AMU: The University under Siege

Photo: PTI

By Zeeshan Ahmad

15 December 2020 marked a year when the unprecedented happened at Aligarh Muslim University. Unprecedented in the sense that what happened was simply inhumane and plainly savage. The students protesting against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019 experienced near-death at the hands of the state authorities. It is obvious, and quite natural to feel so, for, every second, tear gas was being fired with lightning speed, and the thud of stern-grenade numbed the ear. Beside these, the police force had other sophisticated lethal-paraphernalia for the students.

The raining batons, the eye-irritating fumes of tear-gas shells and the lethal stun-grenades used by the state police and the paramilitary forces against the students not just debilitated their bodies but left them with an experience of “horror”, so grotesque in scale and degree that is hard to forget in times to come.

At the Allahabad University in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru had said, “A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for progress, for the adventure of ideas … [and] … for the onward march of the human race towards even higher objectives.”

On 15 December 2019 everything was present except the ideals highlighted by Nehru regarding the university. The students at AMU saw for themselves, quite haplessly, how these ideals were crippled and trampled upon by the police and paramilitary forces.


Since 4 December 2019, when the Citizenship Amendment Bill was passed by the Union Cabinet, protests started against it at AMU like in most of the other universities and colleges in India. This included Jamia Millia Islamia and JNU. The protest was not against the law but the discriminatory nature of the law.

At its initial phase, the protest in AMU was not that prominent as most of the students were still struggling to figure out what the law entailed. However, in small gatherings and study circles, students were raising awareness, discussing among themselves about the provisions of the law, mainly the Statement of Objects and Reason (the Preamble) where the discriminating words of the law were nestled. Students were concerned that “In light of the Constitutional ideals, this law doesn’t pass the muster, as differentiation based solely on religion is unconstitutional.” Moreover, the reason for classifying Muslims as a separate class called as intelligible differentia fails to satisfy the rationale nexus test, which the law seeks to achieve.

However, the callous manner and the way in which the constitutional norms were being tossed in the air and the Citizenship Bill being relayed from one house of the Parliament to another before being assented to by the President of India on 12 December 2019, further outraged the students.

Meanwhile, exactly a month before the CAB was passed in the Lok Sabha, on 9 December 2019, the Supreme Court of India delivered the Babri-Ramjanmbhoomi judgement. In the judgment the Supreme Court noted that the demolition of Babri Masjid was an act of “national shame”; yet the judgment went in favour of those who committed that shame. This aberrant reasoning was noticed by everyone.

Further, the other infirmities in the judgment were too apparent and glaring for anybody to miss. How could it have then missed the piercing eyes of the students at the University?

As the irrationality of the judgment started being debated in the public domain, the students discerned the design behind the judgment and its political economy. The hope that the Supreme Court would act as a bulwark against majoritarian forces did not have many takers. And, thus, the anxiety and despondency loomed large.

This, therefore, in turn made the students more alienated, inducing them with the feeling of being pushed against the wall.

In addition, the horrifying experience of the Supreme Court-supervised National Register of Citizens in Assam raised further concern. Being disenfranchised and rotting in detention centers enhanced the fear.

It is against this background that the events leading up to 15 December 2019 need to be analyzed. The feeling of alienation by now was writ large. This was like reaching a saturation point from where nothing more could be absorbed or taken.

On 15 December 2019, there was a crackdown on the Jamia Millia Islamia by the Delhi Police against the anti-CAA protestors. The brutality unleashed upon the students was for everyone to see on social media. The inhumanity shown by the police could be gauged from the fact that not only they barged into the library, but due to their violence one student lost his eyesight in one eye. This victim was Mr. Minhaj, one of our seniors from Aligarh Muslim University.

Later, words had spread that a student had lost his life because of the police firing. This turned out to be a rumour. He was still alive. But between the rumour and its verification, the word had spread like wildfire. This is “the” incident that connected Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University on 15 December, 2019.

This incident became the focal point and some miscreants tapping on the emotions of the general students coaxed them to assemble at Bab-e-Syed as a sign of solidarity with Jamians. At the centre of all this farce was the University canteen. And the remaining misinformation was spread through the Whatsapp Groups. What did this mobilization seek? These miscreants, though very few, declared that we would offer Namaz-e-Janaza for the student who died of police bullet in Jamia. Isn’t it mandatory for a person to die before performing his Namaz-e-Janaza? It was quite clear by then that the concerned person for whom the namaz was being arranged was alive. Then, a foolish plan emerged from their nonsensical mind. That we would offer the namaz at the University Circle. Would offering the namaz at the University Circle give a different place to the so-called dead person in the afterlife? This foolishness led to an altercation with the police forces who had by then taken their position outside the administrative block and marched slowly towards Bab-e-Syed.

