SOS messages started trickling in from friends and old classmates. I could recognise the library strewn with shards of glass, a terrified young woman giving her testimony of policemen having entered the ladies hostel. A student with a swollen and sutured eye. But, the most enduring image was that of a young woman with her finger raised at a policemen wielding his baton menacingly. She was protecting her battered classmate as he cowered from the police. This image would become the icon of a resistance movement spurred by students against the Citizens Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC).
The young woman is from Kerala and in a flash, it took me back 20 years. I was the Malayali girl who had travelled all the way to Delhi, and the Jamia Millia hostel became my new home. The broken glass, the fragmented images, the new nightmare came with the sinking realisation that my home had been vandalised, my family brutalised and my concept of India shattered from the foundation where it was first built.
I was 21 years old and biting my nails as I sat in the corridor facing a quadrangle of dappled sunshine where rose bushes sprouted amidst squares of stone. I was waiting for my turn for the interview. Nervous not only because I did know what lay in store for me behind the closed door but because I had fought with my parents to give this a shot - a Masterâ€™s course in Mass Communication from the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia University.
My father simply could not understand why a south Indian girl would want to leave the security of a breezy city like Bengaluru and head all the way to â€śviolent north Indiaâ€ť. It did not help that I was enrolled a few weeks into the Asian College of Journalism which I wanted to abandon for a University that had an `Islamiaâ€™ attached to it. This was especially problematic for my father who thought this was akin to enrolling me in a madrasa.
I had done my homework in the year-long academic break after my Science graduation. I worked in a media NGO, editing a quarterly journal and preparing for the entrance exams. I wanted to work with visual media - photography, television and films.
Jamia (Urdu for University) and Millia (Urdu for National) was founded by Gandhians who were part of the Non-Cooperation and Khilafat movements. There is a moving story about one of its founding fathers Maulana Mohammed Ali Jauhar. While in British custody, two of his daughters fell critically ill. The British urged him to apologise for his views, so that he could visit his dying daughters, but he refused. At the First Round Table Conference held in London in 1930 these were his words- â€śI want to go back to my country if I can go back with the substance of freedom in my hand. Otherwise, I will not go back to a slave country. I would even prefer to die in a foreign country, so long as it is a free country; and if you do not give us freedom in India you will have to give me a grave here.â€ť
Prophetically, on 4th January, 1931, he passed away in London.
And so it is true when Sarojini Naidu writes, â€śThey built up Jamia Millia Islamia, stone by stone, sacrifice by sacrifice.â€ť
The AJK Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia Millia was at the top of my list for more pragmatic reasons. It was a newer addition to the university set up in collaboration with York University, Canada, and unlike most other film courses which were diplomas, it offered a Masterâ€™s programme with a strong component of technical training and state of the art equipment. I had saved up enough to pay the first semester fee on my own if my father refused to let me go.
So, there I was after getting past a competitive written exam, waiting hopefully in the corridor for a ticket to my future. I chatted with the other candidates, many from Delhi - Lady Sriram, St Stephens and Miranda House. This is when a young faculty member breezed past with red highlights in his hair and an ornate shawl. The candidate next to me whispered to me that he taught puppetry. I crossed my fingers, â€śIf only I get inâ€¦â€ť
The whiff I got in the corridor was confirmed by the motley interviewing panel. An impeccably dressed man in a suit, a twinkly-eyed man with a ponytail, an elegant, silver haired woman in a saree and another bespectacled woman with cropped hair, checked shirt and jeans â€“ the volley of questions also matched their personalities, spanning politics, social issues, art and films.
I got admission and left for Delhi after a dramatic family showdown. I was very conflicted leaving to make myself a new home in a bigger city. I found a paying guest accommodation with three other classmates - a Bihari, a Manipuri, a Bengali and me the Madrasi (as I was referred to, coming from the south). In response, I would draw the map of India on the class board to explain to them jovially the geography of south of the Vindhyas. I was finally accepted as the Malayali with peals of laughter over my broken textbook Hindi.
The Bihari girl gave me a crash course in choice curses as well as tips to keep my elbows angled in buses to jab pawing passengers. The Manipuri girl taught me how to use every part of a vegetable, including the shells of peas, and the Bengali girl taught me the multiple uses of mustard oil. I had become a Dilli-walli because our one bedroom apartment was a crucible of cultures across India.
However, we were evicted from Kalajiâ€™s paying guest accommodation for using the flush too often (yes the lady of the house sat below and counted) besides getting an excess of phone calls (also counted since it was a landline that had to be answered at our landlords) after barely three months. My three roommates managed to get into the Jamia hostel because of their Delhi connections whereas I had no one to turn to.
This is when the impeccably suited gentleman, the director of the institute Dr Habib Kidwai, stepped in to play father figure. He made a few phone calls and convinced the hostel warden to take me in the very next day. I gratefully settled in and a month later, my father came to make peace. He took an instant liking to Dr Kidwai. He took the liberty of calling him every week to check on my well-being and to enquire if the course would finish on time?
