Published: 17th January 2020
It became about survival: One month on, an AMU student takes us through the horror of December 15
That fateful night, Sharjeel was slapped with five FIRs, he has received only one of them so far though and that FIR alone has him charged under 13 sections including 'attempt to murder' and 'Goondas
On the night of December 15, when the police laid siege to Aligarh Muslim University, Sharjeel Usmani remembers seeing students recite the first kalima. The Muslims recite the kalima just before they believe they're going to die. He also heard others speak to their parents over the phone, asking for forgiveness, there was an imminent fear of death. Sharjeel says he can't put in words the images he witnessed that day.
Usmani has been in AMU for a few years now and is pursuing his Bachelor's degree in Political Science. Sharjeel has in the last one month been slapped with five FIRs, he has received only one of them so far though and that FIR alone has him charged under 13 sections ranging from Attempt to murder' and the 'Goondas Act'.
The UP Police, in their FIR, has stated that SHO Amit Kumar received information at around 8.20 pm that inside AMU, around 1200-1300 students were assembled. They named 26 people, including former AMUSU President Mohammed Salman Imtiaz, who were leading the crowd which was protesting against the CAA and chanting 'anti-government' slogans, besides protesting against what happened in Jamia Millia Islamia.
Right now, Sharjeel is not in AMU, as he fears being arrested owing to the warrant issued against him. He says he's also heard cops saying he might be charged under the National Security Act. There are five students that the UP Police has claimed were behind the violence in AMU on December 15, Sharjeel, they believe, is the mastermind. He spoke to us over a WhatsApp call from an undisclosed location and was quick to deny all the charges against him.
Who are you looking at?
Sharjeel was born and brought up in Azamghar, UP. He recalls the city being called 'Athankgar' when he was still a child, a consequence of the Batla House encounter. "Then when I came to Aligarh to pursue my under-graduation, I found that they referred to AMU as athankwadi ki nursery'. Muslim youth have always been the enemy in the eyes of the Indian state. With the BJP government it has just gotten worse," Sharjeel tells us.
Sharjeel decided to pursue Political Science at AMU because he wanted to become a journalist, he says that the Batla House encounter was such an integral part of his history while growing up in Azamghar that it was a story that he wanted to tell when he grew up. In a way that it probably never got told. That's why he picked journalism. "When I started in the first year itself, I started writing for a few news outlets and then I slowly began to get involved in student activism as well," he recalled.
Violence and student activism often have a dark sense of synonymity. Sharjeel says that AMU students have been at the receiving end of police violence under the Yogi government. "We've been lathicharged by the police that worked under previous governments too. But these days, we see the police accompanied by right-wing goons in civil clothes who also beat us. Under the Yogi government, they feel empowered to attack us," he claims.
Right to dissent?
AMU was probably the first campus in the country, after Assam, to have started protesting against CAA-NRC. "A few years after Independence, Nehru visited AMU after several people protested against the institution's existence and believed that a Muslim university had no place in India. Since then, we have been living in fear here. We are not Godhra or Ayodhya but every academic has come here to Aligarh to study communalism. So for us, CAA-NRC is a final attack on us to make us stateless," he feels.
So on December 7, a group of students including Sharjeel got together to mobilise the students and get them to participate in the protests against CAA-NRC. Despite their protest, the bill did get passed in the Rajya Sabha, "I came to the University and saw that everyone was just going about their daily work. Busy with exams, library, chai and a smoke. Nobody seemed to care that a genocide was looming over us. That's when I broke down and then the others noticed and we sat down to coordinate and organise the protest." And so that's how AMU launched their protests against the Act. They even printed out little booklets and told their peers what the future looked like, according to them.
Emboldened by this, AMU students carried on their protests for the next few days by inviting public figures and academics to speak to them — besides holding discussions on the Act themselves, accompanied by slogans and songs. Then on the evening of December 15, the students heard rumours that two students from Jamia had been shot dead during the protests.
