They rained batons, said they will give us “azadi”: Jamia students counter police claims on Sunday attack

A student injured in Delhi’s Jamia Millia University, on Sunday, being taken for treatment outside the campus. The Delhi Police stormed the campus that evening and severely beat students, even inside spaces such as the library and the mosque. Eyewitness accounts directly contradict the police’s justifications for having entered Jamia. Ishan Tankha
17 December, 2019

At around 11 pm on Sunday, 15 December, a man in his thirties ran after a police van that exited through the main gate of Delhi’s Holy Family Hospital. The van disappeared into the darkness towards Okhla Road. The man chased the van for some distance, repeatedly yelling, “Aamir ko le gaye”—They took Aamir. Before he could rush back to his car to continue his chase, he was surrounded by journalists standing outside the hospital gate. The man identified himself as the brother-in-law of Aamir Sohail Siddiqui, a student of Jamia Millia Islamia. Hours earlier, Delhi Police personnel had entered the Jamia campus and brutally beaten the students, including Siddiqui.

“We had been asked to wait outside the emergency ward for the last two hours. The hospital administration told us Aamir had only three stitches in his head but didn’t let us see him,” the brother-in-law said. “And then the next moment we see he was being whisked away from the backdoor of the hospital into a police van full of cops. His head was entirely bandaged. Nobody told us anything what had happened to him and where did they take him.” This was all he could tell the media before leaving to enquire about his relative. Siddiqui was later found to be undergoing treatment at the Safdarjung Hospital. His friend, Syed Shariq Ahmad Rizvi, said Siddiqui was disacharged later in the night.

The scene at Holy Family was chaotic, but the agony of Siddiqui’s brother-in-law was hardly exceptional. Several families I spoke to were clueless about the whereabouts and conditions of their injured relatives, and desperate for updates. Many were not even allowed to enter into the premises and kept beseeching the hospital guards to open the gates. Delhi Police personnel were present in large numbers—wearing military gear and stationed on the hospital premises as well as at its gate, they kept shooing away the patients’ family members and the journalists reporting at the scene. Every now and then, the gate would open, but only to let the police vans enter or exit.

Apart from some family members, Jamia students and faculty members were also waiting outside Holy Family, wanting the security to let them in. The police’s manner in asking people to stay away from the hospital’s gate was hostile. When I was interviewing one of the students whose friend was undergoing treatment, half a dozen policemen moved towards us and asked us to leave. When I asked them to let me finish the interview, one of them retorted, “Chal, tumhara interview karate hai”—Come, we will get your interview done. One student asked the officers why they could not stand outside the hospital when their friends and family members were undergoing treatment. One of the officers responded, “Hum ghar bhijwa denge, ja”—We will send them, you go. The cops prevailed and we had to move away from the gate.

The police aggression was in line with what a student who was assaulted inside Jamia had described to me: “They were not listening at all, they were just raining batons at us. Bahut gussey mein the, lag raha tha kisi cheez ka badla le rahen ho humse”—They were very angry, it seemed like they were taking revenge for something from us.

Many student eyewitnesses described how, earlier that evening, the police had entered the Jamia campus, where students have been observing sit-ins against the Citizenship Amendment Act, or CAA, for the previous two days. The act, which came into effect on 12 December, effectively excludes Muslim refugees from receiving Indian citizenship under the law. Eyewitnesses told me that on Sunday, the police entered Jamia without any provocation. The police personnel entered the university from all directions at around 5 pm, the eyewitnesses said, and beat up every student they found on the campus, even in the library, bathrooms and the canteen. On Monday, the university administration said the police had come into the campus without its permission, and that its subsequent attack on students and vandalisation of the library was “unacceptable.” The Delhi Police, however, claimed that cops had entered the university chasing those students who were throwing stones at them out on street from inside the campus.

