- NL Sena
At AMU, everyone is wary of Republic TV. With good reason.
Between its chungis, chowks and chowrahas, Aligarh is a small city—although not so small without Internet. On February 13, the city’s District Magistrate (DM) passed an order to jam Internet services for 22 hours between 2 pm that day and 12 pm on February 14. The order said: “Following violence, destruction of property and arson between two groups at the Aligarh Muslim University on February 12, 2019… internet services by all mobile carriers is terminated with immediate effect to maintain peace and communal harmony.”
On Tuesday, February 12, two altercations took place inside the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) campus: a verbal one between the university’s security personnel, students and a TV crew from Republic TV between 1-2 pm; and a physical one between two groups of AMU students, featuring a cameo by the members of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This occurred at about 4 pm. The violence, destruction and arson mentioned in the DM’s order pertained to the latter incident.
Part 1 of this ground report will deal with the altercation involving the Republic TV reporters and cameraperson and the officials and students of AMU.
Every channel except Republic
The Bab-e-Syed gate at the Aligarh Muslim University is named after Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the 19th-century philosopher who founded the university in 1875 and kickstarted the Aligarh Movement—an ideological campaign meant to facilitate Indian Muslims’ passage through Western education and modernity.
On February 13, 2019, a huge white poster was installed on the gate. It read: “All media channels are most welcome to Chaman-e-Sir Syed (Garden of Sir Syed) except Republic TV”.
The reason for such an open expression of contempt for the channel lay in the events that transpired the day before.
On February 12, the AMUSU had organised a meeting of leaders of Muslim political parties from across India. The union felt that consolidating a political front to push the interests of the “marginalised” Indian Muslims was the need of the hour, especially before the general elections in 2019. The parties present were the Rashtriya Ulema Council, Peace Party, National Aman Party, All India Muslim Majlis, Social Democratic Party of India, Parcham Party of India and Hindustan Tehreek-e-Insaf. A similar but smaller meeting had taken place in the university 10 days before on February 2.
What made this meeting different was Asaduddin Owaisi, leader of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). According to The Times of India, the university’s student union had invited Owaisi for the February 12 meeting, additionally inviting the wrath of several saffron political camps and parties both inside and outside the campus. “Though we will not allow him to enter Aligarh, if he comes then he will not be able to go back,” threatened Nishit Sharma, BJP’s Aligarh spokesperson, in a letter to Union HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar.
Ajay Singh Thakur, the grandson of local BJP MLA Dalveer Singh, also staged a protest outside the university along with several others on the same day.
Republic TV sent journalists Nalini Sharma and Sumaira Khan to cover the meeting. The team had been in the university premises since 9 am and had even interviewed members of the student union without hassle. By mid-day, news reached the campus that Asaduddin Owaisi was not going to turn up. He had declined the invitation. Republic TV’s coverage was a dud.
At about 1 pm, the news emerged that Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Akhilesh Yadav was stopped from flying to Allahabad from Lucknow on the orders of CM Yogi Adityanath. Republic’s Nalini Sharma was asked to change track and she duly began recording the story. “We weren’t even recording anything to do with AMU … I was standing there and giving inputs on Akhilesh Yadav and why he was stopped in Lucknow,” Sharma told Newslaundry.
It’s hard not to notice AMU students’ disdain towards Republic TV. The seeds of their dislike were sown back in May 2018, when the Jinnah portrait controversy had erupted in the university. BJP MP Satish Gautam had then written to Tariq Mansoor, the Vice-Chancellor of AMU, demanding the removal of a portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah in the Students’ Union Office in the university. This had elevated the tension in the campus, with Right-wing groups like the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV) clashing with the AMUSU over the issue.
During my interactions with university students, almost all of them mentioned Republic TV’s “hateful” and”‘communal” portrayal of AMU students as Jinnah-loving, Hindu-hating bigots. “We stay away from Zee News and Republic. The policy here is to not engage with them,” says Sharjeel Usmani, a political science student at the university who is the face of AMU’s anti-Republic mood.
Around 1.15 pm, at the parking lane between the departments of history and fine arts, Republic’s Nalini Sharma began recording her bytes on the Yadav-Yogi affair. Azeem Akhtar, an official in the university’s internal security team, approached her to inquire about her permissions to record within campus premises. Videos on social media have captured this moment, where Akhtar can be seen demanding Sharma whether she has the required permission to shoot in the university.
When Sharma didn’t acknowledge his request, Akhtar, visibly irritated, put his hand on the camera and shoved it aside while holding it by the lens. At this point, an infuriated Sharma can be seen shouting at Akhtar, asking him about his credentials and authority.
