NEW DELHI — “The policewoman pulled my legs up, she twisted my neck, and my head was down. My dress came down. Forget the burqa, even my shirt came down…” said Rafia Fatima, as she spoke of how a march against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) descended into chaos on Monday as protesters clashed with the Delhi Police.
The 29-year-old homemaker said that she found herself in that position after she climbed one of the yellow barricades set up by the Delhi Police and was trying to push past the “sea” of police personnel, women and men.
“I told her ‘don’t do this to me’. Then she pushed me from the barricades and I fell down,” she said.
Fatima said that she landed at the feet of four or five policemen, one of whom kicked her in her private parts and chest with his shoes. This, she said, continued until another policeman pulled her up and helped her to the side of the road.
“A policeman kicked me on my private parts and chest with his shoes,” said Fatima. “I still cannot believe it.”
Fatima, who was in hospital on Tuesday, said that she had internal injuries and a fractured rib cage.
When asked why she climbed atop a police barricade and tried to push past the police personnel, Fatima said that she had pleaded with a police officer to let the protestors carry out their march, even suggesting that they could walk in two lines from Jamia Millia Islamia University to the Parliament, with the police accompanying them.
“What choice do we have?” she asked. “We want to carry out a peaceful protest, we beg and plead, but they never give us permission. They are crushing our rights as citizens.”
The muted response to the events on Monday, almost two months after a brutal crackdown on Jamia students by the Delhi Police, encapsulates the challenges that protesters face as they try to keep the fight going even after media and public attention has shifted from the issue.
The attack on 15 December, which left several students injured, had sparked off a nationwide wave of outrage against police brutality on CAA protesters and students. In contrast, the police’s reaction to this march barely registered with the public. With the exception of a few tweets and reports, the incident barely made news the next day.
The ‘normalisation’ of violence
The protesters on Monday were a motley crew of students of Jamia Millia Islamia and residents from the neighbouring Muslim-dominated localities.
Fatima, for instance, was at the protest site with her mother, sister and brother. Their father is a retired professor who taught English at the University. Fatima said her brother, a 20-year-old student at the University, was beaten up by the police on 13 December.
“From that day, I am standing with my brother. I never leave his side at a protest,” she said.
This latest round of violence, protesters who were at the site on Monday said, goes to show how unyielding the Narendra Modi government’s stand on the anti-CAA movement still is, even as the Delhi Police tweaks its methods of cracking down on them.
As Srijan Chawla, a 22-year-old student of mass communication at the University, put it, “They were aware the media was present. They were hitting us on the legs and feet but the camera could not capture it. They were making full use of their gear and equipment to hurt us.”
In a statement, the Delhi Police said they “showed a lot of patience in handling the aggressive Jamia students” who were “forcing their way through the police barricades and trying to march to Parliament without permission.” They have registered a case against the “violent crowd”.
It is unclear how many students were taken to Dr. M.A. Ansari Health Centre, the University’s health facility, and Al Shifa Hospital, next door in Okha. The Al Shifa hospital spokesperson told the Press Trust of India that at least 20 people from the protest were at the hospital on Monday. Some of them had suffered internal injuries, but the spokesperson did not say whether these were caused by assault or suffocation in a stampede like situation. Doctors at Al Shifa hospital told India Today that more than 10 women were hit on their private parts.
Safoora Zadgar, a 27-year-old student of philosophy at the University, who says a policeman hit her with a lathi on her hand on Monday, said, “Violence against students has been normalised in the world’s largest democracy, acceptable even. That is scary, not just for us, but students everywhere.”
The immutable attitude of the Modi government towards the protests, the cycle of violence, and the Supreme Court’s recent observation that protesters cannot block roads indefinitely, is also forcing the anti-CAA protesters to consider how long they can persist with their struggle in its present form and how the movement can evolve.
“Violence against students has been normalised in the world’s largest democracy, acceptable even. That is scary, not just for us, but students everywhere.”
Some students are more circumspect about how long they can continue with the street protests, especially with classes beginning at the University after the holidays, and exam season looming.
