At 2.30 pm on December 15, a small gathering appeared at the Mohsinul Mulk Hall, Aligarh Muslim University. It was a “public meeting” organised by the Fatima Sheikh Study Circle, an association of leftist students who had assembled to speak out against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Here, young speakers took turns to express discontent with the Indian government and the Sangh Parivar over the new law, and its purportedly anti-Muslim character.
Given the size of AMU, spread over a vast area in western Uttar Pradesh’s Aligarh, this solemn affair went largely unnoticed. A similar event, albeit noisier, happened at the canteen of the Maulana Azad Library that afternoon. It too fizzled out within half an hour.
What unfolded barely hours later in AMU made these small, peaceful gatherings seem like picnics. Between 8 pm and 11 pm, the university became a site of a violent face-off between the students and the Aligarh police and the Rapid Action Force.
As news of the Delhi police’s violent crackdown in Jamia Millia Islamia University spread in AMU, hundreds of students, almost all men, poured out of their hostels, canteens and libraries to assemble at the gate of the Maulana Azad Library around 8pm. The students seemed to have been largely gathered through social media, and appeared to lack mobilisers.
Soon, a section of the students started chanting, “Jamia se rishta kya? La ilaha illalah.”
At 8.20 pm, there were calls to march to the university’s main gate, called Bab-e-Syed, an imposing structure of pink sandstone which is often the site of protests at AMU. They were partly animated by rumours that the Delhi police had killed two students at Jamia that evening. Others claimed the police had broken into a mosque on the Jamia campus. The protesters began moving towards the gate but the police personnel stationed there for weeks had closed and locked it.
This agitated many of the students. While hundreds stood watching, nearly two dozen students began pushing the black metal gate in an effort to bring it down. The struggle lasted about 10 minutes, as a lower section of the 30-foot gate gave away. Anticipating this, the police personnel stationed at the gate ran to the University Circle, 100 metres away, where a contingent of the Aligarh police and the RAF stood waiting.
After breaking the gate, the students sprinted towards the police and the RAF. Some even roughed up a policeman near Bab-e-Syed, demanding that he open the gate fully. Police barriers were thrown around, expletives hurled, and there were cries for students at the back of the gathering to move to the front.
As the protesters met the police at the University Circle, they could not breach a thick layer of metal barricades. It was not yet clear what the protesters really wanted. The whole event seemed to have triggered a mania that drove the angry students towards the police. However, these doubts vanished soon as the police began lobbing teargas shells at the protesters. It was 8.35 pm.
Anger among the students transformed into violence. As they retreated to Bab-e-Syed, many prepared for stone-pelting. Some students got hold of scarlet bricks and smashed them against the ground to scatter them into smaller pieces. One of them even threw stones at a CCTV camera installed atop a pole near the gate. When it didn’t break, another protester threw a rope around the pole, pulled it down, and smashed the camera.
After about 10 minutes, the police and the RAF marched to Bab-e-Syed. A fire truck was called to scare away the students with water cannons, and teargas shells exploded every minute, choking the protesters and swelling their eyes with water.
In response, the protesters pelted the police with rocks and stones, while falling back onto the campus. “Stop! Don’t run away, fight them!” shouted a student, climbing a boom barrier at Bab-e-Syed. There were increasing chants of “Allah Hu Akbar“. “Maaro salon ko,” shouted one of them. “Beat them up.”
AMU students speak about the citizenship law, their protests against it, and the police crackdown at Jamia Millia Islamia.
The police ramped up the teargassing. Outside a university guest house where I had retreated to, a small silver cylinder with a tail of fiery sparks landed with a terrible clink. It boomed loudly and a stinking white gas consumed the surrounding air.
Teargas burns through one’s nostrils before it sends the eyes into a frenzy of tears. It’s like snorting garam masala. Its evil lies in the initial inhale it forces upon the breathless victim. This only makes one breathe more frantically, consuming more gas in the process. Then the choking begins and tears gush out simultaneously. To make it worse, these tears then burn one’s cheeks as they stream down the face. This experience doesn’t last too long, but it momentarily makes everything quite dark.
Teargas exploding amidst the protesters in AMU.
This reporter witnessed students at the AMU choking, almost paralysed, as teargas got the better of them. One protester fell to it while lobbing it back to the police, with the shell exploding in his hands. To deal with it, students got water pipes from the lawns adjoining the University Road. Some distributed salt and rubbed it on their faces.
