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Jamia Square: Why a century-old university has become focal point of unrest

Last week’s police crackdown on Jamia Millia Islamia has set off domino protests across the country over the new citizenship law and a proposed nationwide NRC. The Indian Express spend time on the campus — its cafes, corridors and classrooms — to see why a century-old university with no student union and no known history of protests has ended up as the focal point of the current unrest.

Written by Uma Vishnu , Aban Usmani | New Delhi | Updated: December 22, 2019 10:07:21 am
jamia protest, Jamia CAA protests, Jamia Citizenship protests, citizenship amendment act, citizenship protest, Jamia university protest, indian express Jamia students protesting outside Gate No. 7. ( Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

Inside the reading room are echoes of a noise from a week ago, much louder than the kind libraries typically abhor, one that had forced the students to flee in panic, leaving behind their bags, a book shut with a pen still within the folds of its pages, a stole on the desk as its owner ran into the winter chill outside, geography notes on the Satpura Range with a map of India squeezed into the margin. On the floor at the far end of the hall, among upturned blue chairs and wooden benches, lies an exploded tear gas shell. “This is where it landed,” says a staff, pointing to deep scars on the floor. In the corridors outside are darkened, dried drops of blood and shards of glass.

It is nearly a week since the December 15 police crackdown on Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia, when forces had entered the university, clashed with students, and lobbed tear gas shells in the library and elsewhere on campus, leaving many of the students injured. The shock at the police action has since blown up into domino protests across the country against the new Citizenship Amendment Act and a proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Also Read | How students, community rallied round for protests

At Jamia, though, the protests had been simmering for a while, fuelled by deep anxieties as the citizenship Bill — which leaves out Muslims as it seeks to ease citizenship to illegal migrants from three neighbouring countries — coursed through Parliament with little resistance.

With the Central university now shut for an early winter break and the protesters forced to confine themselves to the main road outside Gate No. 7, Jamia’s emergence as the focal point for the current protests as it enters its 100th year of existence is somewhat of a surprise. This, after all, is a university with no student union and no known history of leading defining student agitations, unlike its younger and arguably more vocal counterpart, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

jamia protest, Jamia CAA protests, Jamia Citizenship protests, citizenship amendment act, citizenship protest, Jamia university protest, indian express At the Zakir Hussain library, where police lobbed tear gas shells on December 15

“Many forget that this is a university that was born in the throes of the freedom movement with the active patronage of Mahatma Gandhi. In a way, when these students fight for their Constitutional rights, they are upholding that legacy,” says Manisha Sethi, Associate Professor at Jamia’s Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies.

The 1920s were times of deep tumult. It was around this time that the anti-colonial Islamic activism of the Khilafat movement and the pro-Independence aspiration of the Muslim intelligentsia came together on a common platform of the Congress’s non-cooperation movement. Responding to Mahatma Gandhi’s call for a boycott of educational institutions sponsored by the British, a group of nationalist teachers and students quit Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) — which then, along with Banaras Hindu University, enjoyed British State patronage and was thus seen as pro-British — to set up the nationalist Jamia Millia Islamia (Arabic for National Muslim University) as a small campus outside AMU in 1920. In a curious turn of events and politics since then, a hundred years later, Jamia and AMU now find themselves on the same side of the citizenship debate and the protests over it.

Read | Fighting for a good cause: Jamia student who stood up to police

In its subsequent years, as a fledgling Jamia struggled to survive — moving from Aligarh to Delhi’s Karol Bagh and subsequently to its present location in what would become Jamia Nagar or ‘university town’ — it was kept afloat by donors such as Hakim Ajmal Khan, one of Jamia’s founders and its first chancellor, and well-wishers, among them Zakir Hussain, who had then just finished his PhD from the University of Berlin and who went on to become the third vice-chancellor of the university and later President of India. At one point, when Jamia’s survival seemed precarious, Gandhi is said to have famously said, “The Jamia has to run. If you are worried about its finances, I will go with a begging bowl.”

It was thus that the university — with its buildings such as the Ibn Sina block named after the Persian polymath, the Premchand Archives and Literary Centre, the Noam Chomsky Complex near the Jamia Metro station, and the R K Narayan Centre for Dalit & Minority Studies — took shape. Among its many illustrious teachers was Devdas Gandhi, Jamia’s “first Hindi teacher”.

jamia protest, Jamia CAA protests, Jamia Citizenship protests, citizenship amendment act, citizenship protest, Jamia university protest, indian express The shock at the police action has since blown up into domino protests across the country against the new Citizenship Amendment Act and a proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC)

Its cafes, among them the Dastarkhwan run by women from the Jamia Nagar area, the Central Canteen and Maggi Point, were spaces where ideas met, clashed and sometimes found a new direction. But it was Jamia’s Castro café, named after the Cuban Communist and anti-imperialist and now run by someone from, where else, Kerala, where liberal ideas co-existed with conservatives ones, where nothing jarred, not the jeans and T-shirts or the burqas and topis. This cold, frigid evening, the ‘semi-open’ canteen, designed by Delhi-based Khosla Design Studio, is deserted, save for a mutt that is curled up on its cold Kota stone floor.