Others like Suyash Tripathi, a 23-year-old law student who says a policeman kicked him four times on his legs and chest, said the protest at the university will continue until the CAA is repealed and the Modi government drops its plan to implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR) across the country.
While the home ministry said in Parliament last week that it has not taken any decision to implement a nationwide NRC “till now”, the Modi government’s doublespeak on the issue does not inspire much confidence.
“We want a government representative to come and speak with us or we will have no choice but to intensify our protest,” said Tripathi. “There is no talk of ending the protest. We have to keep going.”
Bouts of dizziness
Three university students that HuffPost India spoke with on Tuesday said that they were at the receiving end of blows and kicks as protesters in the frontline tried to push past the barricades and clashed with the police.
But what they recall and can’t quite understand is being overcome with bouts of dizziness and fainting. Having been in dense crowds, with even more protesters, they don’t believe this happened due to suffocation.
Tripathi said that more than the kicks he endured, it was fainting in the middle of the protest that bothered him.
“It was a really strange feeling. Even when I regained consciousness, I couldn’t lift my hand. I couldn’t lift my feet,” he said. “I felt strange and dizzy for the rest of the day as well. I even told the doctors about it.”
Dr. Azeem, who treated students at the Al Shifa Hospital, told the London-based newspaper, The Telegraph, that the Delhi Police had used a toxic chemical spray against the students.
Azeem said the students were complaining of pains in their abdomen, stomach and chest, and these symptoms were not consistent with the use of pepper spray.
Calls for comment and a text to the Delhi Police spokesperson Mandeep Randhawa earlier on Wednesday were not answered.
Tripathi said, “I have been to other protests with a lot of crowds. I have never felt that way before. I felt paralysed.”
“It was a really strange feeling. Even when I regained consciousness, I couldn’t lift my hand. I couldn’t lift my feet”
The wrong questions?
Even more painful than their battle wounds, protesters said, is the reactions to their clashes with the police, and not just from the right-wing.
They face questions like ‘why are you protesting without permission? Why are you protesting in an area that is not a designated protest site? Why did you break the barricades? What was the police supposed to do?’
Students from the Jamia Coordination Committee told HuffPost India that they have tried seeking permission to carry out a march against the CAA at least thrice since December, but the Delhi Police has never granted them permission.
Zadgar, the philosophy student, said, “‘Why are you trying to carry out a march’ — what is this negative question? It is so regressive. The police never grant us permission, but we have to justify why we want to exercise our fundamental rights?”
Another issue facing participants in the protests, which have largely been spontaneous and leaderless, is the lack of political support.
Arvind Kejriwal, who was elected chief minister of Delhi for the third time on Tuesday, has asked the centre to clear the streets of protesters. Rahul Gandhi has never visited any anti-CAA protest site in Delhi. His sister Priyanka Gandhi had visited the families of activists who were jailed in connection with the anti-CAA protests in Lucknow, but the Congress’s stand on the protests is ambiguous.
Even as five state governments and one Union Territory have passed resolutions against implementing the CAA, these students in Delhi are left wondering if they will see politicians on the ground sticking up for them in hairy situations.
Chawla, the mass communication student, whose classes have resumed, is worried about how long the movement can sustain.
“If we back off now, if Jamia and Shaheen Bagh end, all this might not happen again,” she said. “We feel like the nerve centre of all the protests in the country. We have a responsibility.”
“We feel like all this is an existential threat for us. How can we put a timeline on this?”
The protest site at Jamia, Chawla pointed out, is not just populated by students, but residents of the neighbouring localities who wanted to oppose the CAA.
“As long as there are even two or three people who want to come and protest here, who are we to say that we are stopping,” she said.
To some, asking how long the protests will continue is also the wrong question.
Rafia Fatima, the woman who says she was hit on her private parts, said, “This is a call not just from the Jamia students, but from our society. It is our right to protest.”
Fatima’s younger sister, who asked that her name not be published, said, “We feel like all this is an existential threat for us. How can we put a timeline on this?”