It was late in the evening in the last week of September 2008 and I had to take an auto from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to Jamia Nagar. I had with me, a lawyer friend whom I had gone to meet in the university. We must have asked a couple of auto wallahs, but we were either met with a flat refusal or were demanded more than thrice the normal rate.
“Bhaiyya, wahan se wapis sawari nahi milti,” was what a few auto wallahs said in defense, when I tried arguing with them. This was, needless to say, quite an invalid and bogus argument and there was hardly any truth to their claim. I thought of asking for New Friends Colony, an upscale locality in South Delhi and a stone’s throw from Jamia Nagar. This was, to no surprise, met with an instant agreement. My lawyer friend, who had to get down mid-way at Malviya Nagar, couldn’t stop himself from asking the driver on the general refusal to go to Jamia Nagar.
“Kya batayen sir, darr lagta hai. udhar mullah, kat*a, aatankwadi log rahte hai. Aapne suna nahi, wahan se kayi aatankwadi pakde gaye hain aur wahan encounter bhi hua tha pichhle halfte” came the reply. (What should I tell you sir, I am scared to go. Muslims, terrorists stay there. Didn’t you hear that many terrorists were caught from that area and there had been an encounter as well last week). My friend was aghast and agitated to hear this. He wanted to scream at the driver but I stopped him from doing so. I had to travel in the same auto after dropping him. And it wasn’t entirely his fault in harbouring such feelings. Following the media trail in the wake of the Batla House ‘Encounter’ last week (19th September 2008), it was too difficult to question the prevalent public discourse about Jamia Nagar and its residents.
There were concentrated efforts by right wing political forces to brand Jamia Nagar as the ‘Nursery of Terror’, and Jamia as a den that advocated terrorism and trained ‘terrorists’ instead of students. The more grievous fallout was that the children and youth from the area were teased and targeted in their schools and colleges and admission and jobs were being denied to them. Refusal to deliver services became the norm and those students of Jamia who were staying outside Jamia Nagar on rent, were asked to vacate their rooms by the land lords. It was even more harrowing for students and youth from Azamgarh.
There was a sense of fear and terror in the air as people were being picked up indiscriminately on an every-day basis in the name of ‘questioning’. The sense of being survielled was quite obvious even as plain clothes police men patrolled the area. Some of them were subjected to all sorts of brutalities like torture and mental harassment. An atmosphere of ‘who’s next’ plagued the minds of the people. The Youth was scared of going out and parents fearful for their children’s safety. This situation lasted for more than six months, and though far less, has still not gone down completely.
Having been a regular visitor to JNU, the crackdown on JNU and its students last month immediately brought a sense of déjà vu of the situation in Jamia Nagar and its neighbourhood in 2008. There were striking similarities between the two. The only difference was the element of mob-lynching and rightwing vigilantism.
Never in my wildest thoughts had I imagined that something similar could happen in JNU – to its students and teachers. The University was being targeted, students were arrested, random calls from the police were being made to students, teachers and journalists, unknown and late-night calls were a source of anxiety and there were reports of a few personal vehicles being trailed as they moved out of the campus. Students of JNU staying outside the campus were being asked to vacate their rooms. Autowallahs started refusing to go to JNU. People started referring to it as “Pakistan” (Jamia Nagar is still referred to as a mini-Pakistan). There was a sense of anxiety, fear and terror in the air while the remarkable fight for justice and the Stand with JNU campaign was on. Such was the fear that ordinary people had started avoiding mentioning JNU publically. And why not? Random people were being targeted, detained for hours at police stations because they looked like ‘JNU wallahs’.
There were vigilante groups outside the main gate of JNU, in Munirka and other adjacent areas. Students going to Munirka complained of being followed as they left the main gate of the campus. The right wing left no stone unturned in organizing protests against JNU, especially outside metro stations close to the campus. Loud speakers played speeches that incited hatred against the students while labelling them as anti-nationals. Solidarity marches held outside the campus in support of JNU were matched with protests and other kinds of mobilizations against JNU and it students, not just in Delhi but in different parts of the country. Professors were attacked (one even shot at), effigies were burnt for sharing articles, speaking out against the criminalization of dissent and witch hunt at JNU. What had taken four decades to build a space for democratic dissent and debate had been reduced to a space for criminalizing dissent and debate over a span of a few days.
It might sound hyper and ridiculous but I had to ask my wife (who is a research scholar at JNU) to remove the JNU sticker from the car to avoid confronting any untoward experience, especially near the university where the right wingers were stationed to organize and target those from the university.
Unfortunately, not much has changed. There is still a sense of loss, harassment and injustice. The crack-down has changed people’s lives, routine and perception drastically. I was travelling in the Delhi Metro a few days ago when I heard someone ask his acquaintance loudly, “JNU mein rahe ho kya?” “Yaar, sare-aam pitwaoge kya,” came the reply.
Having been through this twice, I can only hope that it doesn’t repeat itself again, to another JNU or another Jamia.
(An edited and shorter version of this blog first appeared in TheQuint. )