Stone pelting started.

What happened next is well captured in the CCTV cameras of the University. In a nutshell, the visual of it can be described as a war-torn territory.

The police were called in to disperse the crowds, but they just did opposite.

Night of Horror

The State Police and the Central Paramilitary Forces stormed the university and caused a mayhem. The students started retreating into the University and then to wherever they could hide themselves. However, the students who came in the way of the police were rained with the batons, indiscriminately and recklessly. Tear-gas and stun-grenades further exacerbated the woe and agony of the students. The students were running for their life. And the police were chasing them. They even went inside the guest house where some students had taken refuge out of fear.

Quite shamelessly the police chased the students into the hostel rooms and even fired stun-grenades, after breaking the windowpanes in other rooms, where students were studying for their exams. A large number of students were studying in Maulana Azad Library, when it was damaged.

The fear was so palpable that some students took refuge under their bed and switched off the light in their room, thinking that the police would retreat.

The trail of violence that was left after the storm was so great that it left an indelible mark on the psyche of the students in general, and a bad memory for the university. For instance, one of the students from the Chemistry Department had to get his arm amputated owing to the damage caused by tear-gas shells. There were hundreds of cases of major, minor, and serious injuries sustained by the students.

On 15 December 2019, the 467.6 hectares of AMU campus metamorphosed into a near warzone with around 22000 students left to their own. Sadly, the university administration did not stand by these students and left them under the open cloud of violence.

On being asked by the Allahabad High Court why the police were given permission to enter the campus, the university administration said, “… anti-CAA demonstrations of December 14-15 also saw the participation of several people who were not students of AMU. Of the 26 arrested by the police, the administration has submitted that 15 persons are not students of AMU.” Dismissing all these arguments, the Allahabad High Court ordered National Human Rights Commission to probe the “police violence”. Does this submission by the university justify the barbarity unleashed upon the students who had nothing to do with the protests and were simply reading in the library? Does this justify the pain and suffering of the students who received major injuries? Nothing can justify the atrocities unleashed upon the students of AMU on 15 December 2019.

Aligarh Muslim University: The Microcosm of Indian Muslims

Dr. Zakir Hussain (1897-1969), the third President of India and a dyed-in-wool nationalist once said, “… how India treats Aligarh [Muslim University] will tell the world how India treats Muslims of this country.” One could interpret this statement in many ways in light of the history of AMU; however, we could certainly deduce from this statement that AMU is a microcosm of Indian Muslims.

For, as Theodore P. Wright explains, “Aligarh [Muslim University] has symbolized the strangely anomalous position of the North Indian Muslim minority since the partition of Pakistan from British India in 1947” because “Aligarh, the intellectual seedbed of Muslim nationalism, found itself in the indifferent if not hostile, secular environment of the Indian republic after the accomplishment of the League’s raison d’être.”

However, Professor Irfan Ahmad sums up how culturally Indian Muslims identify with the Aligarh Muslim University, “Studying at AMU meant not only getting a degree but also embodying “Muslim culture.” Such was AMU’s place in the Muslim imagination!”

B. Sinha, highlighting the relationship between Indian Muslims and AMU, in a debate in the Parliament in 1965, said, “Aligarh [Muslim University] is the microcosm of the great Muslim community of this country.”

Thus, Aligarh Muslim University is technically like any other Central universities in India, but, at same time it symbolizes much more than that, especially for the Muslim of India.

Does the delicate relationship between India, Indian Muslims, and Aligarh Muslim University still subsist in line with what Dr. Hussain said? Or has it got re-defined in recent years?

Considering the incident of the 15 December 2019, one can say that AMU is perhaps no more a microcosm of the Indian Muslims, and thus it was for everyone to see how the students of AMU were treated by the State.

On the night of 15 December 2019, it is not just the students who got were treated brutally. Many other ideals and notions got re-defined. For instance, the violence redefined the very idea that a university is a place where young minds conceptualize novel ideas, howsoever unpalatable, but within the bounds of the law of the land, that a university is a place where critical thinking is nurtured and appreciated.

Hoping Against Hope

Lastly, one could only pray that what happened on 15 December 2019 at Aligarh Muslim University won’t get repeated again. For, in the biting cold of December if a student grasps for breath and is drenched in sweat, it just shows how strongly fear has taken him in its grip.

The report of the National Human Right Commission in pursuant to the order of the Allahabad High Court says that unwarranted “police violence” were unleashed upon the students. Few students who received serious injuries were even compensated. However, this compensation and pulling up of the state authorities established the fact that violence was indeed unleashed upon the students. However, it leaves behind something which cannot be compensated.

Zeeshan Ahmad is a law graduate from Aligarh Muslim University.


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