Over the last few years, students across the country have mobilized in great numbers, with their identity front and centre, to fight for their own ideas of freedom
When Sharjeel Usmani was arrested, he was reading The RSS: A Menace To India by A.G. Noorani.
“It’s like he ate books and newspapers," says Afreen Fatima, a friend of Usmani’s from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), where he studied political science. “It was impossible to have a conversation about anything with Sharjeel Usmani where you didn’t learn something or be introduced to some historical fact—not just politics, but even something as basic as a discussion on where we should eat. If we went to café Delilah, he told us that it was named so because historically it was the first café where women were allowed to come for tea." No matter whom you speak to about the 23-year-old student activist, including professors, they will tell you Usmani was always reading.
On 8 July, a group of men in plainclothes, claiming to be from the crime branch of the Uttar Pradesh (UP) police, picked up Usmani from outside his uncle’s home in Azamgarh. They confiscated a friend’s laptop and Usmani’s books from the house. “When we asked who they were and where they were taking him, they told us to back off and not ask questions," says Areeb Usmani, Sharjeel’s younger brother. For 24 hours, the family did not know where he was. He was produced in court in Aligarh.
Usmani had been arrested by UP’s anti-terrorist squad and charged under sections of the Indian Penal Code for rioting and attempt to murder at AMU on 15 December—he is alleged to have snatched cartridges from a police official during violence there. Usmani has also been named in an FIR dated 6 December for sharing the illustration of a senior politician on social media.
He is now one among many student activists, such as Sharjeel Imam, Gulfisha Fatima and Safoora Zargar, who have been arrested in the wake of the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) movement and communal violence in north-east Delhi in February. The anti-CAA protests started in Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, and AMU—both saw the use of considerable police force on campus on the evening of 15 December
“Sharjeel has been very vocal on issues, like the role of the police and government. I have read his writing, I do not agree with all of it, but I don’t think he can be booked under these serious laws," says Aftab Alam, associate professor, department of political science, AMU. “Students like Safoora or Sharjeel and others have been projected like they are a threat to the country. That is beyond my imagination. They are students with a point of view."
Influenced by US civil rights leader Malcolm X, Usmani questioned everything, and encouraged others to do so as well. When he was leading a forum on journalistic writing as part of the University Debating & Literary Club (UDLC) in AMU, he once brought in a dustbin and some scraps of newspaper. He handed everyone a piece and asked them to rip it and throw it in the bin. They did. “What if I told you those were ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes? The role of a journalist is to question whatever they encounter." It was an indirect jibe at the government’s demonetization policy. Over the past year, he initiated discussions in AMU on a range of issues: Kashmir, the Supreme Court verdict on Ram Janmabhoomi and eventually, the CAA.
This need to question and debate drove his activism.
Student activism goes back to the freedom movement, and even further, to the partition of Bengal—in 1906, students in Eden Hindu Hostel, Kolkata, burnt an effigy of British viceroy Lord Curzon and boycotted college examinations. In independent India, too, students have been at the forefront—in the 1970s, Jayaprakash Narayan, popularly known as JP, led them in a movement against the Indira Gandhi-imposed Emergency.
The 1990s saw protests against the Mandal Commission, which enabled reservation for students from OBCs, or Other Backward Classes. “The images of anti-Mandal agitation in the 1990s were quite disturbing in which students with caste privileges protested against widening of social justice provisions for caste-based reservation in higher education and public service," says Ghazala Jamil, assistant professor, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
What’s different about today’s protests, Jamil believes, is that “the maturing of the first generation of beneficiaries of SC/ST academics in university spaces, and the entry of a sizeable population of OBC students into university spaces, meant that the concerns of Muslims, Dalits and other minorities like sexual minorities could now be articulated in their own voices." And adds, “Although…students have traditionally given voice to the voiceless sections of society, now they have among their ranks some of those who were traditionally considered voiceless."
For some, the change first became more visible in 2016. In January that year, Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula died by suicide at Hyderabad University. “Before Rohith, it was only campus politics—it was a fight between ideologies. After Rohith, it became national-level politics, it even got international attention. Since then, more identity politics has started," says Murala Rupa, who was general secretary on the committee with Vemula in the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA).
Then, the tumult that followed a 9 February event in JNU grabbed headlines. A poetry recitation event, organized on the anniversary of the hanging of Afzal Guru, who had been convicted for the 2001 attack on Parliament, saw three students, Kanhaiya Kumar, then president of the JNU students’ union (JNUSU), Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, being charged with sedition for raising “anti-India slogans". Students were branded members of the “tukde tukde gang", “anti-nationals", “urban Naxals" and “parasites" whose continuing education was seen as a drain on national resources.
