It is the young who have taken to the streets today, and these young women and men are fighting to resurrect the soul of India. They may have appeared to be silent over the lynchings, over the betrayal and brutal smothering of Kashmir, the attacks on the Universities as breeding grounds of critical thinking and resistance, over the slapping of false charges against dissenters, or the manner in which the media itself has normalised hatred against specific communities, by the outrageous judgements delivered or deferred by the courts including the highest in the land.
The cup of misery and anger has overflowed: no more, the young are saying. We may not have been around when we gave ourselves the Constitution seventy years ago, but we are there now to defend its values, in letter and in spirit. Across the country the preamble is being read, not just in the beautiful voice of Naseeruddin Shah but in the ordinary voices of young women and men in colleges and Universities.
The tricolour waves across protest sites, and we join in chorus with the Jamia students who were beaten and abused and still sang “sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mein, dekkhna hai zor kitna bazoo-e qatil mein hai”.
It is the Jamia students whose resistance broke the silence that had settled over us; it was the vicious communally charged attack on Jamia, its library and corridors and even its washrooms that triggered the massive campus revolts across India.
What had been a simmering discontent in campus after campus – from JNU to HCU and the tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula over the caste-based discrimination he was subjected to followed by the attack, even the arrest of the protesting students, the agitations in IIT Madras and TISS during the tenure of the BJP government from 2014 onwards – now spilt over beyond the campuses.
And why not? At a time when marginalised groups were yet to see the Constitutional promise of equality being realised, they could see their own futures shrinking (with the Government doing little about it).
The constitutional guarantee of equality was thrown into the Hindutva dustbin: now we were all suspects in the eyes of the government, some more than others, depending upon which identity you were “born into”. And it is but natural in such a moment that women would be outraged: excluded from any real attention from any quarter, now they must prove their identity as Indian citizens with no papers, birth certificates or school leaving certificates, no property papers, no nothing. It is not surprising that the struggle has moved from the campuses to Shaheen Bagh to parks, roadsides and other open sites; the women are fighting for their futures, for their children and especially their daughters, for their right to exist, for their very histories.
One 92-year-old woman at Shaheen Bagh told me that she knew her history for eight generations before her and could tell anyone about it, but she had no papers to validate her existence. No wonder one of the clarion calls of this movement against the CAA – and its twin sister the NRC – is “ham kaagaz nahi dikhayenge”, because that is tantamount to denying us our history.
Unafraid is a way to archive this new moment, based on testimonies collected in the immediate aftermath of the brutal attack on Jamia students, young women and men who were subjected to vicious abuse from the police, to tear gas shells and lathi charges, but who nevertheless stormed the barricades in defence of their right to protest the unjust and unconstitutional Hindutva divide of our people. As you read the report you will be deeply moved by these young women who came to Delhi to study, to build their futures and who are now demanding to make their futures, shaping them in keeping with how they want to live in our society, and not be passive recipients of the Government’s policy of dividing the citizens and spewing hatred.
So Chanda Yadav from a village in Chandoli (Uttar Pradesh) which has never sent a girl to a University, and Ladeeda who wants to study theosophy and philosophy, and many others who were out there as unnamed and undocumented students have been in the same struggle. Some were pulled by the hijab, others went to the thana, still others saved young men from being beaten despite being asthmatic, their eyes smarting and choking from exploding tear gas shells.
And they had placards and slogans which reiterated their common identity as citizens: the CAA is unconstitutional whether you are Hindu, Muslim or someone else. Others redefined the meaning of fear in today’s India. “Scared? What we are scared of is the Hindutva agenda targeting us!” Or reminded us of a new slogan on Azaadi, “BJP se Azaadi!”
But students, women students, were not the only people out there in the Jamia struggle. Who can forget the account of Abida, who is as ordinary as ordinary can be, married, with children, who has never lived outside of the Jamia area. She too came out with her daughter, anxious about her brother. When the police attack began she was separated from the child with tear gas fumes all around. A police lathi felled her but in her own words she was fighting for her own future and the future of her daughters.
In her simple and evocative way she said, ab lathi kha li, ab wapas nahi ja sakte hain. Her inner self would not let her go back, she said. No wonder then that the Jamia women have created a wave around India: there is Shaheen Bagh and the many Shaheen Baghs in other localities in Delhi, in Lucknow, in Kolkata. And so while the abusive police says “Go to Pakistan!” these women are telling us how they will shape Hindustan, with courage, conviction and a deep commitment to the soil they were born on, no matter what.
