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On Ismat apa’s bench in Jamia Millia

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on December 20, 2019 Published on December 20, 2019

In happier times: Jamia Millia Islamia is a sanctuary, cut off from the city   -  THE HINDU/ SANDEEP SAXENA

A former student of Jamia Millia Islamia University agonises that her alma mater — a safe space, and one that stood for ideals — has been maliciously attacked

They pounded our alma mater. I say ‘our’ because a university is never truly just yours; it belongs to everybody who made it feel like home. It was difficult to watch the violence last week; it was hard to imagine how the students felt.

The gates barricading Jamia Millia Islamia University (JMI) were stormed and the police rushed in, along with men in plainclothes and riot gear. They beat up students, and then went to the canteen, where some other students were sitting after a day’s protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

The canteen was the first place my father and I had headed to before I sought admission to the central university almost a decade ago. I was not sure what to expect. I’d studied at Delhi University, a diverse yet very urban, English-speaking space. My father was concerned about my safety, and he asked a professor about the arrangements in place for female students. Cases of sexual harassment were dealt with in the strictest ways, he was assured. That was that, and I took admission to its Mass Communication Research Centre (MCRC), excited that I would be studying at a school which regularly appeared on the lists of the top 10 academic institutions, and where actor Shah Rukh Khan and journalist Barkha Dutt had studied.

Jamia is a sanctuary. Once you are inside, you are completely isolated from traffic snarls and other such city problems. Birds can be heard chirping in the quieter parts of the university at all times of the day. The central library is big and sombre; the weights of books and expectations seem to bear down on you. The media library where we worked on our thesis was the most delightful, modern library I had seen. It opened young film students like me to good cinema; we pored over books by André Bazin, scratched our heads over Sidney Lumet’s film-making concepts and admired Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photography. We picked up vintage SLRs, printed our own photos in the dark room aided by Ghazi Bhai, the photography lab assistant, and learnt about imagery. Engaging physically with the subject helped us understand it better, and how each photograph — even of the same subject — told a different tale. We were learning how to be storytellers, our professors often reminded us — and storytellers needed to learn to identify the story first.

There is a story in Jamia to be told. The Prime Minister’s recent remark that protesters can be identified by their clothes prompted the brave students to protest bare-chested in Delhi’s biting cold. But what clothes did we really wear? We wore what was clean and comfortable; we didn’t have much time for clothes and grooming.

When not working, we would head out to the green patch next to the canteen, play games and relax on the lawns, getting to know other students. Conversations were awkward initially — people had come from all over the country and different backgrounds — we didn’t all speak the same language or had similar cultural references that make conversations easy. A year into the schedule, we didn’t need the ‘trust exercises’ that were part of the dramatics class to learn to depend on each other.

Good colleges teach you in real time what communities really mean, how no man is an island. We developed our own cultural references, inside jokes and even internal politics. Within that bickering, complex world, we found our best friends, our safe spaces, and shaped our ideologies. We learnt to accept differences, since our different life experiences had shaped each of us. We learnt to raise our voices, and participated in several protest marches and exercised our rights. Safety was never a concern: We lived in nearby areas, came for night shoots that ended at 3-4 am, and found our freedom in a city notorious for denying women public spaces.

There was also no special treatment meted out to Muslims, considering it was a minority institution. Instead, if one needed to get over their biases, it was a place that taught us about our shared heritage and culture. The university had benches named after iconic figures in history: My favourite corner was the Ismat Chughtai bench, where I agonised over many of my film scripts.

And, of course, it was a great place for biryani, which we ate almost every day. At ₹25 a plate, the lunch was what a student’s pocket could afford — and the soul always demanded. Some lanes down, there was Tipu Sultan’s biryani shop where money was spent on fancier meals.

Jamia is now burning, and the students and alumni fear not just that their beloved university has been violated, but also that what was once a safe space, a place that stood for ideals of free speech, free thinking and expression, has been maliciously attacked. On Sunday, the police sought to batter the students with teargas shells and lathis.

But students such as Ladeeda Farzana and Aysha Renna stood up to show what the institute really is all about. They protected their injured college mates. Elsewhere, hundreds of students have joined hands with their counterparts from JMI. Our safe space is in safe hands.

Published on December 20, 2019
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