Narendra Modi & The Myth Of The Bad Jamia Student

05 Jun 2021 7 min read  Share

From Modi’s public ‘Go drown yourself’ to Jamia Millia Islamia in 2008 to the latest student protests against a home ministry order that ordered central government institutions to take an ‘anti-terrorism pledge’, the animosity between the government and India’s top-ranked central university has only grown.

A screen grab of Jamia Millia Islamia students being rounded up on the night of 14 December 2019.

New Delhi: An online “anti-terrorism” pledge ceremony organised by the English department at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university on 21 May 2021 at the behest of the home ministry became the latest marker of a troubled history between the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the 100-year-old Muslim-minority institution, ranked first in 2020 among all central universities by the education ministry.

“This is another Islamophobic tactic by the administration,” said Akhtarista Ansari, a former student and activist against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019, who joined the pledge meeting to register her protest.

The objective of the pledge, to commemorate “anti-terror day”, which marks the assassination of India’s former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was to “wean away youth from terrorism and the cult of violence”, the official order of the home ministry said.

The text of the pledge.

While university officials pointed out that the event had been held previously, students said it was only for officials, not students and that it was a new tactic to cow them. Some critics objected to the assumption of the home ministry that university students required such pledges.

While the official order only asked central government employees to take the pledge, some central universities, such as Delhi University (DU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), organised pledge-taking ceremonies for their students.

Although mostly staff took the pledge at DU and JNU, some students did too, but there were no protests.

That only Jamia students protested, is a reflection of animosity between them and the government, borne of a recent history of state violence and verbal hostility from India’s ruling party, beginning with the prime minister.

The Crackdown On Jamia

In December 2019, Jamia Millia, became the epicenter of demonstrations and protests against India’s controversial new citizenship laws, which many experts believe discriminate against Muslims.

Following the protests, there was a violent crackdown on the campus by the Delhi police which reports to the home ministry under Amit Shah. Several students sustained serious injuries in the violence. Police were accused of vandalising the library and mosque on campus, a charge they denied.

Apart from the physical abuse, many students alleged that the police called them terrorists and hurled Islamophobic slurs during the raid. Some students sustained multiple fractures due to a rain of blows by the police. A final year LLM student named Minhajuddin lost an eye during the police attack.

After the attack, protests intensified and Jamia’s vice chancellor (VC) demanded a high level probe into the ‘illegal’ police invasion.

“I wanted to know whether this is going to be the norm; police intruding the campus without permission, '' said VC Najma Akhtar during a press conference. “I am particularly mentioning the police beating the students in the library."

Some among India’s mainstream media termed the protesting students as jihadis and terrorists, and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders began to advocate violence against Jamia students.

For instance, on 19 December 2019, Kapil Mishra gave a call “to shoot the traitors at Jamia.” Some weeks later, a Hindutva militant called Rambhakt Gopal actually opened fire at Jamia students protesting the CAA.

Republic TV wrongly identified the Hindutva shooter as a Jamia student and used it as an opportunity to target protestors.

"The shooting incident proves that the people at the heart of the protest are violent in nature,” Manoj Tiwari, former BJP Delhi Chief had said, blaming the violence on students. “They believe in bullets and bombs."

In February 2020, riots broke out in New Delhi killing 53 people, of which 75% were Muslim. Delhi police arrested several student activists under the draconian anti-terror law of Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967, saying the riots were a “pre-planned conspiracy and centrally co-ordinated” by those protesting against the CAA.

Police have failed to provide any substantial evidence against these political prisoners, while there is no dearth of evidence against right-wing leaders and organisations that they are yet to prosecute.

In February 2020, 10 Jamia students were served interrogation notices by the Delhi police crime branch in relation to the 15 December violence on campus, and over 15 students and alumni members were served notices regarding the February 2020 riots.

Jamia students Meeran Haider, Asif Tanha, Safoora Zargar (out on bail) and Shifa-ur-Rehman, the president of Jamia’s alumni association, were arrested, among the 15 activists charged under the UAPA in a crucial first information report called FIR 59 for alleged involvement in the Delhi riots conspiracy case.

The arrests have clearly sparked fear and wariness in Jamia.

Good Student, Bad Student

We found many students and faculty members reluctant to speak about the anti-terrorism pledge on record, but their resentment was apparent.

“It is problematic at so many levels,” said an angry second-year student at the English department who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal. “They lied that it’s an internal event of the literary society.”

“As a student, I have never seen such ‘internal events’ in the department. This shady last-moment programme is going to create a good Jamia student and bad student dichotomy,” said the student. “It humiliates those Jamia students who have been wrongly incarcerated under fake terror charges and UAPA, for whom we have not been allowed to organize solidarity events or protests.”