The 200-acre campus and its 39 departments are now spread across either side of the public Okhla road that cleaves through the campus. Above this road is the latest addition to the Jamia skyline — the Magenta Line of the Delhi Metro that streaks through the sky every few minutes. Amidst cramped colonies such as Jamia Nagar that saw waves of new occupants in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition and the 2002 Gujarat riots, Jamia stood tall — an oasis of green in an area that has few public parks.

Also Read | CAA protest: 5 days later, tear gas shell in AMU hostel, burnt walls, amputations

The university, which became a Central university in 1988, has 22,000 students, including those in its middle and senior secondary schools. Jamia also runs a day-care centre and a nursery school as part of a unique integrated approach to education.

But it’s the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre or MCRC that’s among the university’s best known centres. When it was set up in 1982 by former V-C Anwar Jamal Kidwai, in collaboration with Jim and Margaret Beveridge of York University, it was the first such media school to offer a Master’s in Mass Communication, with its students exposed to video, TV and radio journalism, with an emphasis on documentary films. The centre would go on to shape a generation of media practitioners, with its alumni list including names such as television host Roshan Abbas, journalist Barkha Dutt, director Kabir Khan and, its most famous dropout, Shah Rukh Khan, “who was not allowed to complete his course due to lack of attendance”.

“Shohini (Ghosh, director of the Centre) and I were part of the second batch of MCRC and later, came back to teach here,” says Sabeena Gadihoke, Professor of Mass Communication at the Centre. As students of MCRC, Ghosh, Gadihoke, and four others had formed Mediastorm, a documentary collective whose all-women crew made defining films such as the 1991 Whose Country is It Anyway? that was an attempt to counter the fundamentalist narrative prevailing then.

Now, with the hostels emptied out and entry strictly regulated, the campus is largely deserted. Outside Gate No. 7, the slogans get sharper and shriller.

jamia protest, Jamia CAA protests, Jamia Citizenship protests, citizenship amendment act, citizenship protest, Jamia university protest, indian express All three FIRs were registered on the basis of the police’s complaints, but none of the seven have been arrested so far. (PTI)

Rizwan Qaiser, professor of Modern Indian History, admits that unlike his alma mater JNU, Jamia hasn’t seen too many protests, at least none of this magnitude since the 1992 protests against then pro-vice-chancellor Mushirul Hasan. Hasan, who had spoken out against the then Narasimha Rao government’s decision to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, was assaulted and hounded out of campus allegedly by the conservatives among both faculty and students. Hasan came back for a successful stint as V-C from 2004-09, during which he was credited with rebuilding the university, and more importantly, steering it through the tough times that followed the Batla House encounter of 2008, in which a Jamia student was killed and two of them were arrested.

As identities sharpened and political parties pointed fingers at each other, senior BJP leader V K Malhotra called the area around Jamia a “den of terrorists”. Teachers and former students speak fondly of how Hasan led from the front, winning over students by addressing them on the steps of M A Ansari Auditorium, and saying, “I, as your teacher and on behalf of the other teachers of Jamia, will support you in every hour of crisis. You are like my children. And a father can’t abandon his children in this hour of crisis.”

Also Read | Amid CAA anger, Assam readies land rights for its indigenous people

In 2005, Hasan even briefly lifted the ban on the Jamia students’ union, but it was again banned the following year. While there have been demands from student organisations on campus — among them the Students’ Federation of India (SFI, the CPM’s student body), AAP’s Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Samiti, Congress’s NSUI and SIO or the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind’s Students’ Islamic Organisation — to revive the union, the matter is still pending in the Delhi High Court.
Which is what makes the current student protests, held in the absence of an organised student grouping, even more remarkable, says Qaiser, sitting in his Room No. 6 at the Mohibbul Hasan House that houses the History Department and which is named after Mushirul Hasan’s father and the historian who started the department at Jamia.

“This looks like the May Fourth Movement of China (an uprising led by students who objected to the China government’s weak response to the Treaty of Versailles, signed after World War I). It’s heartening to see such an articulate response to divisive politics. This time, it’s an existential question,” says Qaiser, while emphasising that Jamia is not the focus of these protests. “The focus is on CAA and NRC, which are clearly not in the best interest of the country.”

On the possibility of Muslim Right on campus hijacking the protests, he says, “What’s noteworthy is that so many students have galvanised themselves seeking their Constitutional rights; they have not been demanding religious rights. Of course, like everywhere else, there is the presence of the Right on campus, but the students haven’t let them steer the protests in their direction,” says Qaiser, laughing, “In fact, one of my students wrote on Facebook: Shahi paneer has better value than Shahi Imam (Bukhari, the grand Imam of Jama Masjid).”

Opposite Kaiser’s room, across the courtyard in front, is the Department of Sanskrit. It was started in 2017, making it among Jamia’s youngest disciplines. “But few know that Jamia had a course in Sanskrit as far back as in 1924,” Kaiser says.