Holy Family was among various hospitals in the national capital—alongside Alshifa Hospital, Apollo Hospital, Safdarjung Hospital and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences—where the students were being taken for treatment. Post midnight, I visited Alshifa, where the administration was open and receptive to people entering. I met five students who were severely injured in the police attack. They recounted disturbing details of the police brutality they had faced, which defied all justifications the police had given. From the accounts, it appeared that the police was in no hurry to leave the campus and had come with the intent to severely beat up every student in sight.

The Delhi Police had said their men had entered the premises to catch hold of those who were indulging in violence. But it is clear that the police personnel were at places like the library, the bathrooms and in the canteen—none of which are assumed to be the sites of the protests. One of the students, Saddam Hussain, told me that he never imagined the cops would break into a library and beat up students. “I had my UPSC exam in January and so while the protest continued on the campus, I didn’t join it,” Hussain said. “Instead, I continued my study at the library thinking it is the safest place and unaffected by any activities. But I was wrong.”

The police beating fractured one of Hussain’s legs and resulted in a head injury. When I met him at Alshifa, he was lying on a bed with a plastered leg and bandage on his head. He had bruises all over his body. “Around 20–25 cops entered the library by breaking the door. As soon as they were in, they started beating up whoever they got hold of,” Hussain recounted. “Bahut berahmi se mara unhone”—They beat me mercilessly. “There were around 10–15 students with me there, they were also beaten brutally.”

Hussain continued, “They pulled and dragged me while simultaneously beating me up.” He said that police personnel were everywhere–on the ground floor, the first floor, and even the stairs of the library. “Then, one of them suddenly pushed me down the stairs and I fell flat on the ground. In that moment, I fractured my leg.”

Saddam Hussain, at the Alshifa Hospital. Hussain, a Jamia student, was brutally beaten by the Delhi Police in Jamia’s library.

He said was in pain and was not able to move but the cops continued beating him. The police officers told him to leave, he told me, saying they would continue hitting him if he did not. “Uth raha tha, gir ja raha tha, wo mare ja rahe the”—I would get up, fall down, and they would keep beating me. He added that the police personnel beating him said, “Tujhe azadi deta hun, tu azadi chahta hai, na”—You want freedom, I’ll give you freedom. When he asked the cops to take him to the hospital, they abused him. “Bhaddi bhaddi galiyan de rahe the mujhe” he said—they flung filthy abuses at me.

Anjum Rizwan, another student, was also caught in the library attack. He told me that the police personnel were firing teargas shells inside the library. “Many students fainted and some fell down. I escaped from the back side but those who were on the first floor got stuck,” Rizwan said. He told me he got beaten up when he tried to save a girl who was being beaten by a policeman. Rizwan’s chin and head were injured in the attack. He also lost one of his teeth when the police baton hit him.

Wohaib Islam said he escaped the attack by jumping over the university’s wall and running to the hostels. Islam, also a student at Jamia, said that the police entered the girls’ bathroom and beat up women students too. He echoed Hussain, recounting that the cops verbally abused the students while beating them up. “The cops said, tumhe Pakistan ne paal rakha hai; hum denge tumko azadi, tum jihadi ho”—Pakistan has patronized you; we will give you freedom, you are jihadi. Islam told me the cops verbally harassed the women students, telling them, “Tum log jihadiyon ko khush karti ho”—You people keep the jihadis happy.

I spoke to Mohammed Rizwan, a student who was sitting on a wheelchair at the hospital. He had injuries on his foot after a teargas had landed near it. Rizwan said he was in the canteen where hundreds of students were present. None of them were doing anything illegal, he said; they were merely eating and strolling around. He saw the police approaching from all sides, and then police personnel began hitting students. “Achanak se hum pe kyun attack hua, hum ye nahi samaj pa rahe the”—We were not able to understand why we were attacked suddenly—Rizwan told me. “Sab idhar udhar bhaag rahe they”—Everyone was running helter skelter. “Suddenly, a teargas shell hit my leg. I thought I lost my leg. I crept along the ground to leave the place but the cops were raining batons on me.”

