By Shafey Danish
Many ABVP members have been saying on TV that they did not instigate the violence, or that it was both sided.
It was neither of those things. I was one of the teachers who were with the students held captive within Ramjas on the 22nd of Feb. And what follows is an account of how we became captives on our own campus with police complicity.
It was about 11.30 am, and we were still discussing the implications of yesterday, when two students burst into the room and then quickly shut the door. “They are beating us,” they said, out of breath. Their faces reflected the shock we felt. But as I had come in I had seen a strong police presence in the college. They were massed at the gates. Where were the police?
The students said they had been chatting with some friends when the ABVP members came and without warning started slapping one of them repeatedly. They had come away, they said, but others were still there.
There were I think 7 of us, 7 teachers, we all got up briskly, and our Teacher in Charge quickly decided that he would take the students to the staff room. We set off and gathered some of our other students. We walked into the staff room in a crowd and discussed what to do. I suppose my mind was still trying to process that even as we stood there someone might be beating up one of our students right there on campus, a mere few feet from the police. We quickly decided that we needed to go and check on our students, as we passed some classrooms, we saw some students standing at a window that allowed a clear view of the area outside.
Our students, whom we quickly recognized as the ones sitting on the ground were surrounded by a police cordon. ABVP supporters stood outside the cordon. They were shouting slogans. I couldn’t make out much except “chappal se maro saalon ko.” Some of the policemen were gently trying to push the ABVP supporters away from the sitting students.
Some of the policemen were smiling. One girl I recognized as one of our third year students was also smiling. I felt a weight lift off my heart, they were safe behind the police cordon and apparently not cowed by the brutish language ABVP supporters were using. “They seem to be ok,” I said to no one in particular. Just then behind me I heard one of my colleagues urgently calling us to get away from the window. “What? Why..?” I thought, but I did not ask, there were too many whys ratting around in my head just then to ask any of them, I just quickly left the window. I asked the students who had been looking out too to come away, one guy lingered and one of my colleagues lit into him with hot anger. “Get away, get away…”
She was probably saying something else too, but I had turned and was instinctively walking back towards the staff room. There was a loud noise behind me, I turned and there was this boy, fear writ on his face, rushing away madly, four burly guys were after him. They rushed past me, he fell, they were upon him and started beating him. He had his hands up covering his head, his face, there was shouting behind me, one of my senior colleagues rushed to the boy’s defence shouting at the goons, I unfroze and rushed after her. She pulled him, another colleague pulled one of the goons away, and I came between the upraised hand of the third and the boy.
It was over. I was shaken. What had I seen? What was happening? Where were the police?
The boy was badly shaken. I didn’t recognize him. What had happened? He said he was looking out the window, when these four burst in and asked him to come out. Why, he had asked. And then they were pulling him, he broke free, he ran. He had hit his head when he fell. There was blood where he had skinned his forearm. He had been beaten simply for looking outside. So now students were being beaten up randomly, and those responsible did this in the full view of a group of teachers and had quickly gone away.
It was then, I believe that fear settled in the pit of my stomach. Fear for ourselves, fear for those students still trapped within the police cordon. I thought…I don’t know what exactly I thought, but the thought that surfaced, urgently and insistently, was that we had to get our students out. Soon. The goons were looking to beat them up, and somehow, it seemed, they had no fear of the police. We quickly went back, we found the students whom we had left in the staff room, one of the gates of the campus was still not gheraoed. Three of us, quickly escorted the students to the gate, our TiC had it opened, we led them out. I asked them to make haste to their rooms. I was afraid some of the goons might be lying in wait. Then we made our way back. There was, coincidentally, a staff association meeting going on in the staff room, on, I assume, an unrelated issue. But by the time we got back, teachers were filing out, we were going to the site of the police cordon, this had gone too far. We went first to the prinicipal’s office. He met us, and after a very brief discussion we filed out.
Loud shouts were coming from the area of the canteen, and then there was a sudden panic and students came running down the lane that led up to the canteen. Their faces were full of fear. A colleague pulled me aside. Near the canteen we recognized some of our students. One of them seemed ready to cry. We quickly went up to her. What happened? “They are beating us up and the police are doing nothing” she said. “We need to get out.” We asked our students to come with us. They said others were still ‘trapped’ there. They did not want to leave without their friends. We led one of them out however. She left quickly. But police were standing in ones and twos, in little knots. Casually. They looked bored. They looked tired. And we, we were afraid for our safety. It was surreal.
When we went back to the canteen, we found ourselves within earshot of a shouting match. Three senior teachers, all from different departments, were trying to reason with ABVP. They were responding by shouting at the teachers, threatening them, and abusing them.