A senior university professor on the condition of anonymity said the idea of a pledge reflected “the extremely narrow mindset of the people in power”.

“Even during this raging pandemic, the government wants to do these things,” said the professor.

The Jamia unit of the All India Students Association (AISA) at Jamia Millia Islamia called upon students to boycott the event. In a statement released after the event, AISA criticised the university administration for organising such events.

The statement by AISA.

“Has the ministry also invited terror-accused MPs for this oath. Will MLAs and CMs who were found giving open calls for genocide be also attending this meeting,” the statement questioned. On 1 June 2022, Twitter suspended the account of Jamia AISA without any notice or explanation. It was restored after several users protested.

“It's funny that at first they vilified our students as terrorists and now this regime wants us to take this pledge,” said Arbab Ali, an activist with AISA Jamia. When asked why only Jamia students protested against this pledge, “All students with dignity will find this problematic,” replied Arbab.

View Of Jamia Administration

The anti-terrorism pledge was organised was by Shubhi Abidi, a professor and an advisor to the English Literary Association (ELA). She asked class representatives to circulate the message of the programme and the notice of the Ministry Home Affairs with their respective batches.

During the online pledge, Abidi said she had organised the programme as she was asked to do so by the head of the department of English and the administrative wing of the university. Simi Malhotra, the head of the department, told Article 14 that she was following official orders. She stressed that no student was forced to participate.

This was reiterated by Mukesh Ranjan, PhD, professor in charge of public relations of the university. “This pledge has been organised in many central government institutions since the past few years. It was voluntary for students to attend it,” he said.

A Communal Witch Hunt That Is Not New

Journalist Mahtab Alam reported that the December 2019 attack was not the first time Delhi police illegally assaulted the university. On 9 April 2000, the Delhi Police had brutally assaulted, arrested and abused more than a hundred students, including minors. People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) described it as one the worst instances of police attack on students since the Emergency.

“This is a long run state and mass media narrative against the Jamia students after the controversial Batla House encounter in 2008 and specifically after the University participation in the Anti-CAA protests,” said Gauhar, a student at the department of English. The animosity between Jamia students and the Modi government has since escalated. It existed even before Modi became prime minister.

In 2015, students protested Modi’s visit to Jamia for the convocation ceremony. One of the reasons was this statement that Modi had made while he was the chief minister of Gujarat in 2008, after the Batla House encounter: "There is a university in Delhi called Jamia Millia Islamia. It has publicly announced that it will foot the legal fee of terrorists involved in the act. Go drown yourself."

Since 2016, the Modi government has made several attempts to take away Jamia's minority status. In 2016, former attorney general Mukul Rohatgi told the supreme court that the Modi government wanted to reverse the official stand on minority institutions: “As the executive government at the Centre, we can’t be seen as setting up a minority institution in a secular state.”

In 2017, the Modi government filed an affidavit in the Delhi High Court to cancel the minority status of Jamia. In 2018, the human resources and development ministry filed a fresh affidavit.

“In any event, the Board of Jamia Millia Islamia is elected and need not necessarily consist of majority belonging to Muslim religion,” said the affidavit. “The question of it being a minority institution therefore does not arise.” No lawyer appeared on the behalf of the university in the Delhi High Court to defend its minority status.

Hostility towards Jamia has increased since the beginning of Modi’s second term in 2019.

Alumni Speak Up: ‘Grossly Insulting’

Former students of the university expressed solidarity with the students and criticised the university for organizing the pledge.

“As a Jamia Millia Islamia alumnus, I am personally insulted that the administration is asking students of the university to take an ‘anti-terrorism pledge’,” wrote Shuddhabrata Sengupta. “If I were a student in Jamia today, I would have refused to take this pledge. The objective of ‘weaning away youth from terrorism’ assumes that youth are default terrorists who have to be ‘weaned away’. That is grossly insulting.”

Activist Ladeeda Farzana, one of the foremost voices during the protests against the CAA in Jamia accused the BJP government of painting Jamia Millia as a terrorist hub.

Ladeeda Farzana (centre) during the CAA protests in Delhi.

“Jamia led the anti-CAA movement and the brutal police raid that followed cannot be forgotten,” said Farzana. “Under these circumstances, we must protest the Jamia Millia administration's decision to make students participate in the Anti-terrorism pledge. First let them give justice to the victims of the Jamia police violence."

(Alishan Jafri is an independent journalist based in Lucknow and a first year student of MA mass communication at Jamia Millia Islamia.)