JNU violence: Police, internal security, administration repeatedly refused to help students despite calls for help

A room in the JNU hostel, vandalised by a mob of masked men and women. Several students said that the mob selectively attacked those rooms it believed were home to students affiliated with Left groups. Vinit Gupta
08 January, 2020

On the evening of 5 January 2020, news broke of a rampage within the campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Masked men and women assaulted students with impunity, aided by wooden sticks, rods and sledgehammers, and undeterred by the presence of the Delhi Police. The Caravan spoke to over half-a-dozen students via phone interviews conducted within hours of the attack. All of them were present on the campus as the violence unfolded. All but one of the seven students used the phrase “atmosphere of terror” to describe the environment in the campus over the weekend. Most of them said that they recognised members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, among the attackers, and that the police and the security apparatus within JNU did little to halt the violence. During a news telecast on 7 January, Anima Sonkar, the ABVP’s national secretary, admitted that two men who were seen holding lathis in a video shot in JNU, were members of the ABVP. On 6 January, the far-Right Hindu outfit Hindu Raksha Dal claimed responsibility for the attack. One of its leaders described JNU as being “a hub of communists” and anti-national. 

The student’s testimonies revealed that their attempts to seek help from within the security set-up in the university and the Delhi Police outside were met with complete apathy. Several students also observed that the mob that conducted the attack on the evening of 5 January was more organised, more brutal and larger in scale than any such formation they had ever witnessed on campus. They also said that the mob included men and women who were not from the university. 

On 4 January, in the backdrop of the ongoing protests against the fee hike at JNU, members of student organisations—including those affiliated to the Left and the JNU Students Union—had collected in front of the Computer Integrated Servers near the School of Biotechnology, in an effort to block registration. According to Preeti Umarao, the security convener of the JNUSU, violence broke out in an area known as the SBT lawns when “members from the ABVP beat up people who were gathered there.” Umarao is a member of the Students’ Federation of India, the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Shambhavi Sharma, an alumnus who graduated in 2017 and was present on the campus on both days, said she recognised the people, who physically attacked the protesting students that time, as ABVP members. “By attack, I mean that they were assaulting people with rods and sticks and all that,” she said. “There were about ten–fifteen students, believed to be from the ABVP, who came to the area where students were sitting in lock-down and where there were other common students, and they beat them,” a second-year MPhil student from JNU, who asked not to be named, said. “People were quite angry.”

Umarao alleged that faculty members from the university also took part in the violence. “There were teachers who were included in this as well, who raised their hand against women students at the SIS,” she said, referring to the School of International Studies at JNU. “Aswini Mohapatra, the dean of SIS, himself had raised his hand against a woman student,” Umarao said. She added that Tapan Kumar Bihari, an assistant professor at the Centre for Political Studies, “was also involved and he also hit a student.” When contacted by The Caravan, Mohapatra denied that he had hit a student. Over a text exchange, he said that “it’s the usual & convenient tactic on part of the left wing students to pin down those not with them. I have seen & suffered several such harassment in past 25 yrs.” Bihari did not respond to text and email queries regarding the allegation. His phone was switched off when The Caravan attempted to call him. 

On 4 January, Umarao said, the JNUSU led a march from Ganga dhaba, a popular spot in campus, to condemn the violence. It was in view of these developments, she said, that the JNU Teachers Association announced a protest gathering on the evening of 5 January near the university’s Sabarmati hostel. The JNUTA had called for peace and harmony during the demonstrations opposing the fee hikes.

According to the students The Caravan spoke to, the situation escalated in the early afternoon of 5 January, when members of the ABVP began hitting students near the School of Social Sciences, or SSS. Videos of this attack have since circulated on social media—the fact-checking news website AltNews identified one attacker as a member of the ABVP.

Umarao said, “In the afternoon, there were people who went to the SSS area and to the students who were sitting in lock-down there, and attacked those who were there per-force…there was some attempt made to talk to them and to ask them why there could not be a conversation instead of the physical violence, but they were not ready to listen to anyone.” She alleged that a student of the SSS, who is also an ABVP activist, was present during the altercation. The second-year MPhil student said that the attackers overlapped with the group of people that had beaten up students the previous day. “Those students who were beaten up, they were quite agitated and there might have been a scuffle of sorts that broke out,” he said.

