(This article was first published on 7 January 2020. It has been republished from The Quint's archives to mark three year of the mob attack on JNU's campus.)
At around 8 pm on Sunday, 5 January, I left from Delhi’s Greater Kailash-2 area to go to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to find out what was happening there, after we’d received multiple reports with photos and videos about students being beaten up inside the campus by goons with scarves over their faces, carrying sticks, bats, knives and even sledgehammers.
The president of the JNUSU, Aishe Ghosh, had been severely injured on the head, and could be seen in photos and a video saying she and others had been attacked.
The images and videos coming out of the campus showed that students and professors had been attacked, that hostels and cars had been vandalised, and that these goons were wandering around the campus with impunity, with no attempts being made by campus security staff or the police to stop them.
An Unexpected Barricade
Around 8:30 pm, along with a reporter from another media organisation, I reached Baba Gang Nath Marg, the road on which the JNU Main Gate is located. The traffic police were not allowing vehicles to turn onto the road, and barricaded the entry lane.
I asked the traffic police cop on duty why the road was blocked, but he refused to answer me. He then asked why I wanted to go to JNU. When I told him it was because we needed to investigate reports of students being allegedly beaten up by ABVP, he scoffed, saying “Aise kabhi nahi hua hai (Nothing like this has ever happened).” When I asked him which route could be used to get to JNU, he walked away.
There was a regular Delhi Police constable at the barricade, who I then approached. He also had no explanation as to why there was a barricade on the road – even if there was some trouble at the main gate, this was nearly two kilometres from the gate, and cars could have been allowed to go at least part of the way.
When I told him we needed to find out what was happening on campus, he claimed the DCP had reached inside and was handling the situation. Unlike the traffic policeman, he did at least suggest an alternate route to get to the campus, which we then took.
Taking the alternate route, we had to go through the DDA Munirka residential area to the north side of the JNU campus, the main gate of which had also been closed by the police. We took one of the side gates to exit the colony, only to find another police barricade at the final stretch to the campus.
The police here said they had been instructed to put up a barricade as several students were protesting on the road outside the Main Gate of JNU. After leaving the car inside the residential area, we proceeded on foot.
I am explaining all of this to show just how difficult the police had made it to get anywhere close to JNU for journalists, or just regular members of the public who were trying to respond to the news coming out of the university. Even ambulances were facing difficulties – I saw them having to argue with the police to let them at least go through the colony gate and past the barricade to the university, which the police grudgingly acquiesced to eventually.
Goons at the Gate
But this wasn’t all. The road leading to the Main Gate was entirely dark, as the street lights had been switched off. Not only was this a safety issue in general – this was well after it had got dark – but it also meant it was much more difficult to identify people on the road.
We heard some sloganeering as we approached, thinking that it was students who were there, protesting against the violence. However, when we reached the Main Gate, at around 9 pm, we saw a crowd of people shouting “vaampanti goondagardi nahi chalegi (Left-wing violence will not be tolerated)”.
I went into the crowd to ask them who they were, where they were from. Most of them ignored me, till one moustached man in a blue tracksuit agreed to speak. He said he was “aam janta (common man)” who was there to protest against students being beaten up inside the campus.
Another man whose face was covered by a green and white scarf, who claimed to be a local, said that people from outside, including from Jamia, had entered the JNU campus and attacked ABVP students. Where he got this information, he wouldn’t say.
This mob of so-called locals and common men were creating a ruckus and trying to pick fights with the press personnel who had gathered there. A journalist who tried to film them messing with a nearby police car was hit over the head. The same mustachioed man in the blue tracksuit I spoke to was pretending a journalist who’d been asking him questions on camera had hit him.
Even I began to feel uncomfortable as more and more of them started milling around me, asking what I was doing.
All this while, there were several policemen in front of the gate and to the sides, who refused to intervene in any of this. Throughout all of this, more and more of these goons kept turning up at the Main Gate, arriving in the dark granted by the lack of streetlights.
Goons Try to Intimidate Students, Police Fail to Intervene
Three of us journalists tried to see if one of the other nearby gates were open, and made our way to the Saraswati Puram Gate. However, here too, the gate was shut, and the security guards refused to let us enter.
Some people were eventually let in, including a couple of girls who said they lived there, some other unidentified men, and the head of security for the campus. It was while we were here trying to get inside that Swaraj India founder Yogendra Yadav was roughed up by the goons at the gate, so we decided to go back to see what was happening there.
