NEW DELHI— Imran Chaudhary had never imagined that he would stand on the side of a road on a cold winter morning in the nation’s capital and remove his shirt.
But that is what Imran did on Monday morning, a day after the Delhi Police attacked students at Jamia Millia Islamia University to stop them protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act, which offers a path to citizenship to all religious minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but not Muslims
It was around seven in the morning when the 30-year-old PhD candidate joined other students in standing bare chested and silent to protest the violence unleashed by the Delhi Police inside their campus.
“It was cold, but I want to save the Constitution. I want to save the country,” he said. “Even as I was doing it, I was asking myself how removing my shirt made sense. It was my small way to dissent.”
For Imran, who is the first person in his village in Haryana to graduate college and then go on to pursue a PhD, the violence he was subjected to is in equal measure an assault on his mind and also his body. He explained that when you hurt someone, humiliate them, and wield power over them like that, physical wounds can heal, but the hurts done to the psychology is immeasurable.
The ten minutes that he was forced to march from the library to a metro station outside the campus, holding his hands above his head while lathi-wielding policemen warned the students against lowering them, will never leave him.
The soft-spoken and solemn-looking student, said, “I was humiliated. I can never tell my mother how bad it made me feel. She is so proud of my work, but she will say, ‘You pick up your clothes, you pick up your bag, and you come home. I don’t want this PhD.’”
“I feel that who I am today is because of this University. I’m the first person in my village to graduate, the first person to get a master’s degree, and the first person to pursue a PhD. The place that makes me stronger is under attack,” he said.
“I feel that who I am today is because of this University. The place that makes me stronger is under attack.”
The Delhi Police is yet to explain why it stormed the campus of the 100-year-old educational institution, hurling tear gas, allegedly firing rubber bullets which the it denies doing, and beating students with batons. More than a hundred were injured, many of whom were hospitalised.
The University’s Chief Proctor Waseem Ahmed told HuffPost India that 52 people were detained by the Delhi Police and almost all of them were students. Following the public outrage over the violence, no students from the University were charged.
The police brutality has sparked student protests across the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has responded to the growing unrest by saying this: “You can easily make out who is spreading violence by the clothes they wear.”
The police entered the University shortly after violence erupted in neighbouring localities, where its students were carrying out a march against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which was passed by Parliament and signed into law by President Ram Nath Kovind, last week.
No one has explained how the march ended in mayhem, with police lathi charging the students and buses being set on fire.
The students have disassociated themselves from the violence, insisting they were carrying out a peaceful protest. There is speculation as to whether “outsiders” entered the march and provoked the police into deploying excessive force.
What is clear is that the violence on the streets followed the students back to their campus.
“I never thought that we are targeted because we are Muslim, but now I do,” he said. “I don’t think I will ever forget it. It takes time to recover from something like this. I’m not sure when I will want to start thinking about my research again.”
“I never thought that we are targeted because we are Muslim, but now I do.”
What happened in the library
Imran recalled that he was sitting near the college library when he heard shots of tear gas being fired again and again. Then, he heard students screaming and running.
He knew it was time to run. The library seemed like the safest place to him and around a hundred other students who were milling in the same area.
Another thing that Imran had never imagined was the police breaking down a door to the library and shooting tear gas into it.
That is what happened 30 minutes later.
But before that, he watched nervously as his fellow students dragged cabinets to bar the door to the library. Then, they sat quietly, hoping desperately for the mayhem to pass them by.
There were so many shots of tear gas that he could hear, Imran said, it reminded him of crackers on Diwali. When the students looked down from a window in the library, they could see students who were hurt.
“We thought they were shots. Every two minutes, we could hear a shot of the tear gas being fired. They broke down the door to the library and they shot tear gas inside. It was so suffocating, I felt sick. We all did,” he said, as he looked for a photo on his mobile phone.
“This is how I looked,” he said.
One student, Imran said, fainted from the suffocation and had to be carried by the others, laid on a desk and resuscitated.
At this point in the conversation, Fuzzail Siddique, a research scholar at the University, piped in.
“I was in the lab working on something. The shots were so loud and so many that the glass doors of the lab started shaking. I locked the lab and turned off the light. I was so scared,” he said.
The worst was yet to come for Imran and those hiding in the library.
Around 20 to 25 policemen entered the library, Imran said, as some students tried to hide under the tables. It was after police hit a few boys did the girls come forward and asked them to stop.
The police told them to halt everything and raise their arms and keep them there.
“I said, ’Sir, we are people who study. This is a PhD section of the library. Please don’t ruin it. They told us to get out,” said Imran. “You know there is a way of talking to another person. That was not it. They make you feel like a second class citizen. They make you feel like you are not part of the country.”
“Sir, we are people who study. This is a PhD section of the library. Please don’t ruin it. They told us to get out.”
As he walked with hundreds of other students from the library to the Sukhdev Vihar metro station, with his hands in the air, Imran was sure that they were to be beaten or arrested.
It was at the metro station that the police left them and warned them not to go back, even as students, especially the women, panicked about reaching their hostels.
Imran and 50 others spent the next two hours at the house of a University student in a neighbouring locality they managed to track down. They were finally rescued by the Chief Proctor Waseem Ahmed.
“It was not only that they asked us to raise our arms, but if you lowered them a little bit, they would hit you with the lathi,” he said. “I don’t know why I was made to feel small, as if I did not matter, my dignity did not matter. I don’t know why the Delhi Police feels they can humiliate me when I have done nothing wrong.”
“I don’t know why I was made to feel small, as if I did not matter, my dignity did not matter.”
The road ahead
For Imran, who is pursuing a PhD in international relations, the future lies in academia. His mother would love for him to be a professor, he said, adding, “My father was a farmer. He died when I was in class 12. It is because of my mother that I’m here. I want to be a professor. She will like that.”
Imran, however, has already started tempering his dreams with stiff dose of reality. The state of the economy worries him and the other students he knows. He has lost count of how many times he has read news about students with all kinds of graduate degrees applying for government jobs as peons or driving cabs.
“I really don’t know what will happen with this PhD. There is no employment anywhere,” he said, matter-of-factly. “That anger, that frustration which the youth has about facing a bleak future is always part of all these protests as well.”
Mewat, where Imran’s village in Haryana is located, has for centuries been home to Muslim dairy farmers. The district is barely 60kms from Delhi and was recently found to be the most backward by the Niti Aayog.
“People do some farming and rearing cattle. There is nothing else to do there,” he said.
Given how little home has to offer him when it comes to forging and pursuing his life ambitions, Delhi and his university lets him dream and plan. And given how little home has to offer young people, it is important for him to make a success of his life at University.
“Think about it this way. If I go back sad and unhappy, if I go back and say that I don’t feel safe where I study, then who will come here after me?” he said. “It is so important that more people go to University.”
“If I go back sad and unhappy, if I go back and say that I don’t feel safe where I study, then who will come here after me.”