Umarao said that as a security convenor of the students’ union, she tried to take precautions to keep the campus safe, but her efforts were thwarted by the authorities’ indifference. Security at JNU is managed partly by the private firm Cyclops Security. “It seemed as if Cyclops security was helping ABVP only,” Umarao said. According to her, between 3 pm and 3.30 pm on 5 January, she and the JNUSU president, Aishe Ghosh, visited the security office to meet Rama Rao—the head of the Cyclops security team in JNU. Umarao said that she and Aishe intended to request that he increase security within the campus. According to Umarao, Aishe went inside to speak to Rao. Their efforts were in vain. Rao appeared unconcerned about the threat to the students’ safety. According to Umarao, Rao’s response was effectively, “Aap log yahi karte ho, aapke ke saath aise hi hona chahiye”—This is what you people do, this is what should happen to you. Later that evening, Aishe was attacked by members of the masked mob. In a video that circulated on social media, she was seen bleeding profusely from the head. 

“We had been telling the security that these incidents should not take place,” Aishe told The Caravan subsequently, referring to the violence on 4 January. “The security was not taking cognisance of the atmosphere in the campus.”

 When contacted by The Caravan, Rao denied that the students’ union approached him. He said that “no one called” him. He denied that Aishe or other members of the JNUSU had gone to visit him. He claimed that the students “must have tried to contact the other security on campus,” referring to the security guards not hired through Cyclops, even though Umarao had named him. When we attempted to question him about what action he took after violence broke out in the campus and in the hostels, he cut the call. Despite multiple attempts, Rao evaded our queries and did not speak further.  

Umarao said that after the lack of response from those handling internal security, she and Aishe discussed reaching out to the Vasant Kunj police station, under which the JNU campus falls. Aishe said that the station house officer, Ritu Raj, had visited the JNU campus on 4 January, and that she told him, “Sir, the atmosphere on campus is not going in the right direction, please do something, please ask the administration to speak to us as soon as possible.” The administration never reached out to the JNUSU, she said. Umarao added, “The police did nothing, there was just a police van that was parked outside, and when for two hours all the violence was unfolding in the evening, they were not there,” referring to the mob that rampaged the hostels.

“The problem is this, that no one wants a dialogue with us. They want this kind of atmosphere … the administration is directly responsible for the violence that has happened on campus these last few days,” Aishe said. “We know very well which organisation the vice chancellor is affiliated with and how he acts. The Delhi Police, the RSS-affiliated officers and our internal security have formed a nexus to try and besmirch JNU.”

There has been wide-spread criticism of the police’s inaction by the students of JNU—on campus they raised slogans against the police, terming its failure to intervene as “shameful.” In video clips shot within JNU that have circulated on social media since, students can be seen confronting the police for its failure to prevent or stop the attack, and accusing it of siding with the violent mob. In some videos, students can also be heard saying that the police did not respond to repeated calls for help from students facing the attack.

Through the day on 5 January, there were sporadic outbreaks of violence in the residential wings of the university. Umarao claimed that the first attacks which included stone-pelting, took place around 4 pm to 4.15 pm, in Kaveri hostel and near the Godavari hostel. “They”—the mob of students that she identified as being affiliated with the ABVP—“went to the areas where students collect usually,” she said. “In the dhaba near Godavari for instance, there was a male student they chased and beat up near the juice shop.”

Shreya Ghosh, a second-year PhD student from JNU, said, “In the afternoon, they came in small numbers and started hitting a few people…at the Periyar hostel, and the Mahi-Mandavi hostel … they beat people up. There was stone-pelting as well.” A first-year MA student, who asked not to be identified, said that when he went to the Mahi-Mandavi hostel at around 3 pm, he could see a small group of students he recognised as ABVP activists, clutching batons and rods and standing near the building. “I had informed my friends that, ‘This does not look right, wherever you are, stay safe,’” he said. “The attacks then happened in our hostel, people were being hit by lathis, windows were broken … I ran from there.”