I went into a knot of students looking for ours, I did not see them. I saw our TiC and I asked if all the students were out. He thought they were. That was a relief. I left them standing there, and went to the staff room. I thought the rest of the teachers would soon follow. For a time I let my mind wander. On the grounds behind the staff room, lunch was laid out. I remembered that today the staff association was having a meeting and the lunch was a part of it. Some students were still playing volleyball. All this was normal. And yet at the other end of the small campus teachers were being abused by ABVP supporters, who were not part of Ramjas, and our students had been beaten. The contrast was so jarring that it made my head spin. A student had been brought in to the staff room. He had been beaten. He was simply going out he said, when he was grabbed and beaten. Soon after some other students came in; they were distraught. Apparently despite all this some students had still gathered for classes, and some teachers were still trying to take them. But those classes had been disrupted.
A student said that they (ABVP supporters) had come in and forced everyone out.
Two of my colleagues were coming back. I asked them where the rest of the faculty were. Near the canteen, I was told. But why, I asked, the students are all out. No, they said, there is a fair number of them still there. I headed back.
There, between 45 and 50 students were sitting on the ground in a tight huddle. Teachers were standing around them. The ABVP supporters were gone. I spied one of our senior teachers and immediately went up to her. Why are we not getting the students out?
Apparently, the police were saying that if we went out it would be at our own risk. They were telling us that we should wait for the situation to calm down. The police kept insisting that they were doing everything they could. But they could just bring a van and drop us to a metro station, I said. Apparently the police weren’t prepared to do that. Not yet, anyway.
Time passed. We shared biscuits, and though I had not had anything to eat at all that day, it took effort and one had to force oneself to eat. The students started singing some songs. They clapped and sang, still sitting on the ground. A few of them got up and spoke. For those few minutes there was just us, the faculty and the students, and the police.
The media had not been allowed in. Presumably for security reasons. The students were on the third, or perhaps the fourth song. We suddenly heard the sound of rushing feet. The song faltered and then, with a will, resumed. The ABVP supporters came rushing in. The knot of students sitting there shifted, huddled closer. A few more rushed in shouting obscenities, one of them rushed towards us, the others pulled him back, he picked up a chair and threw it at us. It hit a senior teacher.
The police spoke in calming tones, restrained the hoodlum, soothing his anger. By now others were shouting, jabbing their fingers at us. “Yeh log naarebaazi kar rahe hain,” he was shouting. Our students had been singing. A bunch of goons started struggling with the police to let them go, straining towards us. Those behind them were shouting and jabbing their fingers. The police were speaking angrily to the teachers asking them to stop the singing. The teachers complied, we complied, we fell silent. There was a brief laughter from the ABVP supporters’ side. Some of them had slowly trickled to the left side of the group. Suddenly they charged, they caught a boy at the fringe of the group and started beating him up. Our teachers rushed, the police got in and they pushed the attackers back. The boy had been just sitting there.
Now, we were warily watching our flanks. Trying to determine where the next attack was going to come from. Some of the ABVP supporters were again circling to the centre. There was another rush. Another block by the police. The police were scolding the ABVP supporters, while they were shouting back at the police. The teachers were remonstrating with them. One of the teachers – she was from another department – recognized a guy as one of her students. She wondered if she should talk to him. Try to, perhaps reason with him. Ask him perhaps why he and his friends were beating us up. We were after all just sitting there. Not chanting, not singing. Not doing anything really. Very much like hostages. We sat in a huddle close together, they moved about, this side and that. It was a glaring admission of our situation. We were being held hostage. In our own college. With the police surrounding us ‘for our own protection’.
They would not let us go, for ‘our own protection’ but they would let the attackers in, but not the media. And they would not protect us from them.
She moved towards that boy and started talking to him, slowly, gently. I didn’t hear what was being said. But I saw that guy was moving his head angrily. His friends surrounding him were saying something loudly. The police were moving in. Suddenly the guy in front took an angry step forward. The teacher quickly stepped back. The young man was restrained by his friends. He was shouting and taunting her now. The police quickly stepped in between the teacher and the ABVP supporters. When she turned I could see the mingle of shock and bitterness written plain on her face. She was a senior teacher. And here she was being abused by these boys, for trying to talk some sense into them. Some time passed. There was another lunge and another boy was slapped, before the goon was dragged away. It had turned almost into a game for them. Let’s see who we can beat up. I was myself sitting on the right edge of the gathering. I had started talking to the boy sitting beside me, I was gently chiding him for not having left earlier, when I heard a girl behind me call out “Sir!” and then again more quickly “Sir!” I turned to look where her eyes were looking and saw that the police were pushing off a guy who was glaring at me. Apparently I had just escaped a beating. “And you were not even doing anything!” the girl said. I gave a shaky laugh. Yes indeed, I wasn’t doing anything. Anything at all.
