Although the activism-clad grounds of Jamia Millia Islamia have been dormant for more than a year, the classes and the libraries still ring with the faint echoes of protests and dissent. The arrival of the pandemic put an unprecedented pause over the ongoing protests against the new citizenship law and the proposed nationwide NRC. But is it all done and dusted, forgiven and forgotten? What will happen when the epicenter of the nationwide protests opens its gates for the students once again?
The Non-Cooperation Movement led by Mahatma Gandhi in 1920 contributed to the establishment of Jamia Millia Islamia in Aligarh. When Aligarh Muslim University’s stance became increasingly pro-British, students, activists, and freedom fighters alike called for its boycott. This compelled many professors and students to sever all ties with AMU and set up Jamia as a separate, independent university. The subsequent years witnessed the rise of Jamia Millia Islamia as it soon became a symbol of nationalism in India. Inevitably, many of its students and professors were arrested and persecuted by the British throughout the struggle for independence.
With its core values rooted in nationalism and service, the students of Jamia Millia Islamia have passed on the torch of social responsibility to their successors so that even after a century later, the idealistic and steadfast nature of the University stands firm in the face of systematic suppression.
JMI’s recent tryst with socio-political activism surfaced in the form of anti-CAA protests that were ignited in several parts of the country. The protests were carried out by indignant citizens against the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act, calling for the rescission of the act and the associated proposal of the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
The CAA aimed to amend the Citizenship Act to recognize the citizenship of illegal migrants who entered into the Indian Territory from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan before 2014. However, a provision in the Act stated that it would only be applied to illegal migrants who are Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, Buddhist, or Christian. The omission of Muslims and other communities who escaped from the same or bordering countries like the Rohingyas from Myanmar or the Tibetan Refugees from the bill piqued massive outrage. The CAA was criticized for harboring discriminatory sentiments, especially against Muslims.
The anti-CAA protests first surfaced in Assam on 4 December 2019. Later, the movement spread like wildfire and caught on to the sleeves of other northeastern states before finally engulfing the major cities of India. The nation’s capital, Delhi, played host to some of the starkest violence by the police forces, against the protesters. In the eye of the storm stood Jamia Millia Islamia, the tiny spark that kept the fire raging.
JMI’s first exclusive involvement in the protests took place on 13 December 2019, when the students of the University organized a demonstrative march to the Parliament to protest against the CAA. However, the protests were curbed by an aggressive backlash by the police who dispersed the crowds using batons and tear gas, following which 50 students were detained by the forces.
Not more than a couple of days later, Jamia Millia Islamia witnessed one of the most horrific state-sponsored attacks on a student body inside their campus. On 15 December 2019, around two thousand students from Jamia reinforced the already bustling anti-CAA protests in Delhi. On the same day at 6:46 pm, hundreds of police officers clashed with violent protestors following which the police stormed into the campus without the consent of the college authorities. The police suppressed the protestors through the use of batons and tear gas. Several videos were released by a number of sources including the Jamia Coordination Committee, Maktoob Media, and The Quint displaying the brutal nature of the police as they launched tear gas canisters inside Jamia’s main library and randomly beat up unsuspecting students. Following the tragic ordeal, the university was shut until 5 January 2020, with residents being asked to vacate the campus.
Far from derailing the resolute nature of the protests, the unfathomable case of police brutality incited further unrest. The protests continued along with the active participation of Jamia’s student body, much to the State’s chagrin. It looked as if nothing could move the protestors; nor rain, or any maelstrom, let alone resistance from the government. Something monumental needed to happen, something that held within itself the capability to stop the world, and then it came – it came in the form of the Coronavirus pandemic.
The protest lost its momentum following the announcement of the 3-week nationwide lockdown on 25 March 2020. What was left in Shaheen Bagh at that time was a feeble group of protestors who were quickly ushered out by the police, thereby closing the chapter once and for all. The government quickly capitalized on the opportunity, removing all kinds of graffiti and art installations that were put up at protest sites.
Whether or not the protests would have continued long enough to compel the government to give in to the demands is still a matter of debate. But one thing is certain – the students of Jamia Millia Islamia can never forget the injustice and brutality that they faced. With major universities like JMI, JNU, and DU, holding discussions for the phased reopening of physical classes, one cannot help but wonder – will the protests resurface?
The execution of NRC is still looming with uncertainty over the horizon. With the government poised to carry on with its plans, several activist groups have warned that the implementation of CAA-NRC will lead to the resumption of protests. In an event that felicitated Bilkis Bano, the 82-year old activist popularly hailed as ‘Shaheen Bagh didi’ stated that after the fight against the coronavirus, the CAA-NRC movement shall move further.
A year and a half have passed since the anti-CAA protests hit their summit, and Jamia has since admitted a flurry of new students into its ranks, parting ways with some of the older ones. But the departure of old students does not symbolize the closure of the anti-CAA chapter. Should the protests continue, new voices will shake the grounds of Shaheen Bagh, and when uttered in unison, the voice of Jamia will still resonate the same notes as it did in 1920. The University’s inception is intertwined with India’s struggle for independence, and its stance is synonymous with those that conceived the Constitution of India.
It is safe to say that Jamia shall never forget its social responsibility. United with the Republic of India, the students of Jamia can light a fire so bright, it couldn’t be doused even if the seven seas were to come together to flood their campus.
Anzal Khan is a student pursuing B.Com from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Diptarka Chatterjee
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.