New Delhi: Jamia Millia Islamia has bagged the top spot amongst all Central universities in rankings released by the Ministry of Education.
With an overall score of 90%, JMI beat other prestigious universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University, Aligarh Muslim University and Rajiv Gandhi University in Arunachal Pradesh. Earlier in June, Jamia was ranked as one of the Top 10 universities in the country by the Human Resource Development Ministry’s National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF).
In the first week of August, Jamia made headlines again when 30 students from the university’s Residential Coaching Academy cleared the demanding UPSC exam.
But away from the world of academic excellence, accolades and national recognition, the Delhi Police’s Special Cell has been insistent in its policy of targeting students from the university.
Over the past one month, Delhi Police has summoned close to 15 Jamia students in connection with riots that broke out in North East Delhi in February this year. All of these students have been asked to join the probe in FIR 59/2020 which relates to a riots conspiracy case and includes charges of murder, attempt to murder, rioting, sedition and sections under the Arms Act and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, UAPA, India’s stringent anti-terror law.
The questioning is intended to elicit any information they may have about those crimes and does not mean they will be charged. But the process has made students apprehensive about the police’s intentions.
Jamia students were seen at the forefront of protests against the new citizenship law that was introduced by the Modi government in December 2019. Peacefully protesting students were also brutally attacked by the Delhi Police in full public view on December 15, 2019.
Police personnel assaulted unarmed students with batons, sticks and threw teargas shells inside the campus. Videos of police personnel dragging students on the streets, hitting them mercilessly with batons, kicking them and forcibly entering the university library went viral on social media.
Despite the evidence, India’s official human rights watchdog, the National Human Rights Commission, blamed the students for indulging in a violence.
The police first started targeting students who were a part of the anti-CAA protest on campus between December 2019 and March 2020, in April this year amidst the national lockdown declared for COVID-19. Safoora Zargar and Meeran Haider were among the first few to be arrested. Their arrest was followed by the arrest of Shifa-ur-Rehman who was the president of the university’s alumni association.
Since then, several students from the university have been arrested and the campus is rife with reports of dozens having received notices from the Special Cell asking them to join the probe in connection with the riots conspiracy case.
Friends of students who have received notices say they are too terrified to speak to the media fearing a backlash from the police. Their families and lawyers have advised them to stay away from all public social media platforms.
Students also claim that the police is forcibly trying to draw a connection between the Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC) and the riots that broke out in North-East Delhi in February this year. JCC was an informal committee of current and former Jamia students that was formed after the police crackdown on campus on December 15. The committee, which worked through a WhatsApp group, helped organise the protest on campus, ensured that traffic was not affected and law and order was maintained. Students who have been questioned claim that the police has managed to get the names of students who were a part of the WhatsApp group and is now harassing them.
They say it is a blatant attempt to criminalise the protest which was nothing but peaceful. Three students who have received notices agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.
Vinod (name changed) says he received a notice sometime in mid-July and was asked to appear at Special Cell’s Lodhi Road office the next morning.
“I was questioned by 3-4 people for close to four hours. They were asking me about the Jamia Coordination Committee and when it was formed. They wanted to know why I was a part of the JCC WhatsApp group. They had full printouts of chats from the group. If they thought that someone was saying something objectionable, they would ask me the context. They couldn’t find anything violent in the messages that I had sent. They kept asking, ‘What was the motive of JCC? Why were you visiting protest sites’,” he said.
Vinod also said that police were insistent that JCC members had set up the protest sites in Delhi. “This is not correct. Students were just going and meeting people and not helping in setting anything up. These protest sites had come up after the attack on Jamia students, in solidarity with Jamia students. The protests were against the CAA and NRC,” he added.
Vinod said that the policemen asked him why he was a part of the protest even though he is not a Muslim and is unlikely to be affected by the CAA and NRC. “One constable told me, ‘Why are you doing this? Muslims are ruining your head. They are spoiling Hindu students. Why are you getting involved?’ The policeman was trying to provoke me to say something. He said things like, ‘Jamia mein toh bahot hekdi nikal rahi thi’. (‘You were trying to act too smart on campus’). They kept asking me for names. I was answering very briefly because I know they were trying to frame students. They asked me if I used to be present for late night meetings. Our protests used to finish at 8pm and we used to meet after that. There were trying to make them sound like secret meetings but there were no such things. I told them that the JCC was just managing women’s safety, managing traffic, managing the crowd and the stage at the protest site in Jamia. They told me that I was not providing them complete information,” he said.
