‘Called a Terrorist’, ‘Fearful of Arrest’: Indian Students at US Campus Protests

The Quint speaks to several Indian citizens on what it’s like to be an international student in the US right now.

South Asians
10 min read
Hindi Female

From an Indian Muslim student journalist being called a “terrorist reporter” by pro-Israel protesters outside a reputed US university, to another undergraduate student participating in protests in solidarity with Gaza in defiance of her parents, Indian students studying in US universities have not stopped protesting – and even reporting from the ground.

The Quint speaks to several Indian citizens on what it’s like to be an international student in the US right now, especially if they have been involved in visiting, or reporting on, the protests on and around their campuses, despite the fear of arrests and suspensions looming large.


‘I Was Called a Terrorist by Pro-Israel Supporters’: Indian Muslim Student Journalist

Nabila (name changed to protect identity) is an Indian Muslim woman at a US university that has seen both pro-Palestine as well as pro-Israel protests.

As a student journalist, she has been regularly covering the protests on campus and their fallout.

On a recent evening, as a large pro-Israel counter-protest began right outside the gates of her university, Nabila was there with her camera. But even as she went about her work as a student journalist, she alleges she was targeted by several pro-Israel protesters.

She claims one protester pointed at her – and called her a “terrorist reporter”. Another protester addressed her as a “Hamas reporter”.

“You, pro-Hamas, come take a picture of this,” she remembers being told by a third pro-Israel demonstrator. Nabila also says there were “sexual slurs” directed at her as well.

In separate incidents that same evening, she says at least four different protesters hurled such insults at her.

She alleges she knows that she faced those slurs because she is visibly Muslim and wears a hijab.

“I was really scared. That was the first time being a journalist that I was so scared.”

A couple of fellow student journalists who were close by came up to her and hugged her. “I’m really thankful (for that). I felt that I have some people with me. I really needed someone at that time,” she says.

Her friends advised her to leave the place. She took their advice and did that. 

“I couldn’t hold myself even for five minutes. It’s not at all safe for me,” she says, recounting her decision to stop documenting the counter-protest that day.

But though she may have left that day, Nabila has continued covering the protests on her campus since then. She says for her, it’s all about telling the story.

“For me as a journalist, that’s my number one thing to do. My purpose is to bring out the voices that others don’t hear and perspectives that others don’t see.”

When she spoke to her father and told him what had happened, he praised her work and told her that what she was doing is very important.

Even as she continues working as a student journalist in and around campus, the slurs against her haven’t stopped.

On another night, when she wasn’t reporting and was just walking into campus, two men outside the university gates called her a “terrorist” and referred to her as “Hamas”.

The Quint speaks to several Indian citizens on what it’s like to be an international student in the US right now.

Protesters gathered at the Gaza Solidarity Encampment at Columbia University.

(Photo: Meghnad Bose)

She says she didn’t consider reporting the matter to either the university authorities or the police because of how normalised facing such Islamophobic remarks had become for her, right from her childhood in India. “From the time I was around 11 or 12 years old, I was called a Pakistani a lot of times in school by my classmates.”

She may have not reported the slurs she faced to the authorities, but through her work, Nabila has continued reporting on those same authorities, trying to hold them to account over their handling of the protests on her university campus.


Protesting, in Defiance of Parental Advice

Out of fear of repercussions from their universities and beyond, several Indian students who frequented the protest sites on their campuses and were interviewed by us requested that their identities be protected.

Harshita (name changed) is one of them. She is an Indian citizen and a first-year undergraduate student at Columbia’s Barnard College.

She says the university has been a space where she has learned more about the experiences of people from different parts of the world. And that has included learning more about Palestine, and the conditions of the people living there.

As a result, Harshita would regularly visit the Gaza Solidarity Encampment that protesters had set up on the university campus. But when news of the campus protests at Columbia reached India, Harshita’s father sent a newspaper clipping on their family WhatsApp group. It was followed by her parents instructing her to not go to the protest site.
The Quint speaks to several Indian citizens on what it’s like to be an international student in the US right now.

A sign at the encampment at Columbia University reads ‘Indians for Palestine’.

