It is a week since the police lathicharged students at the Aligarh Muslim University but the campus is still seething. Each afternoon, under the watchful eyes of a nervous university administration, thousands of students gather at Bab-e-Syed, the main gate of the campus, to hear usually fiery speeches and shout slogans. Often, the protests continue until late into the night.

They have been protesting since May 2, when members of several Hindutva groups stormed the campus, disrupting a students union programme to honour former Vice President Hamid Ansari. They were ostensibly demanding that the students union remove from its hall an 80-year-old portrait of Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah. As some of the students marched to the police station to file a first information report against the attackers, they were set upon by the police with sticks. At least 28 were taken to hospital with injuries.

Since then, the protesting students and teachers have been demanding a judicial inquiry into the attack as well as the lathicharge, the arrest of the attackers – only two have been held so far – and action against the errant police personnel or district officials. None of the demands have been met.

This has left the administration walking a tightrope between managing the students’ resentment and steering the university back to normalcy. The university has postponed exams from May 7 to May 12, and on Tuesday Vice Chancellor Tariq Mansoor appealed for peace. But the students insist they will not relent until their demands are met.

While supporting the students, teachers and the administrative staff are trying to ensure the protests stay on the campus. On Monday evening, when the students union decided to form a human chain from Bab-e-Syed to the district magistrate’s residence to protest against his alleged inaction, the teachers did not join in. Subsequently, though, the union modified its plan after being told that Hindutva elements had created a “grave and volatile atmosphere” in the city. The chain of thousands of students wound through the campus before terminating at the University Circle just outside it.

The students union's statement on rerouting the human chain. Photo credit: Twitter/ Mashkoor Ahmad Usmani

‘Jinnah is an excuse’

It all started with Bharatiya Janata Party MP Satish Gautam writing to the vice chancellor to complain about Jinnah’s photograph. His letter, sent on April 30, reached the media before it did Mansoor, university officials said. Apparently, Gautam and his supporters had somehow concluded that the presence of Jinnah’s photograph showed the students supported Pakistan and terrorism.

It was not the first time Gautam had objected to the photograph. Nabeel Usmani recalls receiving the same compliant from the MP when the MBA student was the students union vice president in 2016-’17. “We replied saying Jinnah was a life-member of the union and that his portrait was of historical and archival value,” he said. “Jinnah was made a life-member in 1938.”

Until then, Usmani claimed, most students and teachers were not even aware of Jinnah’s picture on the campus.

“Who looks at black and white photographs anyway?” asked Saif Ali, a second year engineering student. Afzana Perveen, pursuing a master’s in chemistry, did not know about the picture either. “Few knew and no one cared,” she said. “We are not supporters of Jinnah.”

Ali is from Bihar and Perveen from Assam. But even many of those whose academic and even personal lives are closely tied to the university did not know of its existence.

Tasneem Anjum Khan was born in the AMU’s Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College, to a family whose every male member had studied or worked there. She herself studied in an AMU-run school before completing a master’s in commerce from the university in 2016. She did not know about the picture either.

“Jinnah ka matter hi nahin hai,” she argued. “Jinnah to bahana hai.” It is not about Jinnah at all, Jinnah is just an excuse.

This, in fact, is a common refrain among students and even some staff.

So, why the controversy? The most popular theory involves the 2019 general election.

Satish Gautam was in danger of losing the BJP ticket for 2019, claimed Sajad Subhan Rather, the students union vice president. “He did this to get attention because the BJP promotes everyone who communalises,” he added.

Rather was the only top functionary of the students union to escape the police lathicharge last Wednesday. Mashkoor Ahmad Usmani, the union’s president, wears a neck brace and a bandage on his hand. Mohammad Fahad, the secretary, is in wheelchair with a broken leg. Farhan Zubari, a student cabinet member, has a fractured leg as well while Yawar Habib, a student member of the court, has a dislocated shoulder and needed six stitches to close a gash on his head.

‘Goons may do worse’

The AMU administration’s attempt to keep students of the Women’s College, a few kilometres from the main campus, out of the protests by locking their hostel gates proved futile. The day after the attack, they broke the locks and turned up on the campus to “join their brothers”.

Madiha Zaeem, a home science student, was not in Aligarh that day but “joined the brothers” the next day. “We fear this may escalate but if we keep quiet, the goons may do something worse,” she said, referring to the communal hostility.

Psychology student Sadiya Khan added, “In the women’s college, almost every girl is in hijab. But they came and protested. The notion that those who wear hijab and abayas do not have freedom is total BS [bullsh*t].”

All roads leading to Bab-e-Syed have been cordoned off by the police since May 2. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

Prompted by the teachers association, which met them on May 3, the district administration instituted a magisterial inquiry into the attack, but it also shut internet services from the afternoon of May 4 till midnight on May 5. A protestor who asked not to be identified said some students drove over 70 kilometres to Bulandshahr to get word of the protests out on social media, and rally support from other students and alumni. The disruption also meant the students applying in other universities for postgraduate studies had to travel long distances to fill online forms.

