One night at the campus...

Omair Ahmad | Updated on November 28, 2019 Published on November 28, 2019

Taking sides: The relationship between JNU students and the police has always been odd. An image of police arresting a student from last week’s protest against the hike in hostel and mess fees   -  RV MOORTHY

How a police raid, 20 years ago, changed the meaning of politics for a JNU student

“You are a poster child of how JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University] ruins a good student” — this was the last thing the head of the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament told me. I left the university soon after. For a long time, I wore the criticism as a badge of honour, pleased with the job offers and recognition that came my way. I treated them as proof that my teacher was wrong. But criticism from somebody you respect is not so easily dismissed. Insults that are made in bad faith are one thing, but that doesn’t apply to the words that come from somebody who means well.

Almost two decades since that conversation, I was part of a Delhi march in support of JNU students last Saturday. For over two weeks now, the students have been protesting a hike in hostel and mess fees. I walked to Parliament with students, alumni, teachers and other supporters. One of my classmates is now a professor; another former student is my wife. There were also colleagues from work; others I knew by face, if not by name.

The presence of the police was both visible and obtrusive. Water cannons were on standby, policemen took photos of the people at the march, and the Central Reserve Police Force waited with tear gas launchers. One of them even wore a flak jacket, which seemed somewhat excessive. The students didn’t care. As the buses arrived, a small contingent disembarked, looked at the police, grinned, and started chanting, “Dilli Police ka danda chhota hai (the staff of the Delhi Police is short)”, referring to the police themselves begging for justice after being attacked by lawyers in Delhi’s Tis Hazari Court earlier this month.

My wife had showed me a video in which a group of JNU students, surrounded by police, started chanting “Students and police are one. Dilli Police zindabad. The education of the children of policemen should be free”. The change in the demeanour of the policemen was worth watching. A similar thing happened during the march when one older lady broke off from the main contingent and went to chat with a CRPF jawan and gave him a leaflet. The stern expression on the face of the man — someone who was prepared to either suffer or use violence — transformed into a smiling one when addressed as an equal.

The relationship between JNU students and the police has always been odd.

Many years ago — in 1999, if I am not wrong — an incident involving JNU students and the police led me to start taking an interest in politics. A protest over the unavailability of hostel accommodation was underway, with a student on an indefinite hunger strike. At 2am, the Central government sent 500 personnel from the police and the paramilitary to arrest the student undertaking the fast along with a dozen others who were at the protest.

Most of us were asleep at the time of these arrests, so it didn’t affect us so to speak. However, a day later, while returning from a library in Delhi’s Connaught Place area, I was shocked to find police posted at the main gate of the university. It irked me that the campus had turned into a zoo of sorts — where students were being watched day and night.

I went to my class on China in the world economy and asked the teacher to excuse me from attending it. And then, I walked back to the main gate. A group of friends joined me, along with many others I did not know. We stood face to face against the sea of khaki. The numbers swelled further with members of the students’ union joining in.

At that point, I left. I was not interested in the party politics — just the larger politics that found the posting of police in a place of higher learning objectionable. Over the next few weeks, police were deployed across the campus. There was a strange sort of non-interaction between them and us. The students, many of whom were from poor families, operated in a zone of academic and social freedom that the police did not understand. We felt sorry for the people in khaki. It was not their place and they knew it.

In trying to understand the thinking behind such deployment, I got sucked into campus politics — more involved in it than my masters in international relations. This is what my professor criticised me for. But 20 years later, I think I have an answer to his criticism. What use was it for me to understand international politics if I was not taking part in politics at home? JNU’s politics gave me a chance to look beyond myself, to see my country, for which I remain grateful.


Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas

Twitter: @OmairTAhmad

Published on November 28, 2019
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