(Photo: Meghnad Bose)

“Don’t go outside, do not engage,” Harshita recalls them saying. Her grandmother, too, disapproved of her going to the protest.

Harshita says she started crying on a call to her parents right after. “I told them that I need to go outside (to the protest).”

She argued that she was “in a powerful space, which is being listened to by a lot of people who are contributing to the genocide in Gaza. And so, I must go outside.”

She adds,

“I feel that my parents did not understand that. By that, I don’t mean that they weren’t supportive of the pro-Palestinian protest. They were not in support of me endangering myself as a student.”

So, what did Harshita do? “I started going to the protest without telling them.”


Why Indian Students Are Worried

Joseph Howley, an Associate Professor of Classics at Columbia University, says, “I've spoken to students who have considered joining the protest movement or coming to the encampment and are afraid to because they're on visas.”

“While I don’t want to listen to my parents, I also understand where they’re coming from,” says Harshita.

With suspensions of student protesters coming in thick and fast at campuses across the US, international students like her have been discussing their concerns about the consequences of disciplinary action for joining protests and encampments.

A spokesperson for the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) told Fox News, "If a student were to be suspended, DHS would need reason to believe that the student would not be able to make normal progress in his/her course of study."

They added, "And if it believed a suspension merited that type of decision, it would have to initiate removal proceedings, which would be done on a case-by-case basis in conjunction with US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Office of the Principal Legal Advisor (OPLA)."

“They can just deport me, they can (make me) pack my bags and send me back to India,” says Aman (name changed), a 22-year-old Indian student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, who had been frequenting the encampment at the university.

The Quint speaks to several Indian citizens on what it’s like to be an international student in the US right now.

Police officials watch over a pro-Palestine protest outside the gates of Columbia University in New York City.

(Photo: Meghnad Bose)

Howley is worried about the university administration placing international students in a position where the DHS might get involved.

“It seems clear to me that if the university is going to consider disciplinary measures that would result in termination of a visa or student having to leave the country, but those should be considered very, very carefully and only as a last resort. And I think we also have to understand that, as with the police, Homeland Security is not someone that you want to just leave the students at the mercy of.”
Joseph Howley, an Associate Professor of Classics at Columbia University

Howley explains, “I was a college student when DHS was created, and it was created in the wake of 9/11 in one of the worst climates of institutionalised Islamophobia, I think, in our country's history. And, I simply have no trust in an institution like DHS to protect students.”

Several campus protest organisers have also been cognisant of these concerns facing international students.

For example, on 29 April, after Columbia University told protesters that anyone who stayed at the encampment beyond 2 pm that day would be suspended, protest organisers announced, “If you are here on an F-1 or J-1 visa, if you’re an international student, we just want to make sure that you are highly considering and have the information to decide whether you want to stay (at the encampment) or not – because there are different implications if you are suspended because of that.”

Students have also been wary of the comments coming in from a section of politicians in the US. 

Priyanka (name changed), an Indian citizen and a graduate student at Harvard University who has been going to the protests on her campus, says,

“Donald Trump's been making public statements about what he thinks international students protesting should be dealt with. So, I think everyone is aware of the high price of protesting. The stakes are only increasing by the day.”

Indeed, Republican presidential candidate Trump has warned that if he comes back to power, he “will revoke the student visas of radical anti-American and antisemitic foreigners at our colleges and universities.”

And three days after the first round of mass arrests at Columbia, Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn tweeted, “Immediately deport all foreign students studying in the US that support Hamas.”

“I feel the surveillance is making me very anxious,” says Aman. He had studied the work of the noted Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said while doing his undergraduate studies in Delhi.

Around a month after Aman joined Columbia University, the institution where Said taught for four decades, the ongoing war in Israel and Palestine broke out. Soon, he would start attending protests demanding rights for Palestinians and calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Yet, over the past fortnight, Aman has felt increasingly anxious as news has come in of more than 2,000 people being arrested at campus protests across the US.
The Quint speaks to several Indian citizens on what it’s like to be an international student in the US right now.

An official of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) stands guard at an encampment site in Columbia University, minutes after pro-Palestine protesters there were arrested by the police on 18 April.