Vinod also says that he got the impression that the police was trying to intimidate him and get him to make a statement that suited their narrative. “They were obviously trying to intimidate me. They kept asking the same question again and again, as if they were hoping for a different answer each time. They just want you to agree with the idea that students who were a part of the JCC used to go to protest sites and instigate people. There were conversations about chakka jam on the group but that doesn’t mean that students instigated the riots! I felt that they were constantly looking to see if I had messaged and said something controversial. They threatened that they would add my name to the chargesheet. They even threatened to arrest me,” he added.
Like Vinod, 25-year-old Kamran (name changed) was also served a notice but he could not appear for questioning because he was not in Delhi. Kamran had left for his hometown in Uttar Pradesh after the university closed because of the COVID-19 lockdown. “They called me but I missed their calls. I called back and they asked me to come back to Delhi soon. I told them that there is a lockdown. They said that I should come and meet them first thing after coming back,” he said.
Collusion by Jamia authorities?
Kamran said he was shaken after speaking to the police. He made a few calls and realised that many of his friends had also been served notices by the Special Cell in connection with FIR 59/20. Kamran also said that the police has been desperately trying to draw a link between the JCC and the riots. “I never gave any speeches but I was a member of the JCC WhatsApp group. That group was discontinued. I think the police got my number from there. I have a feeling that Jamia [authorities are] providing them with information. When I got admitted to Jamia, I had given the address of a flat in a certain locality in Delhi. That’s the only instance where I have given this address or mentioned it. A few months after joining Jamia, I shifted houses. The notice that has been sent to me has that address. How else would they have gotten that address? I was not involved in any way and didn’t give any speeches,” he said.
Kamran’s family is worried. “There is a lockdown in Uttar Pradesh. I don’t know when I will be able to go to Delhi. They are unnecessarily trying to harass me. My family is a little shocked but I told them that it is not just me that police are targeting. A lot of people who were not involved are being targeted. I don’t think they have been able to get their hands on any evidence,” he said.
Aalia (name changed) is 22 years old and can also remember the day she received a notice from Delhi Police’s Special Cell. “It is one of the scariest things that has happened to me. It’s got sections for murder, attempt to murder, rioting, arson, sedition and UAPA. They think that you can just be roped into the investigation in some way. They know who you are, they have been tracking your activities, they know where you live and they come and serve you a notice because they think that you have done something wrong,” she said.
“You may not have done anything wrong but you know deep down that there is nothing that you could have done to avoid this because at the end of the day this is nothing but an intimidation tactic. I am scared. For almost two days I was completely numb. I sat with my lawyers and was going through statements that I would make and what I would say in the questioning,” she added.
Aalia, too, believes that these notices are being served to intimidate students who had participated in anti-CAA protests on campus. “Every day we hear about more and more students receiving notices from the Special Cell. We may or may not be ultimately named in the FIR or be arrested but the notice has done the job. The job was to scare students and ensure that they do not regroup and start a protest again when the university opens after the COVID-19 threat, and it has worked. Students who have received notices will think twice about everything that they say. They will always be looking over their shoulders to see if anyone is watching them,” she said.
Aalia said she joined the protest after the police crackdown on students inside the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia on December 15. She felt then that police atrocities had been conveniently forgotten. “How could the police come inside the campus and simply unleash terror on students? What was even scarier is that we knew that there was nothing that prevented them from doing it again with the same impunity. We raised our voice because we as citizens of this country have fundamental rights that allow us to raise our voice. We did not do or say anything illegal. Our entire protest was within the ambit of the law’.
Professor Waseem Khan, who is the proctor of the university, admits that the university is aware of students being served notices and being questioned by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police. He says that the police landed up with a long list of people who they wanted to question either in connection with the violence that happened on December 13 and 15 or in connection with the Delhi riots.
“The police seems to have accessed a list of people who received medical treatment from hospitals for injuries they received on campus. There were about 90-95 people on the list and barely 25-30 of them were students. We told them that it is not possible for us to identify each of those people. We also raised concerns about our students being targeted but the police assured us that no action will be taken against innocent students. They told us that they need to question them. It is part of their investigation. There is little that a university can do when a criminal investigation is going on. It is up to the courts to decide who is guilty and who is not,” said Khan.
The proctor also claimed that police has been examining mobile phone records of students who are being called in for questioning to determine their location when violence broke out on campus and during the riots. “They are not just relying on WhatsApp conversations. The police retrieves data from their phones when they are called for questioning. They are also examining footage shot by news channels and trying to identify students who were a part of the anti-CAA protests in Jamia,” Khan said.
