New Delhi—Picture commencing your college day enveloped by an atmosphere of perpetual watchfulness. As you traverse the streets, a furtive glimpse catches a man clad in camouflage, firmly grasping his weapon. Inside the campus, you attempt to push aside this disconcerting image, reassuring yourself that they are barred from entering the premises. Yet, conversations with peers reveal past breaches where violent acts perpetrated by these forces remain unaccounted for. Despite regulations prohibiting police entry without the Vice Chancellor’s consent, past transgressions belie this norm. Upon departing the campus at day's end, the sight of more officers, armed and jesting, prompts a poignant question: could they be deriding the students' vulnerability? Does this narrative not echo a dystopian tale? This is the stark reality at Jamia Millia Islamia, a distinguished central government university in Southeast Delhi.
Just a few meters from the Sukhdev Vihar Metro Station, Jamia's campus begins, featuring a newly established police outpost in the Julena area. The outpost emerged after the CAA-NRC protests, which not only shook the nation but also deeply impacted the campus. Police barricades have become a common sight. According to students, these barricades remained in place after the protests in early 2020.
It’s noteworthy that student protests and politics are not uncommon in universities. The University of Delhi is famous for its elaborate Student Union elections, where various student wings like ABVP, NSUI, CYSS AISA, and others invest substantial sums to conduct mass rallies and secure seats. Jawaharlal Nehru University is renowned for holding its administration accountable through student protests. However, any similar protest at Jamia Millia University results in the swift closure of the entire campus with police armed with water cannons stationed at the gates hours before the protests begin. Students being detained in groups is not an unfamiliar scenario at this institution.
The Mooknayak had the opportunity to interview a few students and professors from the university about their experiences within Jamia’s community. While the professors we reached out, declined to comment, the frustrated students had much to share. An anonymous student from the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre expressed, "Muslim minority institutions are being unfairly labelled as problematic. Recently, a pro-Palestine protest was set to take place at gate number 7. But before it even commenced, the entire area, from Gaffar Manzil to the farthest gate of Jamia, was swarmed by police forces. They use this force to intimidate us, dissuading students from participating in any rally, a constitutionally guaranteed right. Canteens were shut down, and we were coerced to leave the campus." Freedom of speech is being stifled in university spaces where students should be encouraged to do the opposite.
The student further added, "It feels like the police are eagerly waiting to pounce. Even if we haven't done anything or possess any suspicious item, I fear it won't dissuade them. They might falsely implicate me and detain me without reason."
Divyang, a first-year mass communication student, discussed his experience. He said, "I'm not sure when the police presence began as it's only been a few months since I started studying here, but it has a detrimental effect on students' mental health." The mass communication student elaborated, "The university authorities already maintain surveillance on us, and now, with the police presence, we feel an added layer of scrutiny. This makes us think twice before expressing ourselves and being who we truly are."
During the CAA-NRC protests, Jamia Millia Islamia's student demonstrations received highly negative coverage. The students were portrayed as more than mere protestors. The Islamophobic reporting cast the university as a space for stereotypes like 'terrorists' and 'anti-national elements.'
A student and member of the Jamia Queer Collective discussed the intersectional problems they face at the university. They mentioned, "I identify as queer and enjoy expressing my identity through my choice of clothing. I completed my bachelor’s at Delhi University, where I used to dress in a way stereotypically associated with women. Initially, I did the same here, but when I noticed two groups of policemen stationed outside the campus, I began to feel uncomfortable. Police observing me implies the state is monitoring me. Anything that deviates from the norm appears as a problem to the state, so I started toning down my appearance." They continued, stating that they now feel constrained. "I understand there are still queer people on campus, but I no longer feel as safe as I did in other spaces before."
The police have a history of "illegally" entering the campus. On 15th December 2019, residents from areas surrounding Jamia and students planned to march towards the Parliament. The police, along with the CRPF, were waiting for them at Julena, near gate number 1 of the campus. When the peaceful rally reached the area, the police initiated a lathi-charge. The crowd began dispersing, with students fleeing in any direction possible. Many entered the college campus, knowing that forces were not allowed inside. Announcements were made from various departments, instructing students to stay inside the campus for safety.
Many sought refuge in the section of the campus starting at gate number 7, which has three entrances, one of them located at the rear near the Ansari Health Centre. The police breached the campus from the rear and approached the protesting students, subjecting them to physical violence. December was an examination period, and many students not involved in the protests were studying in the Zakir Hussain Library. Police even entered the library to ensure no one was spared. "Numerous female students ran to the washrooms, thinking it might be their last chance to call their parents as they believed they might not survive until the next day," a student present during the protests claimed.
But it didn't end there. That same night, police also entered through gate number 8 and assaulted students at the canteens. They even went to hostels, instilling fear among the residents. Classes were canceled, and many students returned home as the winter vacation was advanced. When they returned, they encountered the newly established police outpost at Julena. They were informed that the CRPF and police presence were for their protection. However, considering the history of police brutality they had experienced, it's unsurprising that students didn't feel safe.