamia graduate who participated in the protest, said that the initial plan was to assemble in Ghafoor Nagar, around one kilometre from Batla House, and march to Gate 13 of Jamia Millia Islamia, from where the police had launched their attack last year. The protesters assembled at Ghafoor Nagar first, by around 6 pm. Everyone we spoke with underscored the heavy police presence at the site, several of them adding that the police were over double the protesters in strength. “I did not understand why there were so many police present in and around the area, especially with riot gear,” Sneha Mukherjee, an advocate who was trying to secure the release of the detainees, told us.

According to Islam, the police were intimidating the protesters, which led them to drop their plan to march to Jamia Millia. They instead decided to reassemble at Batla House and march to the nearby Hari Masjid. “They were literally threatening all the shopkeepers in the area and the citizens around there, and they were asking them to shut down the shops and move away from the area,” he told us. A protester who was later detained, and spoke to us on the condition of anonymity, said, “They were terrified of the march for some reason, and it is tough to understand why they are so insecure.”

Wasim Ehsan, another protester and a resident of Batla House, told us that the candlelight march was also a protest against the atrocities that Muslims have faced since the start of the anti-CAA movement, including detentions under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. “It is our right to remember what happened a year ago to all of us as a community,” Ehsan said. “They are violating our rights by trying to stifle this.” Several eyewitnesses told us that the participants raised slogans against the CAA, and in support of the protesting farmers and political prisoners arrested for the anti-Muslim violence in Delhi in February this year. “They have served over fifty notices under UAPA to Muslims, and are not calling out the main perpetrator of the Delhi riots. Why are they treating him like Voldemort and not naming him, we know it is Kapil Mishra.” The Bharatiya Janata Party leader Mishra had given an incendiary speech hours before the communal violence began in northeast Delhi.

Shortly after 6 pm, the protesters reassembled at Batla House and began raising slogans. When the slogans were first raised, Ehsan said, the police blocked off two sections of the street, from the front and the back, blocking off the only routes that the protestors could have taken. “There were over sixty policemen, almost two policemen for every protestor,” he said. The Delhi Police then began detaining protesters. “They used excessive force against us,” Ehsan added.

According to the detainees we spoke with, the police picked up at least 12 people, four of whom were women. This included Sabiha Khanum and her 16-year-old daughter—the mother and younger sister, respectively, of the activist Umar Khalid, who is among those arrested for the Delhi violence. “We had just reached there around 6.30, and we just took the candle from people, and suddenly we saw a massive police force all around us,” Khanum told us. She said that when she saw the police detaining protesters, she grew worried about where they were being taken and followed them out of concern. Seeing this, Khanum added, the police also detained her and her daughter. “They roughed up me and my daughter and pulled us around. My dupatta also fell down. We asked them many times where they were taking us, but they said that even they did not know.”

Khanum said the detainees were made to walk from Batla House to a nearby cemetery, where the women were put into a police jeep, and the rest were packed into a van. She added that she was constantly given contradictory information about where the police vehicles were headed. “We were just doing a very small symbolic protest in memory of an incident,” Khanum told us. “I did not understand how it was illegal. My daughter is a minor, how can they justify what they did to us tonight? They just want to shut down all voices against CAA-NRC.” Umar’s detention did nothing to deter her from turning up, she said. “We are not the kind of people to be scared and sit down, we are seeing that there are farmers and so many other people raising their voices—it is important to do that.”

“When they were picking us up, I got two punches to my gut,” a Jamia student who was detained and requested not to be identified, said. “After that, they took a few of us into the van and were scolding us. They were asking us not protest in the area and were scolding us for apparently not paying attention to our studies.” Mohammed Tanseer, a final-year student pursuing a bachelor’s of technology degree at Jamia, said the detainees assumed they were going to be detained at a police station, but they were instead kept in the van the entire time until their release, while the police circled the city in it.

The detainees were not told where the van was being taken, in a move reminiscent of detentions during the anti-CAA protests, which led to a state of panic among their families and lawyers who were trying to secure their release. “They took all of our phones before we could send more photographs,” Tanseer said. “They switched them off as well. We had no idea what they were thinking.” The Jamia student recalled that they could not see where they were going because it was too dark outside. “It was clear that we had crossed Chhatarpur after a point, but we did not know why they were taking us so far,” the second detainee added.

In addition to this, the police had also noted the identification details of the detainees, including their name, address and father’s name. They had also taken photos of the detainees. Meanwhile, lawyers, journalists and friends were hurriedly calling their contacts for any information, since no one knew where the police vehicles had been taken. At around 7.30, we reached the Lajpat Nagar police station because there were messages circulating on social media that the detainees were taken there. But we discovered that none of the protesters had been brought there. One disgruntled head constable at Lajpat station even asked for one of our numbers so that he could go to his home nearby and we could update him if the protesters were brought there. “The intelligence people are using us as pawns,” he said. “If anything happens, we know that we are going to be blamed. I have no information on this, but please keep me updated, so that we can be ready to respond to our seniors.”

There was a lot of contradictory information circulating, including tweets and WhatsApp forwards, which added to the confusion about the detainees. Mukherjee, the advocate, said, “The police were also trying to create confusion, which was evident from the way information was being withheld by the policemen.” She added, “Even some of the police persons did not seem know where they were taken, or at least that is what was told to us. So, it seemed like a deliberate attempt to create confusion by the police.” While reporting this story, we moved between three different police stations before finally learning that the protestors were eventually released at Jamia Millia Islamia at around 9.30 pm, after being detained in the police vehicles for nearly three hours.

Several protesters recounted the detention of a rickshaw driver at Batla House, who was not a part of the protest and even suffered a medical attack that the police ignored. “We felt really bad for him, he was not protesting or doing anything, but they still took him in for no reason,” the second detainee said. According to Tanseer, the rickshaw driver was visibly terrified upon being picked up by the police, and within minutes, he stiffened up and fell unconscious. “We didn’t know what was happening to him, he started seizing up and was trembling before he became unconscious,” the second detainee said. “He was very scared that he would lose his rickshaw and his livelihood.”

The protesters were appalled by the apathy of the police during this ordeal. “He needed medical attention and had to go to a hospital, it is not clear why they did not allow that to happen,” the second detainee told us. “They said ‘He’ll be fine, he is okay,’ but he was clearly not well.”

Rajender Prasad Meena, the deputy commissioner of police of South East Delhi, who exercises jurisdiction over the area, told us on 16 December that he would send a written response to our queries. He had not responded by the time this story was published. It will be updated if and when he sends a response.  

Ehsan said the police response to the peaceful candlelight protest reflected a deep fear among the police of any form of political assertion. “It is very clear that they are very afraid of the institution of Jamia, the entire area is extremely militarised and we know who they are guided by,” Ehsan told us. It was evident why he claimed the area was militarised, because there was a disproportionately large deployment of security forces in the area in the area surrounding Batla House, including the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force personnel. “The police is anti-Muslim and now we know they are anti-farmer.”-

Islam echoed Ehsan’s concerns about the police presence. “Jamia Millia Islamia is a body of the students, and the military occupation that is happening here is disturbing,” he said. “They don’t have a right to occupy a space which is for staff, students and teachers. Why are they projecting the university like this? It is disturbing to be reminded of this every day.” Islam added, “They are very scared of the movement against CAA-NRC-NPR, that is why the state is behaving like this.”