The second-year MPhil student, who was present at Periyar hostel when members of the mob began collecting there after the incident at the SSS, recalled them saying, “Ab maar-peet hoga, aur is mudde par ab kuch baat nahi hogaNow, there is going to be violence, and there will no conversation on this issue. “They were provocative, they were incensed and they were angry, and their numbers were increasing,” he said. As he saw the situation spiral out of control, the student fled the hostel. While he was making his way to the main road, he said that he saw a group of students, whom he identified as either belonging to organisations affiliated with the Left, or as “common students” walking towards Periyar hostel while sloganeering. “I do not know whether there was a scuffle that broke out between these two groups, I had left by then,” he said. “But while I was leaving I could see that matters were escalating, that it was proceeding to something.”

At around 4.30 pm that day, Sunny Dhiman, a JNU student and a member of the Congress’ student wing, the National Student’s Union of India, was walking out of the campus to attend a book fair. On his way, Dhiman encountered close to fifteen students he was acquainted with, all of whom he said were affiliated to the ABVP, carrying sticks and rods. “Since there had been violence yesterday as well, now it has become normalised for us, if they are roaming then so be it,” he said. “Maine unse poocha, ‘kya karne jaa rahe ho bhai,’”I asked them, “What are you about to do?” Dhiman recalled. “Unhone kaha, ‘havan karne jaa rahe hai’”They said, “We are going to conduct a havan.”

According to Sharma, the former JNU student who was present on campus, at this point, the protesting students decided to go ahead with their earlier plan to convene near the Sabarmati hostel, at the “T-point”— a trisection at the end of main entry road into JNU. Towards the end of the demonstration, the students saw a mob of people approaching them with sticks and rods. “Even then, the people’s mood was that they would continue to stand there and that they would not retaliate, but then as they drew closer, they started hurling stones. Because of this people got wounded on their heads, they started bleeding and then people basically started running away into different hostel rooms to hide,” Sharma said.

Till then, the groups of violent students had been small, but now, the students we spoke to said, the approaching mob had swelled to twice its size—to about fifty, and eventually a hundred people. The difference between the other incidents of violence on 4 and 5 January and the assault on the evening of 5 January, Shreya said, “was that what happened in the evening took place in the most organised fashion. Those fifty-sixty people who came in with rods … most of them were clearly not students from there, they had been mobilised from outside.” 

The mob “tore into the students with their rods and sticks,” Shreya said. “The way the mob entered into the hostels … it was an over-determined mob, and organised mob, and a lot of them were clearly not identifiable.” Sharma said, “Within JNU, such an organised mob we have not seen before. There were people from outside, there were people from ABVP, from within JNU, so it was a mixed kind of thing.” She added, “But because we could also see people from outside it was clear that they had organised and planned and entered inside.”

As the mob charged towards the students, Umarao said she ran into the Sabarmati hostel along with a clutch of students, including Mohammad Danish, the joint secretary of the JNUSU. “We were locking the gate, when they threw a big rock at the gate and broke it,” she said. “The glass pierced through my leg and I got a small cut. After that they threw a lot of stones and broke the glass windows with their sticks.” As the two students ran into the building, Umarao retrieved a pepper spray from her bag and bought herself a little time by spraying it on the assailants. She and Danish eventually reached the kitchen of the building, where they hid till the violence abated.

Umarao added that after she came out from the kitchen, she saw someone she recognised as an ABVP activist, shouting from one of the higher floors of the building, “Maaro, in logon ko aur maaronBeat them, beat them more. “When we told him that we would not let goons into the building, he told us very clearly, ‘What about when you Naxalis roam around the campus with your mouths covered… now ABVP will do this.’” Umarao continued, “This makes it clear that this entire planned attack was by the ABVP, because an ABVP activist himself accepted this … We only said that there were goons who were attacking, and goons could be anyone, but he made it clear that this is what the ABVP is going to do with you from now on.”

Courtesy Preeti Umarao

Shreya ran into Sabarmati hostel as well, where she hid in one room with about twenty five other students. “It was absolutely terrifying,” she told The Caravan. “A lot of us went into the balcony, but we then realised that if we stand we might be seen from the outside, so we all then got down…there were some of them who were holding the door tight. We were in that situation for the first ten-fifteen minutes, then we realised that the mob had entered the floor that we were in and they strongly started banging the doors, the window panes of the room that I was in, was then broken as well. We just managed to hold on to the door.” From inside the room, Shreya said, she could hear sounds of students being beaten and crying for help.

