It was January 12. Mediapersons were told that a high-profile speaker would be invited to address the demonstration at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, where thousands of students, teachers and other citizens have been protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act since December.
I was told the mystery speaker was Shashi Tharoor, writer and Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram. Tharoor had found himself at the centre of a social media controversy when he tweeted his unhappiness about protesters using the slogan “La Ilaha Illallah”. Tharoor received backlash for the tweet, with many people calling him “Islamaphobic”.
Nevertheless, the Jamia Coordination Committee, formed to organise and oversee the ongoing protest, decided to invite Tharoor to Jamia. It was a decision that was condemned by many of the protesters, who told Newslaundry it was an attempt to “appease” the Congress leader. Some even alleged that prominent members of the committee were trying to become “netas” by inviting “problematic” leaders such as Tharoor.
On the day of the event, at around 3 pm, when Tharoor was scheduled to arrive, I joined other journalists on the Jamia campus. We sat in a small space reserved for the press, earmarked by a rope. We were eagerly waiting for Tharoor, but he was two hours late.
When he finally arrived, the gathered students began clapping and chanting slogans. He said the Citizenship Amendment Act was discriminatory because religion formed its basis. He said the law was discriminatory because, for the first time, “a religious test is part of the Citizenship Act”.
The audience was mesmerised. Journalists fought to get the best soundbites.
It all seemed normal.
Then I turned around. In a corner, on the other side of the road, a group of seven or eight people were gathered. They held up placards that read “La Ilaha Illalah” and “Shashi Tharoor’s views are Islamophobic”. I headed in their direction, hoping to speak to this voice of dissent.
Sadly, I couldn’t even get close.
As I walked away from Tharoor towards this group of protesters, I was stopped by a group of men. They were volunteers with the Jamia Coordination Committee. They formed a human chain around me. I didn’t understand what was happening. I asked them to let me pass. “Ma’am, it’s for your safety as a woman,” they said. “Those protesters will hurt you. Please stay on this side of the road.”
I was irritated and refused to leave. I tried again: “Let me go out, I just want to take some photos and videos.”
They didn’t relent. “The guest is right in front of you. Take his photos and videos all you want,” they said, referring to Tharoor. “But please don’t go there as they are not Jamia students and are just trying to defame the movement.”
This was a lie. I’m a Jamia student myself and I could recognise at least two Jamia students in that group.
I even assured the men, half-heartedly, that I would write that the group was not comprised of Jamia students, but they still didn’t agree. When I kept asking them to let me through, the men got aggressive.
“Aap Jamia ko kyun badnaam karne ki koshish kar rahi hain?” one of them asked. Why are you trying to defame Jamia?
“I am just doing my job,” I responded. “Let me do my job.”
I tried to take a video with my phone of the small group with the posters, but some coordination committee volunteers forcefully pushed my phone down. I was not allowed to do my job as a journalist, and I was also anxious about protecting my phone and camera.
After a while, Tharoor left. The grip of these people loosened on the journalists present. I somehow managed to reach the area where the simultaneous protest was happening. I saw volunteers pushing people to leave the place and some of them even tearing the placards with anti-Tharoor slogans.
Again, I tried to talk to the dissenting protesters and was stopped immediately. One volunteer, unaware of my Muslim identity, even questioned me, “Aapko pata bhi hai ‘La Ilaha Illallah’ ka matlab kya hota hai?” Do you even know what “La Ilaha Illallah” means? His tone was mocking.
Enraged, I wrote a Facebook post, calling out this behavior of the coordination committee volunteers.
Shoaiba Arfeen Khan, one of the small group of protesters against Tharoor, commented on my post. “Yes, a volunteer snatched my placard and literally shouted at me in a very bad manner. He was saying ‘Nikalo isey yaha se’. Somebody was pulling my dupatta. I realised that Indian Muslims need more courage to fight against the Islamophobic leaders of Congress. Me and my sister were the only girls in the whole crowd of women who were saying ‘La Ilaha Illallah’. Indian Muslims need more courage, they are still afraid of everyone. We are still not one. It is very unfortunate.”
It’s not about whether Shashi Tharoor should have been invited to Jamia — that’s for the protesting students and organisers to debate. But to stop the media from covering a protest during his visit, and the unruly and aggressive behavior of the volunteers, coupled with the misogynistic comments that were made — that is condemnable.
It’s autocratic to expect journalists to cover only parts of protest that suit the organiser’s narrative. Journalists have absolutely no obligation to lend support to a cause or movement. We need to work in a free and fair manner, and the Jamia Coordination Committee didn’t allow us to do so.
The next morning, the committee issued a press release with an unconditional apology to the protesters and the media. It said: “We strongly condemn the suppression of the right of the freedom of speech and expression of the protestors who were registering their dissent against some of Shashi Tharoor’s past statements. We stand with every individual’s right to freedom of speech and expression.”
It continued: “We apologise to the media persons who were stopped from approaching the said protestors and were heckled in the process. Hindering the process of impartial reporting by the media persons is not acceptable at all. On behalf of the protestors who have engaged in this act, intentionally or unintentionally, we render an unconditional apology.”