So where does Jamia go from here? “It’s important for an institution like Jamia to exist. People keep calling for the mainstreaming of Muslims. What better way of doing that than by giving them a modern, academic institution, where they meet non-Muslims, where they are uplifted emotionally, culturally, politically? Its name is ‘Jamia Millia Islamia’ but it’s important for people to know this is any other modern, liberal institution,” says Qaiser.

Also Read | Cause or symptom or both: BJP, Oppn watch with fingers crossed

Shaheen Abdulla believes there are many such myths that need to be debunked, many positions that need to be taken. Sipping tea at one of the stalls within the campus, the 24-year-old, a final-year student of the Convergent Journalism course at Jamia, says, “Let’s start by being specific. That this crisis — of CAA, NRC — is a Muslim problem. For instance, when it is, say, a law against the LGBT community, we have to say it is a law against the LGBT community and that I, as a non-LGBT member, will stand by the community. We can’t pretend it is otherwise and couch this with broad generalisations, call it an assault on the Constitution, etc. You may call me communal, but I believe my communalism is more secular than Indian secularism.”

Now one of the faces of a video that went viral during the December 15 flare-up, Shaheen, who also works with Maktoob Multimedia, a Delhi-based news website, as Associative Creative Editor, says he was “covering the protests” when things got ugly and a lathicharge broke out. “At that point, I had to help my friends, and we took shelter in the garage of a bungalow in New Friends Colony,” he says. The video shows Shaheen being dragged out of this house and thrashed by police, before his friends throw a protective cordon around him. The image of Ayesha Renna, Shaheen’s junior from Farook College in Kozhikode and a student of history at Jamia, wagging a finger at an assaulting policeman has become a symbol of the Jamia students’ pushback. On the bridge of Shaheen’s nose and brow are scars from the injuries he sustained in that assault.

As Shaheen rushes off to the protest site outside Gate No. 7, his classmate Tammana Rafique, a 22-year-old from Guwahati, says she is confused. “Back home in Assam, this was not our struggle. When the Assamese people spoke out against CAB or when they spoke in favour of NRC, it was a matter of indigenous Assamese identity. So while the government assures the Assamese that CAA won’t harm them, in the rest of the country it is using the law to stoke communal fears,” says Rafique, holding a poster and refusing to sit through the conversation. “We can’t be tired. We are all in for the long haul,” she smiles.

jamia protest, Jamia CAA protests, Jamia Citizenship protests, citizenship amendment act, citizenship protest, Jamia university protest, indian express Hostel students leaving the campus on Monday. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

Much of this resolve finds an expression on the walls of the campus, in the posters, banners and graffiti that have come up all across. Manav Sharma, 21, a PG Diploma student in Acting who is among the “graffiti artistes”, says, “We did all this on the night of December 13, running away every time the guards caught us.”

As he rolls up a hand-written poster, Manav says he has never felt discriminated against in a campus that is seen as a “Muslim university”. As a minority institution, Jamia reserves 50 per cent of its seats for Muslims — 10% of this is set aside for Muslim girls and 10% for Muslim OBCs. (However, with the Centre opposing Jamia’s minority status, which was granted by the previous UPA government in 2011, the matter is now pending in the High Court.)

“Waise bhi, mere kapde se kya pata chalta hai ki mein Hindu hoon ya Muslim (Anyway, can you tell from my clothes if I am Hindu or Muslim),” asks Manav, a cheeky retort to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “troublemakers can be identified by their clothes” remark over the CAA protests.

At a press meeting organised by the Jamia Teachers’ Association inside a packed M A Ansari Auditorium, teachers speak out in support of the students and against the “atrocity of police”, and how no student was involved in the violence. There are also demands from the students that the administration release the CCTV footage of the incident and questions about the status of the university’s FIR against the police action.

As the session winds up with a rendition of the national anthem and amidst chants of “Jai Hind”, two young assistant professors, who didn’t want their identities to be revealed, say it may not be right for the university to distance itself from the area around it and blame it all on “outsiders”.

“You can’t disassociate the university from all these localities around it — Gafoor Nagar, Abu Fazal, Jamia Nagar. Unlike JNU, this university can’t accommodate everyone inside. So a lot of them live outside, and that makes the outside community an extension of the campus. Amidst this ghettoisation of a community, they see this university as precious to their lives, something they can call their own because they have somebody of their own studying or working here,” says one of them.

Arzoo says she couldn’t agree more. On December 19, with the protests finding an echo in different parts of the country and with the administration cracking down by imposing Section 144 in parts of Delhi, Arzoo is headed for Jamia’s Gate No. 7, which is now brimming with protesters. As people pose with the Tricolour and the organisers ensure the traffic isn’t held up by forming a corridor for vehicles, it’s hard to tell the students from the “outsiders”.

“We are all insiders,” says Arzoo, in her mid-40s, who has come here with her 85-year-old mother, her sister-in-law and two of her neighbours. “We got done with all our cooking in the morning and set off for here. Jamia is like our home, our family. I did my MSc from here, my brother did his BTech here. Both my daughters and my son studied here. It’s thanks to this university that our daughters study, and there’s nothing that’s more important than that,” says Arzoo.

“Bachche padhenge toh bolenge hi (If children get an education, they will speak out),” her mother adds, before they join the protest.

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