By Nazish Hussain and Musheera Ashraf
New Delhi: Four weeks since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a lockdown amid coronavirus pandemic, Indian Police have arrested three Muslim students who had been at the forefront of peaceful protests against India’s divisive anti-Muslim citizenship law since December.
On Tuesday, all three students Meeran Haider, Safoora Zargar, and Umar Khalid were charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), a controversial terror law. Last week, Delhi Police issued notices to nearly 50 Jamia Coordination Committee members, who are mostly students of Jamia Millia Islamia to join the investigation. Since then many have gone underground fearing arrest.
For Akhtarista Ansari, a Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) student, the coronavirus lockdown in India is being used by the government to witch hunt dissenting and critical voices. A final year student of B.A Sociology in the institution, Ansari is worried about the arrests of Jamia students by Delhi Police’s special cell.
“It is very scary and depressing because we do not know when they will call us and they can just put us behind bars on false cases,” Ansari told TwoCircles.net.
This fear is palpable among students of JMI involved anti CAA-NRC-NPR protests as the COVID lockdown has put strict restrictions on assembly, simultaneously bringing an end to various sit-in across the country. Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, the epicenter of the movement got empty soon after the protestors evacuated the area following lockdown guidelines of social distancing. It didn’t take long for Delhi Police to spring into action and demolish the empty site followed with the whitewashing of anti-CAA graffiti on the walls of Jamia.
Thereafter, on April 2, Meeran Haider, a Ph.D. scholar at JMI got arrested by the special cell of Delhi Police. According to media reports, the special cell of Delhi Police has charged Meeran Haider for allegedly hatching conspiracy and attempt to murder. Another student, Safoora Zargar, a research scholar at the university, who is also three months pregnant, got arrested on April 13. Safoora has been accused of obstructing the road near Jaffrabad metro station during an anti-CAA stir. Both the students are part of the Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC) and have been actively protesting against CAA. JCC is a group comprising students and alumni from the university that was formed after the brutal crackdown of Delhi Police on Jamia students on December 15, 2019. JCC primarily built a base to manage anti-CAA protests, acting as a central point of this nationwide movement.
“Jamia Millia Islamia hasn’t had a Union yet but JCC played a major role in organizing the students inside the campus and sustaining the resistance against police brutality on students,” says Ayisha Nourin, a regular among student protestors at JMI. During the ongoing protest, the students of JCC had evolved as “an open body where anyone could come and go, talk or share their opinions” said Ladeeda, another student from the university.
After the lockdown, JCC released a press note about the temporary suspension of the 24*7 protests at Jamia Millia Islamia. But still “from past few weeks they are targeting the JCC and students inside Jamia” says Ayesha Renna who became the widely shared hijabi face of the anti-CAA resistance.
Heavy hand of police on students
“Most of us ended up inside police station, under detention or later in hospitals because of the serious injuries” says Ayisha Nourin. She added that the students have been targeted by the police from the very starting and each of the protest marches were controlled by the riot controlling team of Delhi Police . Later on February 10, police brutality was meted out to female students with numerous reports of the police assault on girls, hitting them on their chest and stomach with lathis. Some students had also accused the police of kicking them on their private parts with their boots on, punching them and even forcibly removing their hijabs, recounts Ayisha.
When the world is suffering from corona, the authorities are taking advantage of the fact that students won’t be able to protest and they won’t be able to answer back. So, “they are utilizing and targeting the student community at this time” opines Ayesha Renna. What comes as a great shock for JMI student protestors and members of JCC is the arrest of Meeran Haider. “He has been on the forefront in relief work for the Delhi pogrom,” says Ayesha about Meeran.
Others from the JCC expressed that the police has been “inhuman” for arresting a three months pregnant Safoora. The members describe the situation to be “critical.” They explain that police are relentlessly arresting anti-NRC and anti-CAA protestors. “Moreover, they keep summoning protestors to the police station, and call it investigation,” says Ladeeda.
Surveillance on Jamia students
Jamia has been under constant threat and surveillance post December 15 last year. On January 30, a gunman had shot at students who were marching to Rajghat from the university campus, while the police stood as spectators. Recalling the kind of surveillance meted out to students in the initial days of the protest Ayisha says, “We would get blocked on roads and police would check if we were carrying Jamia id cards.”
She explains that police would target and interrogate students on their purpose of going to the university and quite often people from different student bodies in Jamia would be constantly under surveillance.
A former research scholar talking about her experience of stay at the university feels that, “Jamia is a brave space that scares government and hence, the constant surveillance by state machinery, which naturally exposes students to vulnerability.”
The arrests have garnered severe criticism from activist bodies that have condemned the arrests terming it as a ‘witch-hunt of Muslim activists.’ As the wave of anti-CAA protests that had swept colleges and university campuses across India suffers a severe blockade amid the Corona lockdown, it is heartening to see that “the campaigning has shifted to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and even professors have started to collect signs and petitions,” says AyishaNourin.
A statement issued by the ‘Campaign against Witch-hunt of anti-CAA activists’, a concerned citizens’ group, has condemned the “unending witch-hunt of Muslim scholar-activists.” In their statement, they mention that the current regime at the Centre has “unleashed a war on young Muslims” and a generation of scholar-activists has faced a baptism by fire at a time of “systemic and systematic erosion”.
Another petition signed by notable artists from Bollywood condemned “the witch hunt of students and activists by Delhi Police.”
A Jamia alumnus and a former member of the Dayar I Shauq Students Charter (DISSC) recalling that the JMI students have been standing tall against all unlawful decisions of the government, adds, “Jamia is a brave space; especially Muslim students are very brave.”
Ladeeda, one of the leading student protestors, explains that a lot of them are worried about how they would defend themselves legally if the police take any unfair action towards the arrested. But she says that as far as we are concerned, “Stepping down isn’t an option. Even now, our protest continues on social media platforms.”