This report tells us how this moment came upon us. It tells us how these women took to the streets, and once they confronted the brutal face of state power, they knew there was no looking back. Now they are out there – in the parks, the streets, the campuses – to demand their constitutional right to exist with dignity as citizens, whoever they are and wherever they might have come from. That is the meaning of their struggle and the meaning of hope for us.
Name: Vasundhara Gautam
Profession: Student, PhD in Literature, Jamia Millia Islamia University
Residence: North Campus, Delhi
Vasundhara did her MA and MPhil at Jamia. After working for a few years she came right back here for her PhD. She calls Jamia her second home.
15 DECEMBER: I went to the Jamia campus at around 10:30 AM because students had called for a peaceful protest. After the march, which was a normal one in which we shouted slogans, we sat outside Gate 8. The student leaders (an informal leadership since students’ unions are not allowed in Jamia) told us that we should not go beyond this gate because we have permission only to march till there. By about 3:30 PM, my friends and I were cold and hungry, so we went inside the campus to the canteen. After about an hour, I heard loud noises from the road and saw people being chased by the police. When tear gas started being used, my friends told me to go to the reading room and wait there because I have asthma.
I went to the first floor of the reading room – the research floor, which is reserved for MPhil and PhD students – in Zakir Husain Library. There were a large number of students there including several female students. Within approximately half an hour of being there, we heard that the police had entered the campus. From the window I saw many students running into the building. I also saw the police dragging and beating students. Someone sent a photo of a student lying on the ground and we did not know if he was alive. Obviously, we were scared, we are students. I saw tear gas shells falling in the library courtyard.
We decided to switch off the lights. One of my friends who was stuck on the ground floor sent a video in which we saw that the police were smashing furniture and that students were crying. One policeman said, “stay were you are!” We sat on the floor so that the police would not know that we were there. I really wanted to use the toilet but could not move.
After about an hour and a half, the police came upstairs and started banging on the door. To protect themselves ,the women students tried to hide under desks. The police broke down the door, pushing to the ground all the furniture that had been used to barricade the door, and stormed in hurling abuses.
There were two male students whom they brought up, maybe to find us. One of the students, who was bleeding at the knuckles, was crying out in pain and the other looked like he was about to faint. The police were stamping their lathis on the floor and ordering students to come out. We were all standing there holding hands in fear but we realised we had to move out. While coming down the stairs there was a lot of pushing and shoving. We were panicking! When I came down, I saw that the gate of the reading room had been broken. I also saw about students kneeling in front of the police near the masjid gate. They were bleeding. That was pretty terrifying. The police told us that our phones must remain inside our bags. We were told to raise our hands while walking out of the campus. They made us feel like we were criminals and not students.
Outside the campus gate, bikes had been broken. There were police and media all around. Shots of me and other students walking out of campus with our hands up in the air were flashed live in many TV news reports. Friends and family started calling my father frantically who was not in Delhi. Since the Sukhdev Vihar Metro Station had been shut down and it was very difficult to find an auto, I went to a friend’s room in Sukhdev Vihar. There were eight of us in that single room.
At 11:00 PM we stepped out. It was scary because there were only police personnel on the roads. We got into the only auto we could find and went to a friend’s home in Zakir Nagar. We kept watching the news, including the bits about police attacks on students in AMU where I also have friends. It was very disturbing. Although I now had access to a toilet, because of the stress, it was only at 3:00 AM, in the middle of the night, that I was able to pass urine.
Since I had not being able to pass urine for so long, I experienced terrible pain...I still have pain. I am finding it difficult to eat anything since that day. I have trouble sleeping. I wake up with a start and don’t know in that moment whether I am dead or alive. I will go to a doctor or therapist later. Right now, I would rather come for the protests.
I have trouble sleeping. I wake up with a start and don’t know in that moment whether I am dead or alive. I will go to a doctor or therapist later. Right now I would rather come for the protests.
I have been talking a lot to the media. I feel I must, because students are not being treated like human beings. I don’t understand why the government is so scared of students.
I don’t understand why the government is so scared of students.
I feel so safe here in Jamia. I’m a peace-loving person. Agar humko ladna hota toh hum lathi le aate na, hum kalam thodi na uthate (If we wanted to fight we would have been wielding sticks instead of pens). We would be in another profession if that is what we wanted.
Excerpted with permission from the Foreward, by Uma Chakravarti, and Vasundhara Gautam’s testimony, from Unafraid: Women’s Testimonies from Ground Zero At Jamia Milia Islamia University, Yoda Press.