“I have never heard of or seen anything like this in JNU before,” a second-year MA student who is a resident of Sabarmati hostel and was in another room, said. “Fortunately, our door did not break, but they broke all of the glass, and because of that there were students whose feet were completely cut, their hands were cut very badly. You could hear students who were crying. And students were saying that if this could happen at JNU, one could only imagine what was happening in a village right now, what these people could be capable of there…for almost thirty minutes, they were wrecking havoc on at least our floor, maybe even longer.” During this time, the members of the mob also beat up a blind student. Two students who were at Sabarmati hostel, including Umarao, said that the attacks within the hostel appeared to have been targeted at specific people—those who were active in student politics.

“The warden just locked himself in and shut himself up, he was of no help,” the second-year MA student recalled. The senior warden of the Sabarmati hostel, R Meena, resigned the next day. In a letter posted to social media, the warden said, “We tried but can’t provide security to the hostel.”

Sharma said that she had “seen one vehicle, a truck full of policemen” on the campus on 5 January. “They had done nothing…they just stood there.” Umarao said she made multiple calls to the police control room vans of the Vasant Kunj police station after taking refuge inside the hostel, but to no avail. “PCR said this was an internal matter and we should manage it ourselves” she told The Caravan. She left the kitchen of the hostel only when a team of policemen arrived at the scene, at around 7.30 pm, where she met the SHO, Ritu Raj. Umarao recalled that when she asked the SHO why those without relevant identity cards had entered JNU, he said, “You said increase the security and only let students with ID cards enter. Among you all, how many carry any ID card or show an ID card to enter?”  

The Caravan sent Raj a list of detailed queries, regarding the said interaction with the JNUSU security convenor and president, the police’s lack of response to the students’ calls, and its inaction in the face of the violent attack on students in JNU’s hostels. We asked Raj whether ambulances were allowed to enter, as several students had said that the police stopped medical vans at the gates. Raj did not answer his phone despite repeated attempts, and did not respond to the queries.

Shreya said that when she left the room in Sabarmati hostel that she was hiding in, about an hour after the violence erupted, students who were injured were refusing to leave their rooms even for medical help. “A lot of students who were bleeding inside hostel rooms did not have the confidence of coming out, because they did not know whether they were still on the roads or not,” she said, referring to the assailants. “People said that they would prefer to bleed inside their rooms but would not dare to come outside on the road, because that was the sense of terror every student had. So, it took almost one hour more for us to even get the bleeding students out for minimum medical help.”

In other hostels such as Tapti, Koyna and Shipra, Shreya said, students hid for more than a couple of hours. “Because the police only came after one-and-a-half hours, there was no police when this entire thing was happening on the streets,” she said, “We all called the police, the security, none came.” Sharma said, “This was the case throughout.” She added, “Later in fact, when we finally came out, at around 10 pm, then a lot of police came inside campus…and we were sitting peacefully and they told us to go to the hostel and said that they had gotten permission from the vice chancellor to finally enter the campus, when in fact they had been there since evening.” Most of the students The Caravan spoke to said that, once the violence abated, they felt safer out on the campus roads in large groups, than they did in their hostel rooms. The Caravan sent queries to the vice chancellor, M Jagadesh Kumar, regarding the police’s claim as well as his action in the face of the attack in the hostels. He did not respond.

“We thought they were all going to kill all of us,” the second-year MA student from Sabarmati hostel said. “If you look at the kind of wounds that they have inflicted on the JNUSU president, her state is so critical, this could have been one of us, it could have been any of us.”

On the evening of 5 January, the police filed two first information reports against Aishe and various other students, allegedly for vandalising the campus security room and for attacking security guards the previous day. According to news reports, the police accused Aishe of having “indulged in physical violence,” “pushed lady guards” and “threatened” guards. Aishe denied these allegations. Regarding the attack by the masked mob, the police has filed an FIR against “unknown assailants.” The FIR reportedly notes that the PCR received close to a hundred calls on the evening of 5 January.