In the months that followed, the threat of fee hikes and privatization of public universities, seen as an exclusionary measure, roiled waters further.
Over the past year, though, students have mobilized in numbers not seen in a long time. After the passage of the CAA in December, and the violence on the Jamia and AMU campuses, even students who usually stay away from protests took to the streets—be it students from St Stephen’s and Jesus and Mary colleges in Delhi, or the largely apolitical Indian institutes of technology (IITs) and management (IIMs). They used everything in their armour: hunger strike, resistance art, song, poetry, even building makeshift libraries. On 10 December, thousands of students from AMU went on a hunger strike against the citizenship Bill that was passed a day later. The police filed an FIR against 700 of them.
The anti-CAA movement sometimes harked back to 1947. “We are not Indians by chance, but Indians by choice," claimed posters, an assertion that Indian Muslims had chosen to stay back in India after Partition.
Writing about what has really driven students, Salik Ahmad wrote in Outlook in 2019: “On the surface, these seem disparate themes. But girding them together are underlying themes revolving around various forms of freedom, or its lack."
The question of identity
Today, identity is an important tool of protest because, say students, it is being used to target them.
After 24-year-old Tabrez Ansari was lynched by a mob in June 2019, JNUSU councillor Afreen Fatima started wearing the hijab. “He did not sport a beard, he did not wear a cap, he was lynched because his name was Tabrez Ansari," she says. “As Muslims, we are done being apologetic about our identity. If this is what makes you uncomfortable, we will assert it until you realize we are just as normal as anyone else in this country."
Aysha Renna, from Malappuram in Kerala, is one of three women in the widely shared photograph from Jamia standing on a wall, addressing a group of anti-CAA protesters on 12 December. A video which shows Renna taking on baton-wielding police officials on the evening of 15 December, in an attempt to save her friend Shaheen, went viral. “I acted out of impulse. It was sudden; I always questioned anything that happened around me if it was against what I believed in. Raising the finger at the police—it was spontaneous and came from within." The 21-year-old has now become a prominent face among students—bespectacled and headscarf-clad, she wears her Muslim identity front and centre.
Jitendra Suna, a doctoral candidate at JNU and one of the founding members of the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (Bapsa), set up in 2014, maintains it is “time to reclaim the spaces and slogans that have been taken over by upper caste-students", particularly after Vemula’s suicide in 2016. “When someone from an oppressed community speaks out, it’s called identity politics. When the people with power and caste privilege speak out, only their ideas matter," says Suna, who comes from the Dom community and is trying to shine the spotlight of debate on reservations.
Kawalpreet Kaur, 25, president of the All India Students' Association (Aisa) in Delhi University, grew up hearing stories about the violence her community suffered in 1984. “We say this often in our families—sardar sirf langar baantte hue acha lagta hai (a Sikh only looks good showing solidarity)," she says. “When we start talking about our identity or things that matter to us, we become Khalistanis." Her name comes up in a police chargesheet related to the death of a constable in the February violence in Delhi.
Young students, particularly from the minority communities, believe it is important to acknowledge, and resist, injustice. And they are, despite the toll on their personal and academic lives.
Even the pandemic did not deter them. Over the last few months of lockdown, Usmani spent his time adding English subtitles to hate-crime videos so they would become more accessible to an international audience. His mother, worried about the future, “We have always taught him to stand up for what is right, for the rights of those who are oppressed, and that is what he always does."
Usmani believes that the anti-CAA movement finds a parallel in the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. Many have criticized him for his defence of Shahrukh Pathan—a man who was seen pointing a gun at a constable during the February riots in Delhi. Usmani believes he acted in self-defence.
Apart from an assertion of identity, family and friends say his resistance came from research, books and an ever-evolving ideology. His speeches and writings about “Muslim oppression in India" were based on reports, such as the Sachar Committee report of 2006 on the condition of the community, books such as The Production Of Hindu-Muslim Violence In Contemporary India by Paul R. Brass and Khaki And Ethnic Violence In India by Omar Khalidi—and his own experience. In speeches during the anti-CAA protests, Usmani argued that true freedom lies not simply in the repeal of CAA but in “resisting the systemic hate against minorities over generations that enabled its passage".
Two lines from his poem, Iquilab, about contemporary politics take us back to 1947, while placing us firmly in the present:
Inki besharmi inki gairat, zara dekhiye majaal inki,
Gandhi ko katl kar, Nathu ko sachcha keh diya.
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