The day AMU died
The terrified students then gathered to show their solidarity with the victims, "So we all came together and decided to march. We were scared and furious, we were getting bits and pieces of information and we didn't know what to make of it," he recalled. When they got to the gate, they found that the police had barricaded them in. And so, the students tried to push through the gate, "Then people started throwing stones at us and my friend got hurt. I rushed to take him outside to an ambulance and within those ten minutes, the police began to fire tear gas. People keep referring to what happened as a clash but it was a completely one-sided attack. There were at least 300-500 tear gas shells thrown, pellets were fired too," he narrated his version of what happened.
Sharjeel said that the police looked like they had come prepared, "We did not even in our wildest dreams think that the police would come inside the campus. The way they were lathicharging us, they looked like lynch mobs in uniform. While they beat us, they yelled out 'Jai Shri Ram'. We were terrorised," he claims. Sharjeel said he went completely numb as he saw the atrocities that were unfolding around him, "I just remember that it became about survival. Everyone was just fighting for survival. People were reciting the kalima, others called their parents in desperation," he explained.
What does the police have to say? They were riled up and they were trying to break the Bab e Syed gate, the officer notes in the FIR. "After futile attempts to make them stop, the student leaders were instigating the others and they finally broke the gate down. Armed with firearms, sticks, rods and stones, the students attacked the police," he says in the FIR, before adding, "They attempted to kill us when they fired upon us. I reported this to the higher authorities including the City Magistrate, who came to the scene. We restricted the students near the Proctor's Office using barricades and kept on telling them over the loudspeaker that Section 144 was in force and requested them to disperse."
The students were asked not to "destroy government property", but they "fired" at the police and "pelted stones" at the police and pedestrians, the FIR states. The Rapid Action Force (RAF) arrived with fire tenders and used the water cannons on the crowd. Then, RAF and the police together started shooting tear gas, he notes in the FIR. Some students in the front were also injured in the stones thrown by those in the back.
"We surrounded the students and used appropriate force," it concludes the curt narrative.
After the smoke cleared
The silence that followed the attack was equally painful, the student said. "Students in the hostels asked to be locked from outside, so the police won't check their rooms. They switched off their lights and there was absolutely no noise. Then when dawn began to break, people just packed their bags and rushed to go home. The VC also shut down the University and we were all asked to leave. Some went home, some of us went to Delhi," the student activist said. Sharjeel remembers some students from Kashmir saying sarcastically, "Ghar ki yaad diladi' (These events reminded us of home, at least)."
However, when Sharjeel was slapped with the FIRs he wasn't surprised, "From the very beginning, we knew that we were on their list. They had been watching us closely. So we were not surprise. But I only came to know about it after a relative called me to inform me that my photo was being shared on Aaj Tak and that I was being blamed for the violence," the young man said. He also believes that every Muslim youth is seen as a potential threat in the eyes of the state, "During a case, someone handed in a book of Ghalib's poetry as proof that someone was a terrorist. That's the state we're in," said the undergraduate student.
A mother's concern
Even if the cases were an expected result for Sharjeel, it surely hasn't been easy for his family to witness all these events? "Surprising, my parents seem to be okay or at least they pretend that way to me. My father, who is a professor here at AMU, was the first to ask me to leave the campus and my mother who has not been appreciative of my activism, surprisingly told me 'Police ke hath math aana jab tak issue katam nahi hoti' (don't get caught till this issue has been resolved)," Sharjeel said he was completely taken aback by her words because she believed it was important to fight against this Act. "She told me its not like I've committed a crime, stolen anything. I was after all just fighting for my rights. It is important to show this side of Muslim women," he points out.
Why was this protest any different? "We did not protest during the cow lynching, Article 370, Triple Talaq or UAPA. We let it go but now we are on the verge of becoming stateless, it has never been more explicit. But this fight isn't just about CAA-NRC, this is about us fighting for our existence, with our skull caps and burkhas we want to be visible and want to assert ourselves. We want to have an equal stake in the country. This is a fight for dignity in our existence," he says passionately.
Today, a month on, the Vice-Chancellor Tariq Mansoor has come full circle. From being the man who called the police in, he says he deeply regrets the move and even met the students and asked for their forgiveness. “My whole family regret(s) it. I didn’t know the police would enter the hostel and guest house...” he said. Mansoor has also said that they would push for legal recourse in getting an FIR filed against the police and the violence they purportedly unleashed. With an NHRC probe in the offing stiff opposition from the students and professors, a return to normalcy seems far, far away.