Dec 15 night at AMU that haunts Aligarh

Recalling the terrifying crackdown on protesting students — largely unreported, unlike events at Jamia the same day — that has left scars the university town is struggling to deal with

Dec 15 night at AMU that haunts Aligarh

HELL BROKE LOOSE: While the AMU authorities claim they had to call in the police to control a situation that was rapidly going out of hand, the students allege a brutal crackdown and excessive use of force, even stun grenades, on the ‘unarmed protesters’ on the night of December 15. PTI

Shahira Naim in Aligarh

  • An Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) Junior Research Fellow qualified PhD scholar of chemistry lost all fingers of his right hand when the police fired stun grenades to disperse the students on the campus on the night of December 15. Rushed to AMU’s Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College Hospital, the doctors had to finally amputate his palm to stop the infection from spreading.
  • Another 19-year-old first-year law student in the plastic surgery ICU ward had suffered multiple fractures in his right hand and his thumb had been severed when a stun grenade exploded in his hand, which he had mistaken for a tear gas shell and tried to throw away. Wires have been inserted in his thumb, which has been stitched back to help it function. If infection sets in, even his right palm may be amputated.
  • The youngest grievously injured is a BA first-year Foreign Language student who had gone into shock after a stun grenade hit him in the stomach. His parameters went haywire. Attending doctors performed an emergency surgery but did not detect any internal haemorrhage. Finally, a JN Medical College ambulance took him to Delhi’s Ganga Ram Hospital in New Delhi on the morning of December 18 where he is responding to treatment.
  • The fourth critically injured person admitted to the ICU ward after Sunday’s police action was a local passerby. Too scared to get into further trouble with the authorities, he got himself discharged and quietly went underground, not willing to talk.

As the 11,000-strong student community of this largely residential university was forced to return home within 24 hours of the violence — police “brutality”, as student after student maintained — on the night of December 15, they carried along with them tales that will haunt them for a long time.

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Speaking to a cross-section of present and former students, around 60 faculty members who had convened an extraordinary AMU Teachers Association (AMUTA) meeting, doctors of the JN Medical College Hospital, shopkeepers and a large number of citizens, what emerged was a horrifying picture of a “police crackdown in connivance with the university authorities”.

AMU Vice-Chancellor Tariq Mansoor and Registrar Abdul Hamid — a 2006-batch serving IPS officer of the rank of Senior Superintendent of Police — had called the police to the campus, unleashing what students claimed was unprovoked and excessive action, which was clearly worse than that experienced on the Jamia Millia campus in New Delhi the same day.

What followed was equally without parallel. Students from places as far away as Kerala, Kashmir and the North-East were asked to vacate their hostels within 24 hours.

A large number of Kashmiri students were packed in buses to travel home in freezing conditions. Internet services have been snapped in Aligarh since December 16, ensuring that the horrifying tales of AMU remain in AMU.

A national news channel stringer was provided a video clip of one horrifying incident by a faculty member. He had to drive 70 kilometres outside the district to send it to his office before it was shown on prime time television.

Fake news, real action

By the latest count, students from over 50 educational institutions from Kerala to Punjab to Assam are up in arms against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act across the country. This includes elite institutions like the IITs of Chennai, Delhi, Kanpur and Mumbai, IIM-Ahmedabad and many more.

But the police action to this degree has been reserved against students of mainly two institutions — Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University. And the significance of it is not lost on the students, the faculty or the residents of Aligarh.

SILENT PROTEST: Hostellers were asked to vacate the premises within no time, but some students did choose to hold silent protests to voice their anger over

the violence on the AMU campus. Tribune photo: Shahira Naim

A senior faculty member from AMU’s Political Science Department wondered if any more proof was needed to “establish the intent of the BJP governments at the Centre and Uttar Pradesh regarding their mindset against Muslims”.

In AMU, peaceful protests had been continuing since the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill became an Act (CAA) on December 11. Students and faculty members collected for a while to make their point and dispersed. Aligarh SSP Akash Kulhary remained present during these peaceful protests.

