Families at Jawaharlal Nehru University recall an evening of terror at the faculty housing

07 January 2020
While the majority of the violence took place at the student hostels, the masked men also stormed the faculty accommodation.
Mahavir Singh Bisht
While the majority of the violence took place at the student hostels, the masked men also stormed the faculty accommodation.
Mahavir Singh Bisht

On 5 January, at around 6:30 pm, a group of masked men wielding lathis and rods attacked students and faculty at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The students and teachers had gathered to protest a proposed hike in the hostel fees. According to students and eyewitness accounts, the mob pelted stones, damaged cars, vandalised hostels and beat up students and faculty. Calls for help to the police, who were deployed at the university, went unanswered. Over twenty injured people were admitted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Several students claimed that the masked men belonged to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the RSS. The ABVP has denied the charge, and instead claimed that “commie” and “leftist” groups attacked its members. On 7 January, Pinky Chaudhary of the Hindu Raksha Dal, a right-wing organisation, told ANI that his group “took full responsibility for the attack in JNU and would like to say that they were our workers.”

While the majority of the violence took place at the student hostels, the masked men also stormed the faculty accommodation. We spoke to two couples who recounted an evening of terror. On the evening of 5 January, Shiv Prakash, an assistant professor of Urdu, was relaxing with his wife and children at home in the faculty accommodation known as the New Transit House II. Suddenly, at around 7 pm, he got a call from a colleague about hungama—ruckus—in Sabarmati, the nearby students’ hostel. Shiv stepped out of his apartment to see what was happening, leaving his wife and two sons, aged 12 years and 18 months, behind. His eight-year-old daughter was at a neighbour’s place. “I walked towards Sabarmati and suddenly saw a large crowd of men advancing menacingly towards the transit house with sticks and rods in their hands, so I turned and ran back home,” Shiv recalled. His wife, Suneeta, was startled to hear him shouting at them to run into the bedroom, even as he shut and latched the front door. “His face was in a panic and I immediately grabbed the children and rushed inside,” Suneeta said.

Suneeta peered fearfully from her bedroom window and saw fifteen to twenty men. “Some were masked, but all of them were carrying steel rods and sticks,” she said. Suddenly, they heard banging on their front door. “The men were outside our house trying to gain entry,” Suneeta recalled. “They were banging and kicking our front door and shouting at us to open the door.” The Prakashs’ had already called their neighbour to secure her door and keep their daughter till further notice. Soon, the front door’s latch fell open, and the masked men gained entry into their living room. By then, the couple had moved into the bedroom. “I placed both my hands against the door and pushed, so that the added bodyweight would prevent them from breaking the bedroom door,” Suneeta said, as she showed me the red marks on her hands. “I was so frightened that I started crying, thinking about what would happen to my children.”

They could not hold out for long, and the men forced their way into the bedroom. Shiv and his family were terrified. Suneeta folded her hands and pleaded with the men to leave them, even as she tried to shield her kids. “I teach in JNU, why are you doing this? What do you want?” Shiv asked the men. “Suddenly, one of them recognised me and told the others that I am faculty, don’t beat them,” he told us. “If that man had not recognised my husband, they may have beaten us up, maybe even killed us,” Suneeta added. When I asked Shiv if he knew who the student was, he said, “I recognised him as a JNU student, but I don’t know who he is”.

Shiv grew up in Kaushambi district, in eastern Uttar Pradesh. His home was located next to a Muslim colony. In school, he learnt Urdu and developed an interest in the language. After graduating from Allahabad University he joined JNU, in 2005, as a master’s student. “At that point I didn’t know what JNU was,” he said. “My friends told me about a university in Delhi where the quality of education was good. That’s when I decided to come to JNU.” The mess charges were Rs 1,200 per month, and Prakash got a monthly scholarship of Rs 600. “I used to get Rs 1,000 from home so I managed to get by,” he said. “The fee hike in JNU, especially the mess charges, is going to hit poor students very hard.” Prakash completed his MA, MPhil and PhD in Urdu from JNU, specialising in children’s literature for his MPhil, and fiction and short stories for his PhD. Suneeta is from Kaushambi too and describes herself as a “housewife”. The family has been living in faculty accommodation for three years, and saw the campus as a safe place to raise a family.

Tushar Dhara is a reporting fellow with The Caravan. He has previously worked with Bloomberg News, Indian Express and Firstpost and as a mazdoor with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in Rajasthan.

Kaushal Shroff is an independent journalist. He was formerly a staff writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: Jawaharlal Nehru University ABVP student protest mob violence