THROUGH WHATEVER IDEOLOGICAL prism one chooses to look at the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), it is hard to deny that it hasn’t been designed with one eye at a political prize. There were always going to be demonstrations. The question is how big it would be. Would it limit itself primarily to the Northeast, pockets of Muslim neighbourhoods in the country, and the social media feeds on our phones? Or was it going to be something larger, where even political allies who supported the CAA would begin to feel uneasy?
The reason the protests have taken such a large shape, drawing condemnations from even Bollywood celebrities and students, is primarily because of the protests held by the Jamia Millia Islamia students, and the heavy manner in which the police cracked down upon them.
There is the official police narrative, of Jamia students indulging in arson and rioting, but that has now been completely taken over by video feeds of police violence within and outside campuses.
Jamia was born out of the political crisis of the 1920s in Aligarh, where responding to Mahatma Gandhi’s call to boycott educational institutions supported or run by the colonial regime, a group of nationalist students and faculty members broke out of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) to form Jamia Millia Islamia. AMU was seen to be close to the colonial regime, and later, to the Muslim League, while Jamia was a ‘nationalist’ institute, supported by the Congress.
Today, while AMU has no reservation for Muslims, but has preferences and reservations for local candidates, irrespective of faith, Jamia gives reservation and preference to Muslims (after it was granted minority status in 2011) but is still seen, like at the time of its foundation, as an institute with a secular value system.
According to the book, Jamia Aur Gandhi, as reported by The Wire, when a leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, BS Moonje, once told Gandhi that institutions such as Jamia are responsible for creating separation between communities, Gandhi is believed to have told him, “Don’t we have many institutions in our country which are purely Hindu? And there are no restrictions in this Muslim university on the admission of Hindu students.”
Unlike other institutes of higher education, Jamia has always drawn an eclectic group of students from a range of backgrounds. Every now and then, protests are routine at Jamia—over fee hikes or admission, or, like some years ago, over the teachers’ union’s demands for minority status of the university. Back in 2015, for instance, when the then vice-chancellor forbid women students from staying out late at nights, it led to the Pinjra Tod (break the cage) demonstrations, that spread across campuses in Delhi and the country. Describing the institute, a professor there, Anuradha Ghosh, told Mint that it embodies ‘the idea of India’. ‘We are no more an introvert university,’ she was quoted as saying. ‘We are asking questions and debating issues.’
The last time the institute came in for such scrutiny was in 2008 during the encounter at Batla House, one of the many buildings in Jamia’s neighbourhood of Jamia Nagar, where many students were picked up for interrogation. Something of an alleged police and media witch-hunt was going on then. The writer Neyaz Farooquee, who was a student then, recalls this period in his book An Ordinary Man’s Guide to Radicalism: Growing up Muslim in India. Five days after the encounter, he writes, students were asked to gather at the auditorium where the then vice-chancellor, the well-known historian Mushirul Hasan, not particularly liked by many Muslims for defending Salman Rushdie, was going to address them. ‘We all felt like potential suspects, but not a single person who could be called a ‘leader’ had had the courage to come to our locality and say, ‘I will stand by you,’’ he writes. Hasan told his students that he would support them. The university extended legal help to the accused students, and many teachers formed a solidarity group for its students.
The CAA was always going to cause disruptions. It just needed a little push of idealism. And that came from Jamia’s students.