At noon on Monday, loud chants of “Azadi” and “Inquilab zindabad” echoed through air at Mumbai’s Gateway of India, right outside the imposing Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The chants had been continuing unabated since midnight, when more than a hundred citizens started a spontaneous “Occupy Gateway” protest on the pavement to condemn the violent attack on students of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University on Sunday night.

The call to protest at Gateway was first sent out by the citizen’s group ‘We the People of India’. As the news spread late into the night, everyone from students and college teachers to housewives and actors joined in. Former JNU student leader Umar Khalid, comedian Kunal Kamra, and actors Nandita Das, Monica Dogra and Sushant Singh were all a part of the pavement protest.

By Monday morning, new protesters streamed in with food, water, medicines, sanitary pads, mats and bedsheets to support those who had been on the street all night. The slogans, speeches, clapping and singing continued despite the blazing afternoon heat, and the protesters plan to continue their vigil indefinitely.

“Right now our main aim is to make people aware of what has happened at JNU, which is basically a state-sponsored attack,” said Mayank Saxena, a member of We the People of India. “The situation is such that even fence-sitters are now here to protest. Young women students who don’t get permission to stay out late were here till 4 am.”

Protesters at #OccupyGateway on Monday afternoon. Photos: Aarefa Johari

What happened in JNU

On Sunday night, a group of 30 to 50 masked people, wielding rods, sticks and large stones, entered hostels inside the JNU campus and launched a brutal assault on students and faculty members who had been opposing a sharp fee hike at the institution. At least 22 people were injured and had to be hospitalised, including faculty member Suchitra Sen and Jawaharlal Nehru Students Association president Aishe Ghosh.

Later, a group of right-wing activists sloganeering outside the university’s main gate heckled, abused and threatened several journalists who were reporting on the violence.’s Rohan Venkataramakrishnan was surrounded by the mob, shoved around, hit on the head and called a “Naxalwadi”. Several eye-witness accounts and videos indicated that in most places, police personnel present at JNU did almost nothing to stop the violence and, in fact, allowed armed and masked goons to exit the university without apprehending them.

Several students alleged that the violence had been perpetrated by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is the ideological parent of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Members of ABVP, however, blamed the violence on “Naxals” and leftist students. However, traced back Whatsapp messages planning the attack on JNU students – as well as celebrating it – to ABVP activists.

Hours after the attacks, protests condemning the violence were organised by students in several parts of the country, including Kolkata, Hyderabad, Delhi, Aligarh, Pune, Mumbai and parts of Kerala.

A protester at #OccupyGateway on Monday.

‘A one-sided attack’

At the #OccupyGateway protest in Mumbai, many students refused to speak to media and said that they were observing a “silent protest” in solidarity with the students of JNU. At around 12.30 pm on Monday, they sat listening attentively to N Sai Balaji, a research scholar at JNU and a former president of the JNU Students Union.

Balaji placed the blame for the violence squarely on ABVP. “Some media channels have described last night’s violence as a clash between the left and the right, but it was nothing but a one-sided attack,” he said. “We will not give legitimacy to any media that does not acknowledge this.” Balaji also listed names of several individual members of the ABVP who had allegedly been identified for perpetrating the attack. Protesters yelled “Shame!” in response to each name he called out.

While Sunday’s JNU attack took place in the context of several months of agitation against the fee hike at the university, protesters in Mumbai claimed it could not be seen in isolation from the ongoing nation-wide protests against the new Citizenship Amendment Act and the BJP government’s plans to implement the National Register of Citizens. Last month, students of Aligarh Muslim University and Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia were brutally assaulted by police forces cracking down on anti-CAA protests.

“This is how a tyrant state reacts when there is a student uprising,” said Saxena.

Said Dan Matthew, a sports management graduate from Kerala who has been studying in Mumbai for the past four years: “When a government starts targeting students it shows that they are scared.” Matthew had not been able to attend any of the protests against the Citizenship Act in Mumbai so far, because he is recovering from a spinal surgery. But on Monday morning, he said he could not help showing up for the #OccupyGateway protest.

“This government is discriminatory and is taking us back to the 1940s of Hitler. If we don’t protest now, then when?” he asked.

Protest songs and music at #OccupyGateway.

A pre-poll tactic?

Several protesters also pointed out that the attack on JNU students had come barely a month before the Assembly election in Delhi, scheduled on February 8. This, they said, was proof that the BJP government at the Centre had a hand in the JNU attack.

“What happened in JNU is a smokescreen for the February election,” said Pooja Sinha Roy, a cultural guide working for a tourism agency, who had been protesting at Gateway since 4 am. “It is obvious that the Aam Aadmi Party is likely to win the election, so by doing all this, the BJP government is trying to create conditions for President’s rule before the election.”

Nivedita Rao, a professor at Mumbai’s KC College and a former JNU student, also linked Sunday’s violence to the Delhi Assembly election. “The government is desperate, they have lost the narrative,” said Rao. “This kind of violence has never happened in the history of JNU.”

Protesters at #OccupyGateway on Monday afternoon. Credit: Sejal Mehta