Trouble started on the AMU campus in the evening of Sunday, December 15, as news trickled in through social media about the violence on the Jamia campus in New Delhi.

Fake news about the death of two students of Jamia instigated the AMU students to collect in large numbers at the Bab-e-Sayed Gate of the university at 8 pm.

ALIGARH IN SOLIDARITY: After the violence at AMU, the residents of the university town came out in hordes, demanding release of the detained students and voicing their opposition to the CAA. Even shopkeepers downed shutters. PTI

However, instead of allaying their fears resulting from the fake news and pacifying them to remain calm, the university authorities chose to call the police. And then, as the cliché goes, all hell broke loose.

Vice-Chancellor Prof Tariq Mansoor justified his decision to call the police after stones were thrown at the police stationed outside — it is debatable whether it were the students or outsiders who indulged in it.

In a letter dated December 17 addressed to the students, parents, teachers and the Aligarh community, he stated: “Taking advantage of this sensitive situation, anti-social/lumpen elements (including expelled ex-students) intermingled with students, and forcibly broke open the Bab-e-Syed gate. After crossing the university boundary, they resorted to stone-pelting on the police outside the campus. This mob, running into thousands, posed imminent danger to the life of students and the property of the university. Forced with this grave situation, the university administration was left with no other choice but to call the police to control the situation.”

A lot to answer for

Piecing together the sequence of events after speaking to various eyewitnesses, it emerges that “without warning”, the Rapid Action Force (RAF) personnel stormed into the campus, launching a baton-charge against the students, who ran in every direction, panic-stricken, many finding refuge in the Guest House compound nearby.

One of the worst spots of violence was the Morrisons Boys Hostel in Aftab Hall. Here the security guards were allegedly beaten up and tear gas shells fired into hostel rooms, forcing the students to come out.

There are many video clips of students being thrown on the ground and kicked, stripped in the cold, being lashed with batons and belts, and taunted with communal slurs. Many have since returned home, carrying their physical and mental scars with them. But this damaging documentary material is on the mobile phones of students and faculty members, where it would remain for some time till Internet services are restored.

Nineteen-year-old Wasim (name changed), a non-hosteller student who had his thumb stitched back, with extensive bruises on his face as well as his left eye, remembers each passing second of the nightmarish night. “I had received a message to collect at Bab-e-Sayed for a protest against the Jamia incident. When I arrived, I saw the police chasing students with batons and firing tear gas shells. I, along with others, hid inside the guest house compound near the university gate. The police were firing tear gas shells and this other grenade-like thing which used to burst into flames with a deafening noise. I was about to pick a shell to throw it in water to defuse, but that object exploded before that. I fainted and felt a numbing pain in my hand,” he recalls.

AMU Registrar Abdul Hamid, who ostensibly gave the written permission calling the police to the campus, was clearly not perturbed that “excessive force” was used against unarmed students.

Speaking to a solidarity team led by activist Harsh Mander which visited the campus on December 17, Hamid repeatedly affirmed that the police had indeed used stun grenades against students on that fateful night.

Stunned by stun grenade

A stun grenade, also known as a flash grenade, flash-bang, thunder-flash or sound bomb, is an ostensibly non-lethal explosive device to temporarily disorient senses.

It is designed to produce a blinding flash of light and an intensely loud “bang” of greater than 170 decibels. It was first used by the British army’s Special Air Service in the late 1970s.

While retired Uttar Pradesh DGP SR Darapuri admits that it has been included as a crowd control weapon like tear gas, rubber bullets and water canon, it is seldom used in a civilian situation, especially to quell students’ protests. Experts say that it is used in military bunkers to first stun and then shoot the enemy.

The young student who had to be rushed to New Delhi’s Ganga Ram Hospital was hit by one such stun grenade in the upper abdomen. He had since been in shock, speaking incoherently, with his vital parameters not stabilising.

