In an apparent case of police high-handedness, several Tibetan students were allegedly placed under 'house arrest' in their respective campuses as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping met for a summit in Mahabalipuram over the weekend.
According to the students that TNM spoke to, 23 Tibetan-origin students from the Madras Christian College (MCC) and seven from the University of Madras were placed under ‘house arrest’ on campus. While the Dean of MCC has denied the incident, the University of Madras is yet to respond officially.
In MCC, the students were allegedly asked to sign multiple undertakings stating that they would not indulge in any ‘illegal activities’ and then locked into two halls of residence on campus. The students were reportedly allowed to leave on Saturday, hours after both leaders left the state.
Speaking to TNM, a student from MCC who was allowed to leave the hall where they had been allegedly been asked to stay, said that the past two weeks had been harrowing for Tibetan students on campus as they were questioned at the Dean’s office and the local police station multiple times.
“The investigation started on Wednesday, October 2. They had a list of all the students. They called us one by one and asked us all our details, like where we stayed and our house addresses. While they said it won’t take more than half an hour, we were there each time for at least a few hours. They continued the questioning through the week. Last weekend, they came to our houses and rooms. They kept asking the same details repeatedly. On Tuesday, we had to sign a self-declaration that they had typed out at the St Thomas Mount police station. It stated that we would not indulge in any activity against the law. A few days later, we were asked to sign a bond which said that if we take part in any strike or illegal activity, we will be imprisoned for one year and fined Rs 10,000.”
Another student from the University of Madras, who was also allowed to leave hours after the summit concluded, claimed that seven students of the University have been harassed over the last week by law enforcement. Undergraduate and postgraduate students from the University were allegedly similarly asked to stay on campus while those living off campus were placed on 'house arrest' with two police officers posted at their doors.
The students thought that their ordeal was over once they submitted all the details and signed the agreements. However, on Saturday, just hours before the Chinese head of state was to land in Chennai, the Dean of MCC allegedly asked all Tibetan students in the college to come to his room. Uniformed officers from the Selaiyur police station, who had come in vans, were also present.
“They said they had orders from higher authorities to place us under house arrest. The police wanted to shift all 23 of us to another place. Our Dean said he would take responsibility for all of us and suggested that we be put up on campus. So, the girls were staying in Margaret Hall and the boys in St Thomas Hall. A lady police officer was in-charge of us but she disappeared when we were hungry. We only wanted to go to the canteen on campus. Finally we were allowed in the evening. We requested for dinner at night. They provided this for us. When we asked what would happen to other Tibetan students from the city (who are not from MCC), police said that they were watching them too,” said one student.
The student from the University of Madras also has a similar account of events.
"For the past week, the police would call us every day to the station and say it will only take five minutes to sign the papers but we were there for more than six hours, sometimes even till midnight. When the police came to our house yesterday, we asked them why they were placing us under house arrest. They said it was not a house arrest and asked us to cooperate. We were not allowed out even to buy food or snack from downstairs. They only gave us lunch, they didn't give dinner," alleges the student.
The students say that neighbours who had been friendly with them earlier have now begun asking if they are criminals and whether they indulged in criminal activities.
Some of the students who stay in homes near the campus have allegedly been told by their house-owners that they will be ‘the last Tibetan students’ who can stay at the house. “The police questioned the house-owners and made them sign an agreement. So, they are pissed off with us. The shopkeeper who used allow us to sit outside his shop and drink cool drinks told us not to come there,” says the student.
Police officers on multiple occasions allegedly told the students “This our country. You can’t do anything.”
“India is a free and democratic country, right? We had nothing to do with the Chinese leader’s meeting. But we are getting affected,” said a student.
After they were allowed to leave, distressed students question why such a draconian move was even necessary. "We had no plans to do anything because we had our exams. We were studying for exams when we got calls from multiple numbers asking us for our details and photos. They said they were from central intelligence," claims one student.
Posting the footage of a few students allegedly spending time inside the confines of four walls, the Instagram page of Students for a Free Tibet International (SFT International) stated, “As the world’s largest democracy, #India has a responsibility to stand up to bullies like #China, not enable their repression! #Xitler #Chinazi #FreeTibet! #StandwithTibet.”
A source within the MCC told TNM that the students were indeed housed within two halls inside the campus on Friday night. “Police requested us to keep the Tibetan students -- girls and boys -- in our halls for one night. It was a friendly arrangement. There is nothing untoward in it. It was not the college’s prerogative, it is the police’s request. What can we do? This (Saturday) morning they have all gone back to their usual place of residences,” the source said.
However, R Venkataramanujam, the Dean of Student Affairs of Madras Christian College categorically denied any kind of restrictions being imposed on Tibetan students ahead of Xi Jinping’s visit to Chennai. “The students requested to stay within the campus and we allowed them to. There was no such request from the police or any local authorities to restrict the Tibetan students from moving freely,” he added.
A source from the University of Madras confirmed to TNM that the students were indeed placed under an 'unofficial house arrest'. However, an official response from the institution is awaited.