“We heard the news that three students were shot inside Jamia Millia Islamia and that a mosque and the library were stormed there,” an AMU student, recovering from a bout of teargas, told Newslaundry. “What kind of democracy is this? Which constitution allows this? We came out to protest this evening and the police lathicharged us. They threw teargas. It hit people on the hands and legs, and some can’t hear anymore. It is burning my eyes and face.”
Protesters on the University Road.
Another student, whom I had seen at the Fatima Sheikh Study Circle meeting earlier in the day, said the students clashed with the police after they heard that one student had died at Jamia and two were shot and injured. “We came here to read namaz-e-janaza at Bab-e-Syed and the police attacked us,” he said, meaning the funeral prayers. “A student’s hand has been blasted and others are injured.”
As we spoke, the police, who had made the students retreat even further down the University Road, charged at the protesters. We ran in the opposite direction. Teargas shells were exploding in every direction.
The protesters, who had earlier seemed to move together from Bab-e-Syed to the exit gate of the university, split and went into opposite directions as crossroads diverged on the University Road. Here, the police smashed parked bikes and scooters. A large white van on the police side, called “Riot Control Vehicle”, now surveyed the crossroads. Ambulances were advancing in different directions, often stopped by the police. They were carrying the injured, who, according to a report in The Hindu, number in the 60s.
Motorbikes and scooters smashed by the police in AMU.
Around 10.20 pm, the distance between the protesters and the forces began shrinking. Representatives of both sides appeared to be trying for a dialogue. Officials from AMU Proctor’s office and the university’s security personnel tried to calm down students, often waving white cloth at them.
There was a significant section among the students that opposed the stone-pelting. But the moment the students and the forces appeared to come closer, a protester would pelt stones, while the others retreated fearfully. The forces would pelt stones in return. After 20 minutes of this, about half a dozen students finally stopped to try and speak to the police. The forces acted relaxed and a few more reassured students walked up to them.
But it was a trick. All of a sudden, the police personnel pounced on the unarmed protesters wanting a dialogue. They were dragged and taken into an RAF van while being whipped with lathis. This reporter, who had until now been with the students, now found himself now on the police’s side. I shouted “press” multiple times to calm down the furious RAF men charging at me. One of them grabbed my hand and took me to the spot where most of the forces now stood. “Go away from here now!” he said.
RAF personnel charging at the students.
As I walked back, a student lay flat on the road in front of the riot control vehicle. He kept his hands on his face and wasn’t moving. The police didn’t care much. Ten metres away from him was an RAF vehicle, by which the armed forces were mercilessly beating three students and hurling the choicest abuses at them. The students pleaded to stop the assault and cried in pain.
Top: A student lies flat near a Riot Control Vehicle. Above: Police assault a student.
There were further inquiries made about my identity by police officials, and as I was showing my credentials, a heavy fisted blow landed on my shoulder. It was an Aligarh police official with a helmet. When I shouted at him, a senior police official ran up to me and offered an apology. “You should leave now,” he told me.
I continued to meander around the police forces, however. Some police personnel told me the director general and the additional director general were in the university and personally supervising the situation. Inside an RAF truck down the road, an RAF personnel was slapping detained AMU students without pause. His hands went high and landed heavily on the faces of the students, producing a loud whack that I could hear almost 15 metres away. “Stop slapping them, they’ll die,” an RAF man standing outside the truck shouted. It didn’t stop.
Then two RAF men walked up to me and asked what I was doing there. They reeked of cheap alcohol. I said “press”, but they insisted on seeing my identity card. When I said I was from Delhi, one of them, with grave red eyes, came closer. “Aap chutiye ho gaye hai? Yahaan kya kar rahe ho?” he said. Are you stupid? What are you doing here? Get lost.
The broken Bab-e-Syed gate nearly two hours after the protests started.
Outside Bab-e-Syed, another vehicle armed with a water cannon was on its way towards the forces. It was 11:30 pm. Pieces of bricks, broken tree branches, and scrap metal were everywhere, and the officials were cleaning the place. I called up a student inside AMU to inquire about the situation. “The police is lathicharging everyone on campus who is not in their hostel rooms,” he told me. Had they stormed their rooms? “No, not yet.”
As I walked back to the town’s main highway, a man mistook me for a visitor headed to AMU. He offered advice: “Don’t go there, I’ve heard there is something bad happening inside.”
Photographs by Ayush Tiwari.