By now, some JNU students had also arrived – mostly young women. They started shouting “ABVP go back”, to which the goons responded first with shouts of “Bharat Mata ki jai”, and then with several insults at the women, calling them communists and several lewd insults.
Eventually, the responses from the goons became more threatening, with a few of them aggressively chanting “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko (shoot the traitors to the nation)” and getting in the face of the women.
You can see the video I captured of them doing this below (at the beginning and at the 5:40 mark) along with the rest of my colleague Aishwarya Iyer’s report from inside the campus:
When I was capturing this on video, one of them asked why the men were shooting videos while the girls were protesting. After I said I was from the press and showed my press card, another older man in the crowd started saying I was a Left-wing sympathiser as well. Luckily, some of the other goons took him away at this point.
One lone policeman came to try and see what was happening between the groups – the others stood by en masse without any attempt at intervening – but even he left after asking me to display my press card more prominently.
The goons looked like they were going to attack the girls, who had been joined by some male students and other protesters, one of whom made the wise decision to start singing the national anthem.
The goons tried to shout the national anthem louder than the students, and even now things looked tense, but the worst was finally over, even though the goons kept trying to get up in their faces. Several of these men, including some middle-aged men, appeared to be inebriated.
Still in the Dark
A few professors arrived at the main gate but were not allowed to come out and speak to the media. I was able to speak to some of them through the bars of the main gate. They said they and the students were fearing for their lives, that the goons were still at large and had threatened the homes of faculty members as well.
They were furious at the police’s inaction, which they believed showed complicity, and the JNU Vice-Chancellor, who they said had ignored the sporadic violence by ABVP against those protesting the fee hike over the last few days.
A senior police officer eventually came out of the main gate to make a statement, saying that there had been clashes between different groups of students leading to violence. He said an investigation was under way, but would not say if anyone had been apprehended, if any of the masked vandals had been detained, and would not even give any details about how many students were injured.
At this point we got the news that some more professors were going to try coming to the West Gate of JNU, where more JNU students and civilian protesters were gathering, to try and make a statement. As we made our way there after around 10 pm, walking down the rest of Baba Gang Nath Marg, the streetlights were still off.
At the end of the road, we saw several men with scarves around their faces, carrying sticks and lathis zooming away on motorcycles. Later, videos emerged of a large crowd of goons leaving the campus soon after this, carrying their sticks and weapons, without any attempt by the police to stop them.
All of this took place under the cover of darkness.
Let There be Light
When we got the West Gate, we saw a crowd gathering, as well as several more journalists. I spoke to a student, who left from the gate, about what was happening inside.
Eventually, a large enough crowd gathered there and they decided to go to the Main Gate, to confront the goons who’d been there all this time. The professors and representatives of the JNU Teachers Association had also sent word that they would reach the Main Gate to make their statement, so we headed back as well.
We reached Baba Gang Nath Marg at around 11:20 pm. Suddenly, all the streetlights had been switched on, just in time for the arrival of the students marching from the West Gate.
A few goons lurked on the corner, apparently heading away from the campus. One of the goons was filming the students. As more students arrived, they all slunk away.
When we reached the Main Gate again, the whole area was now lit up – and those ‘locals’ and ‘common men’ had all disappeared – though the police presence had now increased substantially, including more policemen with riot gear.
The events that followed, including the statement by the JNU Teachers’ Association, the sloganeering of the students, and the eventual opening of the Main Gate from the inside by students, has already been reported.
What Did it All Mean?
But everything which came before made for a very convenient situation.
- Those of us who’d been trying to reach the university to report on the goons who’d been attacking students and vandalising property inside the campus, had been delayed and frustrated in our attempts to reach there.
- When we did get there, we were heckled and intimidated by random goons who had no connection with JNU, all in the cover of darkness. This darkness and the distraction created by these goons allowed the perpetrators of the violence to escape the university, even while the students and faculty remained unsure of their whereabouts.
- The police were everywhere and yet allowed the goons who committed actual violence inside the campus and the goons who threatened violence outside it, to leave without any difficulty, without using any of the force seen in Jamia or DU, and without detaining anyone.
- The streetlights only came on after all these goons had gotten away, and when the student protesters and other members of civil society arrived – so they could be identified. We saw some policemen trying to film the students, another journalist even saw a drone briefly make an appearance before disappearing after she began filming it.
As an important man has told us about other matters: “Aap chronology samjhiye.”
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