On November 18, 2019, the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, organised a protest march asking the government to roll back proposed changes in the Draft Hostel Manual, including a hike in the hostel fees. The students have been protesting for over 20 days.
The march was punctuated by instances of violence as security personnel lathi-charged the students. At one point, streetlights were switched off so the police could lathi-charge in the cover of darkness. Several students were severely injured.
Here’s how the day unfolded.
On the morning of November 18, thousands of students from various universities grouped together, intending to march from the JNU campus towards Parliament. The students planned to move from Ber Sarai towards RK Puram and Africa Avenue and then march to Parliament Street.
The students gathered at JNU’s main gate. As they tried to exit the campus, a scuffle broke out between the students, members of the JNU administration, and security personnel posted on campus. The students rushed towards Ber Sarai by force but were met with heavy policing and barricading.
The police had barricaded the entire area, as if laying claim to lost lands. Policemen stood at arm’s length of each other, right from the RK Puram Intersection to Kendriya Vidyalaya, JNU. As the students began their protest on one side of the barricades, the police detained two office-bearers of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union — its president, Aishe Ghosh, and general secretary, Satish Chandra Yadav.
Soon after, large groups of protesting students were stuffed into multiple buses and sent to the police stations of Delhi Cantt., Vasant Vihar, RK Puram, Badarpur and Kalkaji.
Newslaundry managed to speak to Yadav before he was taken away: “The administration is using brute force against us to stop our fight, the police is beating us mercilessly and arresting innocent students. We don’t even know where we are being taken.”
Water cannons were then brought to the site. The students were threatened to move back or else the water cannons would be fired at them. In response, some students jumped the barricades and sat down, blocking the water cannons and demanding that the police move back. The police called for backup, detained these students, and sent them on a bus to Delhi Cantt. Police Station.
As the protests intensified, the police once again asked the students to move back or they would all be arrested under Section 144 of the Criminal Code of Procedure. Section 144 — which prohibits the assembly of four or more people — had been imposed by authorities around the Parliament area. A police official, who seemed senior, repeatedly announced this through a loudspeaker while reminding the students of the repercussions of breaking Section 144.
At this point, the police instructed the media to move back and stand at a distance.
Then, under the cover of aggressive sloganeering, multiple groups of students ran towards the opposite side of the road to find an alternative route to Parliament. One group found a way through Buddh Vihar, and another through Munirka. Volunteers helped the students and before the police and media could get a handle on what was happening, the students had climbed the Munirka Pahadi, a small but fragile mud hillock, and raced into the residential areas of Buddh Vihar and Munirka Village to hide from the police. The media and police jumped the barricades and ran after the dispersing crowds.
In Buddh Vihar and Munirka, arguments broke out between locals and the students. By this time, a small contingent of police personnel appeared and caught hold of some of the students. These students resisted and managed to form a human chain around the group of police personnel, allowing the rest of the students to run away and reunite with the other protesters, forming a large procession at Munirka metro station.
A group of police officers stood near the metro station but couldn’t stop the students since they were outnumbered. The students asked the police to cooperate with them, chanting slogans referring to the recent clash between police officers and lawyers at the Tis Hazari court.
Africa Avenue is a high traffic area. When the students approached, it had already been cordoned off by the police. The students were asked not to move forward but the students were determined to reach Parliament. Almost spontaneously, they divided into smaller groups and took different paths to get to Bhikaji Cama Place.
The Delhi police had clearly lost its hold over the procession and was unable to follow. However, some students who were not able to run ahead, or got tired midway, were seized by police officers. A few were beaten up.
At Bhikaji Cama Place, the march was far beyond the ambit of the police. The crowd headed for INA, marching over the Bhikaji Cama flyover and the Safdarjung flyover. On the way, they spoke to passengers stuck in traffic, telling them what they were protesting.
Many students looked tired at this point. They asked autos and cabs to take them to the next meeting point but were refused — most drivers clearly feared backlash from the police. Mediapeople were also on foot: there was no space for their cars to move.
Due to the distance and weather, passersby speculated that the procession would weaken. They were wrong — the crowd only grew stronger after it crossed INA.
At Safdarjung, the police were prepared to block the students. Route obstructions and diversions led the students towards the Jor Bagh metro station. As soon as the metro station was crossed, the police barricaded the road on all sides, from Safdarjung Airport to Safdarjung Madarsa bus stop. The gates of nearby metro stations were locked. One of the protesters remarked sarcastically, “What can be more dangerous than students with metro cards in modern India?”
The march halted at Safdarjung Madarsa bus stop. The students were locked in all all sides. So, they decided to camp down on the road. This is when this area of southern Delhi also closed down — officegoers had no way to return home, with the road and the metro being inaccessible.
Nearly an hour later, a delegation of senior officials met with the protestors and told them that three students would be included in the committee deliberating the fee hike. The delegation said detained students would be released if the crowd dispersed at once.
The students refused, saying they wouldn’t budge until this was promised in writing by the administration.
Towards the evening, the students were sitting on the road in groups. Slogans shifted to songs. Almost every group had its own song: some asked for freedom, some celebrated it, some sang against fascism and some against the establishment.
When it got dark, some students left but there were enough left behind to outnumber the police.
Some time later, as a delegation attempted to speak to the students, JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh, who had been detained that morning, was brought to the site by the police. Ghosh began addressing the gathering when a senior police officer intervened and tried to talk to her.
Just then, the streetlights went out. The police lathi-charged the students.
“The very moment street lights were switched off, about 1,000 armed police personnel started pushing us. They started lathi-charging, attacking everyone ruthlessly,” said Rohit Shukla, a student who was injured by the police. “We had to run away to save our lives…The scene was chaotic. We came running to Jorbagh metro station thinking there is general public out there and we would be spared. Within a few moments the police and CRPF came started beating us.”
Shukla said he began running towards the flyover. “We had to jump iron dividers and run away till INA metro station to save our lives.”
Ghosh said the police “deliberately delayed” her arrival. “First, we were taken to the Delhi Cantonment police station, then to Saket, in such a manner that we got late,” she told Newslaundry. “We were then taken to the delegation and as soon as the representatives left, the lights went off and immediately after, students were lathi-charged in the dark.”
After the police attack, most students dispersed.
On November 19, JNUSU held a press conference to brief the media on their side of the story. JNUSU representatives said that the students will not call off protests until the proposed fee hike is rolled back completely. The union claimed the university registrar refused to meet a panel appointed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development to mediate between the students and the university administration. “When they can refuse to entertain government representatives, how can they be expected to talk to us?”
Two FIRs have been registered against the protesting students at the Kishangarh police station and the Lodhi Colony police station, respectively. The students are reportedly charged with obstructing public servants in discharge of public functions, assault or criminal force to deter public servants from discharge of their duty, voluntarily causing hurt to deter public servants from their duty, and disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servants, in addition to being accused of rioting and damaging public property.
Ghosh said student representatives met with GC Hosur, joint secretary of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, and requested him to ensure no administrative action is taken against students. “Us students have been getting notices through email about these protests. These protests are for a cause and no student will pay even a single rupee as fine,” Ghosh told Newslaundry.
She also accused the Delhi police of “mismanagement” and claimed that male officers “groped” female protestors during the lathi-charge.
The Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association has also come out in support of the students and asked the Vice Chancellor to come and speak with the students.