The sequence of the episodes are all jumbled in my head. I can’t remember what happened before and what after. But I was going around asking our senior colleagues to either get more police here, or to get the police to provide vans to take us to a metro station. “There are already enough police here!” a senior colleague replied to perhaps my third importunate demand that we should at least have more police. She said, exasperated. “There are more than enough police here.” What she left unsaid was that if the police wanted they could easily keep us safe. Or chase them away. Or take us out. Sometime later an Academic Council member who was with us, almost shouted at me when I asked the same thing. “Do you think this would be possible without the knowledge of the university? Can’t you see that the police are here to protect them and not us?” Yes, I could see. I could see the police standing in small knots. Not around us. I could see some of them talking casually with the ABVP members. Others were moving about some were talking to teachers. While the ABVP supporters held us surrounded from three sides.
In truth they were not many of them, between 10 and 15. We were altogether more, more than 60. But they looked – how do I say this – like street thugs. Squat and muscled, with heavy features, long moustaches. I looked back at our students. They wore specks, many had the tell tale darkness beneath their eyes that spoke of lost sleep, their faces had the softness of too little physical exercise, and lines of concentration.
They had dreamy eyes of those who had spent an unhealthy amount of time with books. If we had lived in a different world in a world where we had to defend ourselves physically, then perhaps we would have trained ourselves in street fight, we might have learnt martial arts, and we would have learnt to wield sticks and batons. But we had learned only arts. And our students had learned only arts, and we had learnt to wield facts and deliver arguments. We had been lulled by the promise that we lived in a civilized world. Our lives were built on the assumption that there was an army at the border to protect from external threats and police in our cities to protect us from internal ones. We had thought that we could abandon the fear of our safety and devote our selves to higher pursuits. To history, to economics, to arts and to literature. And we and generations of scholars before us, had trusted that promise and devoted ourselves to these higher truths. We had believed that we had moved far from the time where might was right and the only arguments to be made was with threats and arms. But here right before us, the foundation of those promises were coming apart. Here were the police, nominally our protectors, who were protecting us, but only nominally. And here were students terrorizing their peers and abusing their teachers.
Somewhere during this time a group of ABVP supporters had again started moving towards us.
“Girls come out in the front, and link hands. Put the guys behind you,” I heard one of the girls say. And then as gently as a ripple, the girls had quietly stepped forward and stood linking hands in front of the goons who now stood only a few paces away. Before their squat muscularity they looked entirely frail, bookish and completely unafraid. I think back to that moment and a lump rises to my throat. This then, the silent courage of our students, is the thing I would cherish from that harrowing day. One of the ABVP supporters standing before the girls whispered something into the ears of his friend, and he gave a crude laugh. “Nahi hum thode hi marenge. Hum ladkon ko marenge, ladkiyan to ladkiyan marengi”, he said with a smirk. I heard him, and the policemen standing close by, heard him. And did not do a thing, they did not even say anything.
After a while some of the ABVP supporters had again started moving towards the students. A teacher stood alone there, spreading out her hands. Two women constables who were standing near me, were simply looking at the sight. “Madam ke paas ja ke khade hoiye” I quickly asked one of them, and it was only then that she made her way there. It was nearing five, all of us had spent more than five hours trapped here. The students had been trapped there since 11.30, for over six and a half hour and by now we were about to give up on the police. Some of the senior teachers were talking of taking out the students in their own cars. After another attack one professor from the history department started angrily arguing with the police, but the police shouted right back. “We don’t take orders from you”, he said dismissively.
At about five thirty we heard that the police were going to get vans to take us to a metro station. Some of the faculty members asked if anyone wanted to go to the washroom. Those who went were escorted by teachers. We feared that the students would be beaten up if they went alone. Our fears were justified. Right before we finally got out, one boy went a little away, got beaten up. He was looking down on his phone and had drifted a little away from us. Immediately four of the ABVP supporters pounced on him. They beat him to the ground. The police and teachers had to pull them off.
Then the vans finally came, and we were escorted out. I and some of the younger teachers went out on the vans. Students placed their bags at the windows as shields in case stones were pelted at us. Then after a winding journey the vans dropped us off at the Civil Lines metro station, two stops from the Vishwavidhyalaya metro station, the nearest to the university, as a precaution against some of the goons waiting or following us to the station. Our long ordeal had finally ended.
Later that day I saw a message that was circulating on whatsapp. The ABVP had threatened to go out looking for the students who were part of the protest. They intended to beat them up. I, and other teachers advised students to get out of north campus and to go to a safer location. Many did. Those who stayed spent the night in fear.