A scene inside the building that houses Jamia’s library, on 16 December. Ishan Tankha

Earlier in the day on Sunday, local residents had begun gathering near Julena Park, barely a kilometer away from the university, to protest against the CAA. On the first two days that Jamia students protested, the residents had gathered outside the university’s gate in solidarity and in the hope of being included in the student-led protest. On the second day, after the police shot teargas shells and lathi charged the students, the protestors confined their demonstrations within the campus and did not mingle with the crowd outside, while the local residents protested outside the university. On Sunday, the third day, the locals organised a protest on their own. The Delhi Police claimed that trouble began when the locals started a march from Julena Park to the Mata Mandir Marg, which it claimed turned violent. MS Randhawa, the Delhi Police’s spokesperson, said in a press conference that the police was trying to push the locals back to Jamia and were using minimum force. Randhawa also said while they were pushing the crowd back, students began pelting stones at them from inside the campus.

At the hospital, I met a Jamia student named Taushif Rahman, who contradicted Randhawa’s version. Rahman said he had gone to support the locals at Julena Park. According to him, the locals did not instigate any violence. He told me that there were several middle-aged women in the protest. The police “appeared suddenly from somewhere and started lathi-charging. Actually they lathi charged less but were firing tear-gas shells more. They were not thinking whom they would have hit,” Rahman said. The protestors were outraged after the police attacked them and reacted by pelting stones. Rahman countered a claim that had been doing the rounds on Sunday, that the protestors set fire to two city buses on Okhla Road and damaged another—he said that no such thing happened. Later in the day, after a video in which a policeman appeared to be directing someone to pour liquid from a jerry can into the buses circulated on social media, the Delhi Police denied the allegation.

Rahman was injured when a tear gas shell hit his knee. When I met him, his leg was plastered, but he was determined to continue protesting against the CAA. He said he would join demonstrations again after he had recovered. “Hindustan sabka hai, chahe koi bhi ho—Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isayi. Aisa nahi hai ki Muslim ko nikaal do aur sirf Hindu ka hi rahe, sabhi ka khoon mila hai yahan ki mitti mein”—India belongs to everyone, whether it is Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs or Christians. It cannot be that you throw out the Muslims and only Hindus remain; everyone’s blood is infused in this soil. Sab rahenge, hamesha ke liye rahenge. Koi nikaal nahi sakta yahan se kisiko; aisa hua toh hum fir ladenge iske liye, piche nahi hatenge”—Everyone will stay here, and forever. You cannot throw anyone out; if that happens, we will fight, and we will not back down.

While I was at the hospital, word began circulating among the students’ families that the police might raid the hospital and detain their sons. Over the two hours I stayed at the Alshifa, Anjum and Rizwan were discharged. Only the severely injured students, Hussain and Rahman, remained.

Inamul Hasan, the patient care incharge at Alshifa, told me that hospital had seen around sixty students including locals, who were injured in the police attack, during the day. Of these, Hasan said, eleven were women students and one of them was severely injured. Hasan recounted that the woman had been hit by a tear-gas shell. “Her leg was separated from the knee. It was like the leg was hanging from the skin. She had come out of her home to buy vegetables. But she couldn’t escape because she was paralysed from one leg already.” Hasan said that three students appeared to have suffered bullet injuries, but that the medical reports that would confirm this were still pending.

Around the same time as the police stormed the campus, Delhi Police personnel had also tried to enter the girls’ hostels. One of the residents, on the condition of anonymity, told me that the police personnel had gathered outside the hostels and were trying to enter but could not, owing to a resistance mounted by the women residents, who barricaded the gate.

The students who were attacked, and whom I spoke to, appeared devastated. They said they no longer felt safe in their college. Many of them lived in shared rooms and found the library more suited to prepare for their exams, such as the UPSC. Now, they were unsure that they could ever go there. On Monday, the vice chancellor of the university, Najma Akhtar, told the press that she had asked her students to go home so they could put the incidents they had faced behind them.