In his book, research scholar Nehal Ahmed describes in detail the days leading up to the brutal police attack on Jamia students, its aftermath, and the unique women-led protests in Shaheen Bagh.

A black and red book cover with the title 'Nothing will be forgotten' written boldly in white
Features Books Thursday, March 17, 2022 - 13:26

Two years and three months ago, visuals of a brutal attack on students, who were reading in their campus library, by policemen barging in with sticks and tear gas had shamed, shocked and angered many. Jamia Millia Islamia, a hundred-year-old University, had quietly existed in the suburban village of Okhla in South East Delhi for long, until a few days in December 2019 changed things. Nehal Ahmed’s Nothing Will Be Forgotten: From Jamia To Shaheen Bagh is a visceral and moving account of those days, beginning with the peaceful protests by students to the historic gathering of women in the nearby Shaheen Bagh.

“15 December 2019 was the darkest day of my life. On this day, the Delhi police entered our campus and beat us like animals. From that moment on, from students, we became terrorists,” writes Nehal, a research scholar at Jamia. He begins by summarising the crucial hour, and then goes back and forth between the events of December leading up to the moment and the aftermath of it.

It all began with the passing of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) by the Union government, before which the students of Jamia had rarely been politically active. “There were no associations, unions, groups, or political meetings. The credit for this political quarantine goes to former Vice-Chancellor Najeeb Jung,” Nehal writes.

Even before the CAA became a reality, the students had begun to show political concern within the campus. In October 2019, when the varsity announced a campus event in association with Israel, thousands of students gathered to condemn the move and express their solidarity with the people of Palestine. The event was eventually cancelled. The October protest restored a political culture in the campus, he notes.

Read from archive: Blog: How Jamia Millia shaped my life and why student politics must be encouraged

In his book, Nehal at times takes on the role of an observer, watching and analysing the changing atmosphere of a campus he held dearly. Other times, he becomes part of the narrative. An underlying tone of admiration is apparent as he narrates how the students suddenly grew into the force we saw them to be, standing at the forefront of the anti-CAA protests.


CAA protests in Jamia / PTI file picture

At Jamia, the stir began with its female students, who were the first to march from their hostel to the main campus to register their protest against the CAA. What started as a small demonstration soon evolved into a huge gathering of students, joined by thousands. It was almost like a precursor to the Shaheen Bagh gathering of Muslim women, who would go on to protest peacefully against the Act for months.

Nehal details the events of the days preceding the December 15 police attack, beginning with the girls’ protest on December 12. On December 13, students irrespective of gender held a protest walk to the Parliament, only to be stopped by the police who later charged into the campus with tear gas.

“Why was the peaceful protest of 13 December turned by the police into chaos? Why did they transform our beautiful campus into a gas chamber? The protest took place on the roads out of the campus. The police tried to push us away from the road. Once students retreated, why did the police continue to pursue us, why enter the campus, and why attack us on the campus?” he asks.

Nehal would often break his narrative to ask questions, letting the reader see the angst and confusion the students went through. The memory of those days have clearly not faded away from their minds, as it did for the rest of India. For them, December 15 was in one word: traumatic.

Read from archive: ‘Told mother to keep me in her memories’: Jamia students describe police violence

The students had formerly organised an awareness campaign to talk to people in the neighbourhood of Jamia Nagar about the CAA and its discriminatory nature towards the Muslim community. When they began a protest march on the fateful day, several residents had joined in. Nehal says the students called off the protest when they realised the crowd might go out of control, but their message hadn’t reached everyone, and some just refused to stop.

Even though most of the students returned to the campus, the day still ended as a repeat of the December 13 police attack – only way more brutal. The police scoured every nook and corner of the campus, dragging students out of restrooms and other hiding places, and beating them up. Many were taken into custody, and even those who were gravely injured were denied immediate treatment.

In Nehal's account, around 400 students were injured that evening. One lost an eye and another had both hands broken. The University authorities would later say that the police violence led to damages worth Rs 2.66 crore.


Police in Jamia campus / PTI file picture

This is the attack the world saw, as videos began to go viral on the internet. It brought new waves of panic to sections of people who had so far assumed they would be spared if they just refrained from being vocal about their concerns. But if the police can barge into campus libraries and hit students quietly reading their books, then who will be spared? Some of the students in the library had not even taken part in the protest march.

Besides the physical injuries, there was also the mental trauma that followed. Nehal writes he could not sleep that night, fearing that attackers would break open his door and barge in any moment.

 

 

Amid the harrowing narrative, Nehal doesn’t fail to mention the good moments – when hundreds of people messaged with offers of help for the students, some opened their doors to host them, and others brought aid. “While we struggled to find safe places, something beautiful happened which brought us some solace. We received several addresses and phone numbers in forwarded messages from people who volunteered to accommodate the students. We were not alone,” he writes.

In the same vein, he writes movingly about how the Shaheen Bagh protest began to take form in the aftermath of the Jamia police attack. In Nehal’s words, “The highlight of the protest was that it was led by women, managed by women, and not for a women-specific issue. In other words, the uniqueness of the protest is that it was not strictly for women’s issues, but it was under the leadership of women.”

The Shaheen Bagh stir went on to receive the worldwide attention it deserved. The women didn’t budge for 101 days, and called off the protest only because COVID-19 broke out and a lockdown had to be imposed. But not before it shook away many stereotypes, Nehal reminds you.


Shaheen Bagh protests / PTI file picture

His descriptions of the Shaheen Bagh stir bring to mind the ongoing hijab row in Karnataka’s schools and colleges. "At the core of the movement were Muslim women, who are often painted as deeply marginalised. The idea of the conservative burqa-clad Muslim woman suggests suppression. This is so in cinema and popular conceptions. The ghoongat and the burqa covering women’s heads and faces are at the core of this. The portrayal of Muslim women as separate from other women and Indian society, in general, is pervasive.”

Read from archive: ‘Fight is not for Muslims alone, but all Indians’: Shaheen Bagh protester Asma Khatun

One realises the magnitude of this movement, beginning with Jamia and ending with Shaheen Bagh, through the simple narrations and stray thoughts of the author. It is as good a ground story for a newspaper as it is a narrative nonfiction.

In his book, Nehal finds a place for everything – from the art and music (lots of poetry sprinkled between the pages) to the heart-warming moments of solidarity that arose in the Shaheen Bagh camp, which even housed a library for the children of the protesting women.

At times, he slips away to the past, to the days of partition, when a large number of Muslims chose India as their homeland. Now and then, he seems to take a pause to reflect on the reality of being a Muslim in present day India. “Muslims like me will never accept being second-class citizens because we were raised believing that India’s culture is composite and that the Constitution grants us full rights. But all the words in the Preamble and the Constitution itself began to appear questionable during the BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. My crisis is the crisis of a Muslim who begins to feel that composite culture and our citizenship rights are mere illusions.”

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.