In a recent interview with a news channel on the role if the police in dealing with the agitations by students of Jamia Milia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University, I emphasised that the police treated these two institutions “with a jaundiced eye”.

I pointed out that the guardians of the law had become totally communalised and the treatment meted to the students was brutal and unwarranted. I saw a different attitude, a very passive one, of the police in Sunday’s student violence at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Having been singed by their recent, uninvited, entry into Jamia the police were markedly benign, righteously, not getting involved to stop the mayhem till they were invited, in writing, into the university, at 7.50 pm. The two-and-a-half-hour delay resulted in the damage being done.

This false sense of propriety was actuated by the sloganeering of right-wing agitators shouting militant slogans in support of the police and baying for the blood of “desh drohis” or traitors. A similar situation was faced by my troops when my division was inducted into Ahmedabad to quell the Gujarat riots in 2002. It is to the credit of the Army that this had no effect on our disciplined troops, performing a national duty and bent on ensuring fair play.

I will not dwell on the causes of the bloodletting at JNU on the night of January 5. There are charges and counter-charges, with the university authorities pinning the blame on left-wing students, who were agitating about the substantial increase in hostel fees and who allegedly disrupted the winter registration process on January 4. This was viewed by the JNU authorities as a “left liberal conspiracy”, to be curbed at all costs. At about 4.30 pm on Sunday, the university premises were invaded by a gang of about masked hoodlums armed with lathi’, knives and iron rods. I had visited JNU several times when I was vice chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University and was always been impressed with the strict entry norms.

Was the proctorial and security staff complicit in allowing this armed gang to enter the premises unopposed?

Masked attackers at Jawaharlal Nehru University on Sunday evening.

The armed assailants went to four student hostels and the teachers’ accommodation hunting for prey they claimed were “urban Naxalites”. The sanctity of the women’s hostel was violated with impunity. Several students, both men and women, and teachers were beaten and some sustained serious injuries. This is a shame on the ultra-nationalist credentials the predators claimed proudly to uphold. A terrible male chauvinism was evident in the attacks on female students. The mayhem continued for three hours with the police standing by as passive onlookers, blocking entry and exit gates.

Despite this the police could not, rather did not, make any arrests To prevent identification, disable the security cameras and mask the violence, the electric power was mysteriously turned off. This deep-seated conspiracy needs to be investigated.

The police did not interfere on the plea that they had not been called in. This should have been a parallel with Jamia Millia Islamia too, where the police used their discretion to force enter into the university on December 15 on the plea that a bus had been set on fire. In the case of JNU, an ambulance was attacked and damaged and students had sustained grievous injuries.

A striking feature of the violence was the total abdication of responsibility by the vice chancellor and proctorial staff. They should have been available to take charge and restore law and order. This irresponsible attitude is something for which they stand answerable. During my tenure at Aligarh Muslim University, I found that the best method of pacifying a mob was to force entry into the crowd and speak face-to-face with the agitated students. This invariably pacified even the most violent crowd.

A high-level judicial inquiry is warranted into the incident at JNU but what has been ordered is an inquiry by a police officer. The outcome of such an inquiry can well be fathomed.

Police in riot gear stand guard outside JNU on Sunday. Credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

The attitude of the police seems to be dictated, not by the specific conditions at the trouble spot but by political compulsions and pressures. In the case of earlier unrest at Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia, the police seem to have been directed to crush the dissidence with an iron hand. Having been given the green signal, the police went berserk in subjecting the students to unprovoked violence. There was liberal use of tear gas in closed buildings and hostels and firing. Several students sustained grievous injuries, arrests were made and detainees were paraded out with their hands above their heads, like prisoners of war. The ham-handed police action backfired and unleashed a flurry of protests in other educational and prestigious institutions such as the IIMs and IITs.

Earlier, in an attempt to stop agitations against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the planned National Register of Citizens from spreading, the police raided the homes of several innocent people in Uttar Pradesh, destroying household property, beating up elderly residents, imprisoning several youths and filing recovery notices to a large number of citizens for damage caused to government property.

It is apparent that in the case of JNU, the subdued inaction of the police was dictated by reasons other than the interests of the country and fair play. Will the police serve monetary recovery notices to the identified criminals for the damage to university property? The police must have spine to stand up to pressure, acting in the nation’s best interests to ensure the early restoration of law and order. Law-enforcing agencies must be neutral and not complicit when curbing violence.

Lt Gen Zameer Uddin Shah (Veteran) is a former Deputy Chief of Army Staff, a member of the Armed Forces Tribunal and and Vice Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University from 2012-2017.