It turned out that Dr Kidwai did not just look the gentleman but was empathetic enough to allay his apprehensions week after week for the following few years. This is when I realised I had made myself a new family in Delhi.
Every morning, I would walk up the long institute drive to be greeted by the lady in the checked shirt, standing with her colleague, surrounded by a pack of strays and chatting with each dog, before feeding it a treat. It turned out that they were my video faculty.
The ponytailed philosopher taught us visual communication through abstract Zen methodology. He later became the Director of the National Gallery of Modern Art. Radio was taught by the director of Delhiâ€™s FM radio station, street theatre by a member of Safdar Hashmiâ€™s theatre troupe, sound and film by alumni from the Film and Television Institute. Puppetry was by an alumnus from MCRC, who with his rings and hair highlights, was the fashion icon on campus. One of the first exercises he devised was for us to go to the pharmacy in pairs and buy a condom. â€śI want you to get over any embarrassment because your first scripting exercise is on AIDS and clearly you have to be able to address safe sex,â€ť he said.
And so, it is at Jamia that after a strict convent education, I truly discovered what it meant to be liberal and that no subject was taboo. I was in a safe haven with plenty of room to discover and express myself.
In the next three years, I would explore the gullies of Old Delhi with a camera slung across my shoulder and piece together the layered narratives of our capital city destroyed and rebuilt by 13 dynasties. I attended Sufi qawwalis as well as visited the Lotus Temple. We did street theatre for workers in the factories of Ghaziabad and puppetry workshops to sensitise High Court judges to reexamine verdicts around rape. I was shown Shah Rukh Khanâ€™s first photography project which was archived before he left the course to claim his space as a superstar. We had guest lectures from alumni who were now luminaries in the television and film industry. Project work revealed to me so many facets of India that shaped its history â€“ from Partition stories to the refugee camps for Kashmiri Pandits. It was my awakening as a social and political citizen whose role was to ask difficult questions and embrace complexities as a student of humanity.
One of the most difficult sessions was when the University appointed a Vice Chancellor from the armed forces, and I was sent as part of a student delegation to discuss how our autonomy as a premiere communication institute must be safeguarded. This is the type of inner democracy that the faculty inculcated and encouraged. After classes, we sat in the canteen and had heated discussions over endless cups of chai. I quickly discovered that unlike the south Indian dream of becoming doctors or engineers, here in Delhi, the most coveted career path was to clear the Civil Service examinations.
All my classmates had a keen political perspective and deep understanding of history and civil movements that ensured that every once in a while, our debates would not end on our own campus. It would continue late into the night at Ganga Dhaba in JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University). This is where many of our most well-known political leaders shaped their opinions, sparked revolutionary movements, before joining different political parties. They were all products of a vibrant student culture accustomed to questioning and even challenging authority.
It is on these campuses that they learnt the art of meaningful debate, to rise to the ranks of Ministers of Environment, Finance and External Affairs. There is a black and white photo of Sitaram Yechury then, a young JNU student accompanied by a student delegation, reading to Indira Gandhi the reasons why she should step down as Vice Chancellor of JNU, post the Emergency, and in what may appear surprising today, Mrs. Gandhi did vacate the post.
This is a far cry from the way students are being handled today. Can police force be deployed on campuses which are considered safe havens? What circumstances would warrant that they enter libraries and womenâ€™s hostels? In Jamia and Aligarh Muslim University, the police were captured on camera delivering violent blows that resulted in serious injuries like losing an eye or amputating a finger. Were these institutes targeted because of their Muslim antecedents? These cases must be examined. Who will take responsibility for the new levels of violence unleashed on campuses?
The Chief Minister of Delhi has issued a statement that one should not blame the police as they merely take orders from the Home Minister. This continues to be a contentious issue as the Chief Minister has been demanding that the law enforcement machinery is placed under the Delhi government instead of the Centre, to improve law and order. The matter may be resolved depending on the outcome of the Delhi elections in Febuary 2020, but meanwhile, it is students who are caught in the crossfire.
Nevertheless the bigger question remains - could all this have been avoided? There has been no formal press conference to allay concerns after the strong reaction to the contentious Bills. Is this to send out a message that no questions can be asked because no answers will be given?
It is no wonder that students lead the protests because their role in society is to think and question. If they have studied the Constitution, they will ask whether these new Acts passed by Parliament are constitutional. If they have studied History they will ask why a country that won its Independence from Britain through satyagraha and peaceful protest, is denied this right as a democracy. The image of a student raising her finger at a baton wielding policeman to ask these questions, has galvanised a movement across campuses and cities . And ask these questions they must or else they will become sheep.
â€śEducation was not merely a means of earning a living or an instrument for the acquisition of wealth. It was an initiation into the life of spirit, a training of the human soul in the pursuit of truth and the practice of virtueâ€ť, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit said.
The attack on my college was a blow to the India as I know it, but students armed with their enquiring minds are morally poised to save it by placing themselves at the forefront.
Views expressed are author's own.
Miriam Chandy Menacherry is a Mumbai based award winning documentary filmmaker, an alumnus for AJK MCRC, Jamia Milia Islamia University.