On Friday, thousands of Muslim students offered namaz together, filling the road from Bab-e-Syed to the Maulana Azad Library, half a kilometre in, said engineering student Firdous Alam. “Every hostel has its own prayer hall. This time they all came out.”

On May 5, leaders of the students union met district and police officials and the vice chancellor. The next day, two of the attackers were arrested. Hindu Jagran Manch’s Yogesh Varshney and Amit Goswami, said to be a former member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s student wing the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. The parishad’s leadership in the area, however, denied this.

That evening, despite the arrests, the gathering at Bab-e-Syed swelled to thousands. “This is the biggest protest I have seen here,” said Aiman Ali, an Aligarh native pursuing a post graduate course in mass communication.

“The boys took this attack personally,” explained Saif Ali. Syed Mazin Husain Khan, an alumnus and former president of the students union, added, “Let the government pass a law in Parliament that all Jinnah portraits in the country must be removed, we will remove ours. Who is Gautam to ask us to do anything? This is a central university.” Prakhar Sharma and Abhishek Shukla, both engineering students from Aligarh, agreed with Khan and Ali.

Some 30%-35% of the AMU’s over 30,000 students are Hindu. Many of them have joined the protests. “We have never felt marginalised here,” said Sharma. A few days ago, Sharma was added to a messaging group of the Varanasi Hindu Yuva Vahini. “I was added by someone I knew in Kota many years ago,” he said, referring to a city in Rajasthan. “It told them ‘I do not agree with your thinking’ and left.”

The protests, he and other students clarified, are against the May 2 incident and have nothing to do with Jinnah.

‘We shouldn’t be provoked’

Still, the students have been constantly needled by the Hindutva supporters since May 2. On Sunday, Jat king Mahendra Pratap Singh’s grandson arrived in town to demand that the university bear his late grandfather’s name and his photograph be placed in its offices.

Even this demand for greater recognition for Singh is not new. In 2014, the BJP demanded that Singh’s birthday be celebrated on the campus because he had donated land to the university. According to the AMU administration, Singh leased about three acres to the university in 1929. In 2015, Singh’s picture was put up in the Maulana Azad Library, a space far more public than the students’ union hall.

Teachers, though concerned about it, find the attempt to co-opt Singh for the Hindutva project amusing. As Hindi professor Ajay Bisaria pointed out, Singh contested the 1957 general election against Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then leader of the BJP’s forerunner Bharatiya Jana Sangh, and defeated him so comprehensively that the future prime minister lost his deposit.

A more overt attempt to force Hindutva into the university came two weeks ago when the administration received an application from one Amin Rashid for starting an RSS shakha, or branch, on the campus. “The letter said they wanted to teach our students nationalism and culture,” said political science professor Aftab Alam. “The crisis began with this letter to which we did not react.”

Since last Wednesday’s violence, rumours of Hindutva groups plotting fresh attacks have constantly swirled around the campus. On Friday, the students heard that the namaz congregation may be attacked. “Some of our Hindu brothers said they would stand guard while we prayed,” said Saif Ali.

On Saturday, pictures of Jinnah were put up in public toilets, but most prominently at Dharm Samaj Degree College in Aligarh. Affiliated to the Agra University, the college is near Achal Tal, the area that houses the headquarters of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

“Sometimes we hear Vishwa Hindu Parishad is coming, sometimes the RSS,” said Mashkoor Usmani, the students union president. In addition, videos against the protestors are circulating online while comments on social media and statements from politicians have increased manifold. “We should not be provoked by any news,” he said. “They want us to lose control and react. But we have and will continue to protest peacefully.”

Naved Rehman, an AMU alum who is a consultant with its hospital, advised the president to dispel all rumours lest they weaken the tight control the students union has imposed on the agitation. Older and more circumspect, dozens of alumni like Rehman have been key to maintaining peace.

‘Faith in the system’

The teachers also argue that restraint in the face of provocation is the only option, not least because their faith in the police and the district administration is shaken. “Many of the injuries were on the head, a complete violation of the code,” said Aftab Alam, referring to the police lathicharge. “They can hit only non-vital parts of the body.”

Moreover, the students had caught a few of the attackers and handed them over to the police, but they were allegedly let off. Most students, though, are still not sure who the attackers were, variously naming the Hindu Yuva Vahini, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and Hindu Jagran Manch. The first two have denied they were involved as organisations.

Nevertheless, the teachers are asking the students “to have faith in the system”. “We completely support their cause but apart from protesting, they also owe a responsibility toward the city, toward maintaining a peaceful and healthy atmosphere,” said Najamul Islam, general secretary of the teachers association.

The association has written the President, who is the visitor for all central universities, and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath to help defuse the situation. Ironically, Adityanath is the founder of the Hindu Yuva Vahini.

The protest on Tuesday before the human chain was formed. Photo courtesy AMU students