Professor Rizwan Qaiser, who teaches at the Department of History and Culture at Jamia Millia Islamia, says he is unable to understand the link between students of the university and riots that broke out in North East Delhi. “The response of the police has been brutal. What is the police trying to probe? Why are they connecting students who were protesting peacefully, on campus, with riots that happened across the city? These students had copies of the constitution and the tricolour in their hands. I do not understand the connection. This is a difficult time for everyone. On one hand, people are scared of the pandemic and on the other they are scared of endemic repression,” he said.
Manisha Sethi who teaches at NALSAR University of Law and has authored a book, Kafkaland: Law, Prejudice and Counter-terrorism in India, says that the Delhi Police is trying to pressurise Jamia students to create a case where none exists.
“The Delhi Police’s modus operandi so far has been this: plant false stories in the press through pliant media houses, so that a media trial can ensue against activists. These stories, presented as sensational ‘breaking news’, are based largely on inadmissible custodial confessions such as the one attributed to Gulfisha inculpating Professor Apoorvanand. The second strategy is to brow beat and intimidate students and younger activists into naming activists and scholars through repeated summons and interrogation. It is obvious that the Delhi police case has no legs to stand on, and it hopes that by pressuring vulnerable students, it will be able to create a case where none exists,” Sethi said.
First Information Report 59/20
The controversial FIR or First Information Report 59/20, under which students are being summoned, was registered by the Crime Branch on March 6 and is based on the complaint of a Sub-Inspector (SI). In his complaint, the police officer claims that his source has informed him that the riots were part of a conspiracy. The FIR says, “The SI has learnt through his sources that the communal riot incidents in Delhi that took place on February 23, 24 and 25, were part of a preplanned conspiracy. The conspiracy to spread the riots was hatched by JNU student Umar Khalid and his associates who are linked to a number of organisations.”
There is no mention of any evidence recovered in the FIR or eyewitness accounts that would corroborate the story shared by the ‘source’. After registration by the Crime Branch, the case was transferred to the Special Cell. The original FIR was registered under IPC sections 147, 148, 149 and 120(B), which relate to rioting, rioting with deadly weapon, unlawful assembly and criminal conspiracy. All of these sections are bailable offences.
After the case was transferred to the Special Cell, charges of conspiracy to commit murder (302), attempt to murder (307), sedition (124 A), promoting enmity between different communities on grounds of religion (153 A) and sections under the arms act were added. The police also added sections 13, 16, 17 and 18 of the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) to the FIR on April 21. These sections pertain to offences of unlawful activity, commission of a terrorist act, collecting funds for a terrorist act and conspiracy for committing a terrorist act.
Under UAPA, the accused can be remanded to police custody for a maximum period of 30 days, as opposed to 15 days under ordinary criminal law. Further, under ordinary criminal law, a chargesheet has to be filed within 90 days from the date of arrest failing which an accused is granted bail. But under UAPA the police have a maximum of 180 days to file the chargesheet.
Eminent citizens including educationalists, writers, filmmakers, lawyers and activists who have come together under the banner of ‘Campaign Against Witch-Hunt of Anti-CAA Activists’ have accused the Central government of ‘unleashing a war on young Muslims’ and using this FIR to harass and intimidate anti-CAA protesters.
According to them, “This FIR has enabled the stitching together of a political narrative where a direct link is sought to be made between anti-CAA protests and the widespread violence that rocked north east Delhi in the end of February. It allows simultaneously the criminalisation of the peaceful and democratic protests, while granting full immunity to the perpetrators of anti-minority violence.”
Till now the police has arrested several prominent human rights activists and student protesters using FIR 59/20.
Among those arrested are Ishrat Jahan, Khalid Saifi, Meeran Haider, Asif Tanha, Shifa-ur-Rehman, Gulfishan, Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita. Safoora Zargar had also been arrested under the same FIR. After spending two and a half months in jail, she was granted bail on humanitarian grounds because of her pregnancy.
On August 3, Delhi University professor Apoorvanad was also questioned in connection with the same FIR for almost eight hours. The police is yet to file a chargesheet in the case and has approached the court on multiple occasions seeking more time to complete its investigation.
On August 13, additional sessions judge Amitabh Rawat of the Karkadooma Court extended the custody of all those accused under FIR 59/20 till September 17. The Delhi Police has also been granted time till September 17 to finish their investigation.