Akhtar is a senior security official in the university who takes orders from the institution’s Public Relations Office (PRO) and the Proctor’s Office. The PRO office issues permissions to shoot within campus boundaries.
The site of the argument between journalist Nalini Sharma and security official Azeem Akhtar.
As the volume of the argument between the journalist and the official intensified, a crowd of students gathered at the spot. Internal security personnel diffused the situation and escorted Sharma away from the scene. According to eyewitnesses, the journalist moved about 20 metres away to the University Road, where she resumed recording her bytes.
At about 2 pm, university students stepped in to stop the channel’s teams from recording. One of them was Sharjeel Usmani, who claims that journalist Sumaira Khan and her cameraperson, who were also recording nearby, politely obliged his request and dismantled their camera equipment. But in Nalini Sharma’s case, not only he but other university students were abused and called “terrorists”.
In a report last week, Newslaundry stated there were no witnesses to this incident besides Usmani himself. The report also stated there is no single piece of audio-visual evidence of Sharma using the word “terrorist” in the given context. While such evidence is still absent, Newslaundry identified at least three more eyewitnesses who admitted to hearing Sharma use the slur: a local reporter, a university official, and a research scholar.
The spot where Sharma allegedly called students “terrorists” and was jeered by a mob of students.
Hasan Khalid writes for the local Urdu daily Inquilab. Seated beside me in the university’s PRO office, he recounts how the fracas unfolded. “When she [Sharma] started live telecasting, security officials walked up to her and told her not to record without permission. She kept answering back very rudely. After the crowd swelled up, the students told her to stop shooting. She was very rude to them too and called them terrorists and what not,” Khalid said.
Did Khalid actually hear her use the word “terrorist”?
“Yes! She yelled at them asking why she wasn’t being allowed to record. And that AMU is a university of terrorists. I was there!” Khalid said.
Khalid also stated something others corroborate: “Her cameraperson was really vitriolic. If any student told him to stop recording, he would shove the camera into their faces.”
The spectacle of a purportedly vitriolic Republic TV crew attracted many more students to the scene. This is when an official in the internal security department stepped in and escorted Sharma towards the exit gate of the university. Newslaundry met and talked to this official, who can be seen in the pictures and videos of the incident and wishes to protect his identity.
“I brought her to the exit right from where this mob started gathering,” the official said. “It was actually madam’s [Sharma] mistake … When she was asked about the permissions, she got very hyper. She should’ve been careful. Given the boys that had gathered there, they could’ve been provoked by her behavior. She was yelling ‘who the hell are you’ on their faces.”
The big question: did she call them terrorists?
“She didn’t really say terrorists at this point, but she called them ‘jangali janvar’ [wild animals]. This really provoked the students and they started chanting slogans like ‘pakdo!’ and ‘don’t let her leave!’. I grabbed her and started rushing her towards the exit,” the official said.
“She kept getting more and more upset. She took out her phone and started recording, which annoyed the students even more. She yelled ‘tell these terrorists to not touch me!’.”
The official added that Sharma did not call AMU “a university of terrorists”. So why are the students claiming that she did? “It’s just a thing among a group of boys. She did say terrorists, but that just spreads and many versions prop up. I live among the boys so I know these things.”
The official escorted Sharma to the University Circle, which is about 300-400 metres away from the site of the scuffle.
Mohammad Anas, a PhD scholar in the university’s history department, claims he was leaving his department when he saw Sharma standing outside and abusing students. “She stood near the university road and asked random students if they were being terrorised in the university. She brought up Afzal Guru and something about anti-India slogans. I asked Sharjeel [Usmani] to go up to her and ask her to stop,” Anas said.
“Even local reporters asked her to not record without permission. When I objected, she grabbed my sherwani and said ‘you’re a terrorist too!’” he added with a chuckle.
“She was so aggressive, I don’t know what to tell you … She called us bastards … When I addressed her as aapa [sister], she said ‘how the hell can you call me aapa?’” According to Anas, soon there were slogans of “Republic TV haye haye” and “Republic TV go back!” “Yet when the mob got aggressive, I tried to diffuse the situation,” he said.
AMU students who occupy important positions in the student union have a rather charismatic sartorial code in the university: they dress in a sherwani, don a furry karakul and tend to walk solemnly with their hands behind their back. “What would people think if they saw a sherwani-wearing man arguing with this reporter?” Anas asked. Sharma, they claim, even smacked the karakul off a cabinet member’s head. The whole incident had all the ingredients of a provocation.