Wasim recalls, “The thunderous sound and impact of the grenade was so horrifying that it left me numb. It was much later that I learnt that I had lost just a thumb of my right hand. I first thought I had been paralysed.”

However, Aligarh SSP Akash Kulhary categorically denied that these injuries could have been caused by stun grenades. “It only produces good sound and cannot result in such injuries,” he maintained.

On what then could have resulted in such injuries, he said: “Who knows? They may be carrying petrol bombs which may have exploded in their hands.”

A senior doctor on duty at JN Medical College Hospital that night admitted that around 50 to 60 students came for treatment, but only four had sustained grievous injuries. Such was the terror that the students begged the doctors not to put their names on the prescription.

Dealing with trauma

A group of women research scholars from Kashmir have been hiding in a house on the campus as they are terrified to travel alone to Kashmir.

“We are not allowed to go out of the campus after 7 pm in the name of security. Did the university administration not think twice before asking us to travel all the way to our homes unescorted?” asks one of them.

The Kashmiri students admit that after Kashmir it was AMU campus where they always felt safe. Not any longer.

“The manner in which the university Provost and other officials literally threw us out of the hostel threatening to snap power and water supply if we refused or asked for more time was traumatic,” they point out.

However, they admit that their class fellows and faculty members are helping them out in every way.

Interestingly, a group of male students who are yet to leave the campus narrate how the Kashmiri students had taught them the way to defuse tear gas shells and keep salt in their pockets, applying it around their eyes to minimise the impact.

The Kashmiri women research scholars recall that the other hostellers were shrieking in fear at the noise of stun grenade blasts, screams and firing. “They were amazed at our calm. We explained that over the years we have become immune to such eventualities.”

Around 60 motorcycles disappeared from the campus that night, pointed out students. None has filed any complaint.

As faulty members collected at the Teaching Staff Club for an emergency meeting of the AMUTA on December 18, they found the premises locked. They sat on a dharna before it was unlocked after an hour. But AMUTA president Najmul Islam and secretary Kalimuddin did not turn up for the meeting, sending repeated messages to join soon.

Waiting for another hour, the around 60 faculty members passed a unanimous resolution nominating the seniormost executive council member, Dr Masavir Ansari, as the president and Hindi Department’s Dr Kamlanand Jha as the new convener of AMUTA.

It was decided to hold a peaceful protest on the campus on December 19 in solidarity with the students and the nationwide protests against CAA. It was also decided to collect money to help the students from Kashmir and other far-off places who were still living in safe homes in the city.

The fact that only a handful of the 1,600-strong AMU faculty was present at the AMUTA meeting indicated how opposition had been gagged, claimed one teacher.

A former office-bearer present at the AMUTA meeting warned those who passed the crucial resolution of possible repression and even suspension by the university authorities.

Aligarh comes out in support

Like the unprecedented police action at the AMU campus was the unparalleled support for the students on the streets of Aligarh.

Shopkeepers downed their shutters for two days in solidarity with the 27 students detained on the night of violence. President of the Dodhpur Market Association Rashid Ali described the protests by citizens across the city as purely spontaneous.

“Groups of 100 to 500 residents were emerging from bylanes of residential colonies holding only the Tricolour, silently marching through the streets, squatting at some place and returning after sunset and at times even late at night,” he said.

According to him, it was only after the students were released on the night of December 17 that the protests stopped and shops opened on December 18 amidst heavy police presence.

Many former office-bearers of the AMU students’ union have been named in the FIR filed for the December 15 violence. A former AMUSU secretary and member of the AMU Court Huzaifa Amir Rashadi claimed to be out of Aligarh that fateful night. “The AMU authorities routinely add our names in every FIR. We have become like notorious history-sheeters. If you meet the Vice-Chancellor, let him know that such measures are not going to help him become a Governor.”

The V-C, meanwhile, remained “busy” in meetings, not willing to respond to questions. Questions that do demand answers.

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