Academics criticise violent suppression of India student protests

Campus demonstrations oppose controversial new citizenship legislation

December 18, 2019
Source: Courtesy Hemanth Bharatha Chakravarthy
Protest at Harvard on 17 December 2019

Academics have criticised Indian police suppression of student protests against controversial new citizenship legislation, as well as related government internet blockages.

The anti-Citizenship Amendment Act demonstrations, which had already taken place in nine Indian states, have now spread to top universities in the US and UK.

Nandini Sundar, a sociology professor at the University of Delhi, told Times Higher Education that “the world should pay attention because it’s one of the most significant student uprisings in India’s history, on a constitutional principle. It shows the young are deeply invested in the future of this country, and its secular constitution.” 

The CAA gives a path to citizenship for migrants who are religious minorities from the Muslim-majority countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Critics have called the act unconstitutional and biased against Muslims on basis of religion.

Police action turned particularly violent overnight on 15 December at two Muslim-majority campuses: Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), about 80 miles southeast of Delhi.

Professor Sundar visited Aligarh, where she saw students hospitalised with head wounds and hand injuries due to police stun grenades. Dozens who were “scared of being targeted later” did not register for medico-legal cases, or MLCs, in which the attending doctor may consider that legal investigation is needed.

Twenty-six students, including some taken out of their rooms where they were studying, were detained and beaten in police custody, she said. “Thanks to local, alumni and other pressure”, the university administration arranged for the students’ release the next day.  In Aligarh, internet access and schools were shut on 17 December.

Statements about the issue have drawn hundreds of signatories from overseas. Protests have taken place at Oxford and Harvard universities, with another planned for 18 December in London

“An Open Letter to the Government of India”, signed by more than 200 students and affiliates of Harvard University, was a “deep condemnation of the violent suppression of student protesters” at JMI, AMU and elsewhere. It called police actions against peaceful protests “deeply reprehensible”, including use of tear gas, baton charges, physical assault, “forceful entry” onto campuses, and consequent government internet blockades. The police are generally not allowed on Indian university campuses without the permission of the administration.

Hemanth Bharatha Chakravarthy, a Harvard undergraduate and signatory to the letter, told THE that “while the real heroes are those on the frontlines facing the lathi [police batons], this is our humble attempt at using our collective academic credibility, international exposure and presence, and words to contribute to the protests”.

Shreyvardhan Sharma, another Harvard undergraduate and signatory, noted to THE that “the signatories span multiple countries, communities, on-campus organisations, faiths, and even political beliefs”.

More than 400 students, scholars and alumni at Oxford signed a “solidarity statement” to “condemn the violence unleashed on students at Jamia and AMU, among other Indian institutions. The use of police force against students exercising their fundamental right to protest in the university spaces and elsewhere is a direct attack on foundations of a democratic society.”

Tejas Harad, an Indian writer and fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, told THE that the government’s reaction to the protests was of global concern. “India is a democracy and students are allowed to protest against laws, so long as they are not breaking any laws themselves,” he said. “The shutting of the internet violates freedom of speech, and is done under the guise of protecting ‘security’.”

“The protests are widespread, across India and now the world – and it’s not only students. Momentum is growing, and the government should hear the people’s message.”  

“Brutal police violence” was also condemned by more than 400 students and alumni at 19 US universities in a letter that included five demands for change.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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