While Sharma was being escorted out, she was followed by an angry crowd of students who were continuously jeering and heckling her. Video footage shows that her cameraperson tried to record the crowd as they marched behind the crew. The students eventually got hold of the camera and smashed it. Regardless of denials and rejoinders issued by the student union (one explanation says the Republic team broke the camera itself), many non-student witnesses confirmed that the university’s students did damage the equipment, including the official who rushed the journalists out of the scene and Inquilab’s Hasan Khalid. The camera cannot be traced.
Below are two videos that show Nalini Sharma and Sumaira Khan being escorted out of the university with the mob behind them.
At the University Circle, the journalists met police officers who were present there to check law and order given the protests against Owaisi. The channel’s crew was taken to the nearby Civil Lines police station, where Sharma filed an FIR against against Azeem Akhtar, the security official who had asked her and the cameraperson to stop shooting, and “other gathered AMU students” for robbery (IPC 392), assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty (354), intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace (504) and rioting (147). There have been no arrests in the matter.
The question of permission
Omar Saleem Peerzada is the Public Relations Officer, or PRO, at the Aligarh Muslim University. He is an affable character upon whom rests the challenging task of shielding the university’s reputation. One could walk into his cabin and find him regaling outsiders with tales of AMU’s healthy secularism and its illustrious alumni.
During my two days at the university, I witnessed scores of students and journalists go in and out of his office. Never too late to respond to a reporter’s call, his ready answers to questions give away the drill-like routine that comes with the job.
“This is the university of Lala Amarnath, of Olympians like Dorai Swamy and BP Govinda, of politicians like Sahib Singh Verma—he was a BJP leader but was very dear to us. Yet what do you hear about AMU? Jinnah! For God’s sake we’re the ones who negated Jinnah two-nation theory,” he said earnestly.
Peerzada recounted how Republic TV’s team came to his office to meet him. “They came here to take my byte on the Muslim political parties meeting. They wanted my reaction. They did intimate me that they would cover the meeting, but at no point did they seek my permission for the shoot,” he stated. Sharma too had claimed that it was Sumaira Khan, her cameraperson and a local reporter who met the PRO. According to her, the team had the PRO’s permission—but not in writing.
The missing link
Azeem Akhtar, a senior security officer at AMU, was at the centre of the fracas. He is the one who first asked Nalini Sharma to stop shooting within the campus. It, therefore, goes without saying that Akhtar’s perspective was crucial: he was the subject of the controversy as well as an FIR. However, the university authorities tried to block this reporter’s access to him at every step.
As I inquired after Akhtar’s whereabouts on the ground, several students said he can be found near the Bab-e-Syed gate, which was never the case. When I put the same inquiry before Peerzada, he told me he had no idea and directed me the Proctor’s Office, which is situated in another corner of the sprawling university. The Proctor, Dr Mohsin Khan, in turn, directed me to Peerzada. It was a bureaucratic cycle.
AMU’s public relations in-charge, M Shafey Kidwai, denied access to Akhar too. Upon incessant requests, he told me he’ll try and get back to me. All calls to him thereafter were forwarded to another number that didn’t work.
At last, I managed to locate Akhtar’s office, which was just behind the Proctor’s office. He was not there. A long wait did not bear any fruit. I returned to his office the next day. This time he was present. However, he politely declined my requests to discuss the incident, both on and off record. “I am not authorised to speak on the subject,” is what he repeatedly told me.
The university’s attempts to block access to Azeem Akhtar are puzzling. If all the narratives I had confirmed were true, Akhtar’s inputs would only strengthen the university’s case. I reckoned that the paranoia the authorities reserved towards the press stemmed from the hard time Republic TV had given them in the last 48 hours, coupled with the bad coverage that sprung from the sedition charges against its dozen or so students. Most importantly, the university is still recovering from the hit it took from the “Jinnah ka jinn” episode, a popular campus-grown reference to the Jinnah incident from May 2018. These factors must be accounted for to comprehend the university’s attitude towards those who sought access to its officials.
The Republic TV spectacle at AMU is no deviation from the channel’s broader modus operandi: nudge the beehive non-stop and play victim when you’re stung. One can recall how the channel’s reporter, Piyush Mishra, cornered Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar and poked his mic into Aiyar’s face, eliciting a caustic reaction from the politician. Or when the Republic TV reporter heckled Tharoor and called him a coward. Not to forget the behaviour by one of the channel’s crew while interviewing the parent of a deceased child.
Perhaps a free press in a liberal democracy is well within its rights to register reportage in any manner they wish. But given the disturbed resonance such reportage leaves behind, as it did at AMU, perhaps Republic TV’s editor-in-chief should rethink. Something tell us we shouldn’t be very optimistic.
Newslaundry’s repeated calls and messages to Republic TV reporter Nalini Sharma went unanswered.