(Photo: Meghnad Bose)

On one of the nights that student protesters at Columbia were especially worried that law enforcement would be called into campus to sweep the encampment, Aman says several of his friends texted him and advised him to leave the campus. “I had a very bad breakdown that night,” he says. “I felt so unsafe. I felt I wasn’t doing enough.”


Campus Solidarities in Times of Suspensions

Even though several international student protesters like Aman and Harshita have tried to avoid situations that might get them getting arrested by the police and suspended by the university, it hasn’t stopped many of them from continuing to express their solidarity with fellow protesting students.

For instance, one of Harshita’s neighbours was arrested by the NYPD on 18 April in the first round of mass arrests at Columbia University of those at the Gaza Solidarity Encampment on campus.

The same protester was also suspended by Barnard and evicted by the college administration from her campus housing for having been part of the encampment. At the time, Harshita had gone to help her friend pack. 

“Something the Barnard administration did in particular was evict (suspended) students and give them only 15 minutes to gather their supplies and move out. So, we packed things for her – so that she didn’t have to do a lot of work. But it was still a very stressful situation.”

Disappointed by her university’s actions, Harshita reflects on the time she had got accepted into Barnard and had posted about it on LinkedIn.

“One thing I had said was that I will find a home away from home.” But she now feels “that hasn’t happened.”


Masks and Keffiyehs

“I tried my best to make sure that nobody knew I was there (at the encampment), except the people that I trust and are close to me in my social circle,” says Harshita. 

Like Harshita, many student protesters would wear masks or wrap their keffiyehs around their faces while at the encampment so as to not get identified by the authorities.

The Quint speaks to several Indian citizens on what it’s like to be an international student in the US right now.

A pro-Palestine protester wearing a mask and a keffiyeh addresses other protesters at Columbia University.

(Photo: Meghnad Bose)

“I’ve seen what has happened to students who have been identified at these protests – they’ve been doxxed, they’ve been put on trucks.”

She was referring to the names and faces of pro-Palestine protesters being placed on doxxing trucks that were driving around Columbia.

“I have this fear that that’s going to happen to me, and I feel that would endanger my place in this school,” says Harshita.

She says she continued going to the protests despite her fears because “there is a graver danger to the people we are fighting for ​​– the people in Gaza.”

The Quint speaks to several Indian citizens on what it’s like to be an international student in the US right now.

Pro-Palestine protesters project a sign that reads ‘Students Say Free Palestine’ on the outer wall of Hamilton Hall, the Columbia University building that was occupied by protesters for around 21 hours before they were arrested on 30 April.

(Photo: Meghnad Bose)


Protests Growing in Number, Despite the Disincentives

Priyanka says it is important to look at why people aren’t able to join the protests in even larger numbers.

“We’ve seen incidents where people's university housing and university jobs have been taken away for taking part in campus protests.” She says that she herself is “fearful of arrests.”

Howley, too, feels that the worries of international students about their visas are presenting “an impediment to the movement being able to attract and mobilise even more students.”

He argues that universities should recognise that “protest and political activism is an important part of university life, an important part of life in this country.”

He adds, “Rather than making it more dangerous for international students to participate in those activities, we should be making special efforts to make it safe for them to participate in political activism on campus and in this country.”

Yet, despite the many disincentives, the number of protests at university campuses has only grown.

Priyanka says, “Sometimes, there are linchpin moments that inspire people across geographies. Every day, you’re seeing more protests and more students joining in the encampments. I go twice a day (to the Harvard protest) and every single time I’ve gone, there are more people protesting. It’s tremendously inspiring.”

Priyanka says it is like what she saw during the movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in India more than four years ago.

“Just seeing the courage of one group of people, despite increasing risks, inspires many others.”

Priyanka says, “Hopefully, in history this is going to be remembered as a time when, there was a sizeable group of conscientious people that stood up against an atrocity.”

“It’s history in the making,” says Aman.

(Meghnad Bose and Fahima Degia are student journalists at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Tanush Sawhney, an undergraduate student at Columbia, assisted in reporting on this story.)

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Topics:  Gaza   Columbia University   Protests 

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