Excerpts from the 82-page report “UNAFRAID: The Day Young Women Took the Battle to the Streets”, which carries testimonies of 18 women, mainly students, by members* of the Independent Women’s Initiative at the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, where violence occurred during protests against CAA and NRC on December 13-15:
The sight of state violence on the bodies of our young women and men, the sting of teargas and sounds of rampaging policepersons in a library and on the campus grounds at the Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi on December 13 and December 15, 2019, has shocked citizens across India. This is the heart of our national capital.
This is a place of higher learning. And these young women and men are our future. By all accounts there has been worse brutality against students of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) on December 15, 2019.
The attempt to crush these student led protests against the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019 and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC), has now galvanised lakhs of women, men and young people across the length and breadth of India.
Ordinary folk are spilling out across campuses, maidans and streets to save their country from becoming a land of bigotry and compromised citizenship. They are standing up in renewed commitment to the India that was promised to us at that midnight hour of 1947, where all are equal and must speak equally; an India that aspires to the highest dreams of our Constitution.
Marching in the frontlines of the struggle at Jamia Millia, with their soaring voices proclaiming truth, justice and equality, have been India’s young women. Inspiring images of them have flooded our conscience. A group of women’s rights activists spoke to the young women who have led and participated in these protests.
Most of them are students between 19-31 years of age, but some of them are ordinary housewives from the neighbourhood, who were stirred and who stepped out. In their own words, these women tell us the stories of those two days at Jamia that sparked a flame in all of us.
At the time of writing there were disturbing reports coming in from other parts of India, particularly Uttar Pradesh (UP), of grave injustices taking place against ordinary folk who have struck out spontaneously to oppose the CAA and the NRC; of targeted state violence, arbitrary arrest and detention of peacefully protesting citizens.
All the women we met spoke of their sense of outrage at being stopped from a march that was peaceful. Students were unarmed and did not pose a threat. Why was Section 144 imposed and the campus barricaded on December 13 and December 15, 2019, preventing students from going to Parliament or from protesting at Jantar Mantar?
There is no answer to this basic question, which is the starting point of this entire episode. The events of December 13 and December 15 at the Jamia Millia Islamia University (henceforth Jamia) have had far reaching consequences for the students and others who were involved in the protests. Despite the trauma of these events, in each of the accounts there, the students and women from the local community, continue to reiterate their basic constitutional right to express their opinion and dissent.
Police overreach and excesses
• The violence perpetrated on December 13 and December 15 by the Delhi Police against protestors, comprising largely students, was without any warning and unprovoked.
• The police used lathis, tear gas and stun grenades on unarmed students.
• The accounts here point to police action as being an overreach of power and aggression. The unrestrained use of lathis, teargas and stun guns seemed motivated to cause harm and injure, to restrict and corner students, rather than to disperse a peaceful demonstration.
• Women students and protestors were physically assaulted by male police officers, manhandled, and harmed with the use of lathis and tear gas. Women students reported that female police was not present in many of the incidents.
• Students were picked up and detained on both December 13 and December 15. On December 15 they were kept in police stations (including in Badarpur, Kalkaji and New Friends Colony police stations) through the night, and denied access to lawyers or immediate medical treatment, despite visible injuries.
• The police treated unarmed students like criminals and used humiliation and intimidation as tactics to cause fear amongst the student body. The accounts speak of the students, often just in small groups of two or three, trapped by the police presence, begging the police to let them go, to not hit them, and yet being beaten mercilessly. On December 15, students were made to leave the library with their hands in the air, like common criminals.
• Verbal abuse, and the use of communal slurs to intimidate and humiliate, were adopted by a number of police personnel, along with physical attack on the students.
• Several of the accounts describe men who were not in uniform but accompanied the police, and were wielding lathis particularly savagely. We were provided video and photographic evidence of this.
• The police unlawfully entered the University campus, without permission, as has been asserted by the Vice Chancellor. They entered the library, washrooms, the reading rooms and even the masjid on campus. Many students in these testimonies witnessed or heard (as they hid within earshot) the criminal vandalism and destruction of property by the police – library windows were smashed, glass panels were broken, and furniture was broken.
Grave injuries, medical negligence and mental trauma
• Students suffered a range of injuries – minor as well as grievous injuries, including loss of vision, fractures, head injuries, bruises, abrasions, cuts, etc. In most instances of injuries, medico legal case (MLC) were not done in the hospitals where the students were taken or had to go on their own in the absence of immediate first aid and ambulance facilities. This has resulted in loss of vital evidence of the physical violence that they suffered during this assault at the hands of the police.
• In addition, deep psychological trauma was reported. Several of the testimonies speak of insomnia, nightmares, loss of appetite, experiencing shock and feeling startled by ordinary everyday sounds.
• The indiscriminate use of tear gas in enclosed spaces where the students were hiding inside the campus, such as the library, pump room, etc. caused immediate as well as longer term health problems to the students, including difficulty in breathing, skin irritation and burning, constant irritation of the eyes and tearing lasting several days.
Violation of a university campus as a safe space
• This idea of a campus, imagined as a “safe space” and “their space” by students, was shattered by the police entry. In many accounts, students spoke of having run back into the campus to save themselves from the brutal police attack on the streets outside Jamia. But even inside the campus they found themselves under a siege that continued over many hours.
• The attack on the library, an important symbolic space of learning, has been particularly violative. The library is considered to be the safest and most peaceful place in any university or institution of learning.
• Students who were in the library and reading rooms described feeling terrorised and helpless as they were constrained from connecting with others outside. They were ordered by the police to not use their phones; some were fearful of using their mobiles to communicate with friends, officials and family about the situation. They were scared that using phones may lead the police to where they were hidden, seizure of their phones, and further violence. There were instances where the police seized or broke students’ phones while they were recording the violence.
• The loss of trust in the capacity of the University to protect its students and the expectation that it should have responded with more assertion against the aggression of the police, was a recurring theme in these accounts – for the attack of December 13 was followed by an even more brutal attack, both on and off campus, on December 15.
• The entry of the police into the campus and attack on students is seen as an unpardonable transgression on the student body. Students shared their fears and those of their families about returning and staying on a campus that was not seen as safe any more. This has grave consequences for the educational future of these young people, in particular women students. Many women students come from far off places, and the possibility of their continued access to higher education in general has been compromised.
Support and resolve
• The accounts at the same time iterate the supportive role played by many faculty, workers and staff of Jamia. They also speak of the solidarity shown by the local community, which opened their doors and homes to students. The many acts of kindness and humaneness shown by local clinics and hospitals, which provided treatment free of cost to students, are also expressed in these accounts.
• The attack on Jamia, and on peacefully protesting students and citizens, has led to the rise of a new generation of women student activists and galvanised women from the community, who despite all odds, have resolved to continue this struggle.
The police action of December 13 and December 15 has caused deep scars and the loss of trust in the police and other authorities. This attack on Jamia has left the student body, the women of Jamia, their families as well as the local community, with a sense of shock and anguish. It has also reinforced their resolve to continue to express their opposition to the CAA and NRC through all available democratic means, and to uphold accountability of all those responsible for this violent attack on them.
As we put together this account, we get news of over two dozen deaths in state action against protestors from other parts of India. We get reports of power outages followed by midnight knocks in Uttar Pradesh. People picked up. Detentions. Arrests. Families in the dark. Lawyers cordoned off. Media unable or unwilling to reach in time to tell us what happened.
There are many reports yet to be written, many more episodes of excessive state power yet to be investigated, and many perpetrators to be brought to justice. What took place at the Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, the national capital of the world’s largest democracy, can never be acceptable in any country that claims to be a functioning constitutional republic.
Why is this report about women? Because they were there in numbers that belie their social and political power. Because the timbre of their voices soared above the norm. Because they struggle against immense inner and outer odds to be there. Because women’s voices matter in any resistance. Because each time they climb a barricade, they climb a mountain, and are therefore much the stronger for it. Because they have earned a place in the frontlines. Because they belong there. And because the future, too, belongs to them.
Democracy is half full without women. If you believe in anything, believe in these voices. There was an attack led by state institutions, on unarmed students at a Central University of the sovereign, secular democratic Republic of India. Accountability, not just for its own sake, but to secure our collective future as a people and as citizens, is what this report asks for. This report asks for justice, not as mere retribution, but as justice that can restore to the Jamia Millia Islamia University its peace, and to India, its democracy.
*Farah Naqvi, Sarojini N, Deepa V, Dipta Bhog, Malini Ghose, Shabani Hassanwalia, Jaya Sharma, Adsa Fatima and Disha Mullick. The interviews took place between December 17-19, 2019. Download full report here