“Like they say if not Modi then who, I’ll say if not students then who?” says 24-year-old Jamia Millia Islamia alumnus Nabiya Khan who has been actively protesting against the contentious National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which was passed by both the houses of parliament earlier this month. The law has launched a series of unprecedented protests against the Modi government across the country which is mainly led by the students.

Suraj Singh, a Bachelor’s student from Delhi University explains what is wrong with this act and why it has attracted the fierce backlash, “The first problem arises from it violating the constitution which treats everybody equally. The CAA gives citizenship to religious minorities from three neighbouring countries who are being persecuted because of their religion. In NRC people will have to prove their citizenship through certain documents. In a country where major population has not undergone the documentation process and most of them don’t have the current required documents how will they find documents of their ancestors? Failing to do so they will be sent to detention centers.”

26-year-old Garima from Ambedkar University of Delhi said, “When our constitution says that we are a secular nation then why are we providing citizenship based on religion. And even if we bar Muslims from our country they will then create division among Hindus based on varna system and they will start exterminating everyone who is different. This government does not accept minorities whether it is Trans people, Dalits, disabled. This government has been attacking the minorities.”

Studying Masters in Gender Studies, Garima believes students are protesting because their education teaches them to constantly question, “If our education cannot teach us this then what is the point of it? I am not saying that the previous regimes did not have problems but then what have you learned from your past? Why are you repeating history which is so gory and will create unrest? Students across the world are saying this law is unconstitutional including Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge.”

The protests started after the Citizenship Act became law on December 12 and since then many protesters have been killed across the country, highest being in Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh with 20 people dead. The protestors, which mainly include students across the country have been facing the wrath of the authorities, with violent attacks that took place in Jamia Milia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University this month.

Nabiya was present in Jamia on December 15, 2019, when the Delhi Police reportedly attacked the University and brutally beat up students who were not even part of the protests by entering the campus and vandalizing the college library. Speaking to The Statesman, Nabiya said the students were protesting outside the campus since December 12, but on December 15, police started throwing tear gas shells and lathi charging the protestors.

“The students of Jamia started entering the University campus since none of us thought the police would enter the campus,” said Nabiya. Describing the events that followed, Nabiya said, “It was after 6 pm and it was dark, there was a flash in the sky followed by a loud explosion, the police were throwing something else also apart from tear gas shells. I was in the main campus and the police entered from the backside. People started running saying the police is coming, I thought this could not be true how can police enter the University?”

“Then all of a sudden I see police coming and I just ran from the other gate. They shut down all the lights in the area; they were beating people up including locals outside the campus. It literally felt like a warzone I am not exaggerating.”

The next day multiple video footage and student statements described the brutality that took place in the University after which JMI Vice Chancellor Najma Akhtar also condemned the attack saying, the police entered the campus without permission. Waseem Ahmed Khan, Chief Proctor of Jamia Millia Islamia University said, “Police have entered the campus by force, no permission was given. Our staff and students are being beaten up and forced to leave the campus.”

The attack on Jamia Milia Islamia University also triggered protests in Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh where the internet was shut down on December 15, and reports of severe police brutality surfaced through multiple statements given by students. Anas, a Ph.D. scholar in English Literature from AMU told The Statesman how the events unfolded in Aligarh that night. “It all started after the attack on the JMI library. Students came out to protest as usual in solidarity with what happened in there. The police came in with the permission of VC and clearly you can hear from the words that the police were using while shooting and throwing tear gas.”

Anas explains how most of the revolutionary movements in the past were led by students and how this one is no different, “ Most of the revolution has sprouted out of students’ protests, be it the Velvet Revolution of 1989, or the Umbrella Revolution of Hong Kong, or the White Rose Society of Nazi Germany, you name it. Students have been the only body which, regardless of its caste, creed, color, gender, have stood together to voice against injustice, within and without. The learning mind can easily grasp and recognize the flaws and inequality done to them, and they aren’t easily malleable in this regard. The growing and intellectual minds of the students, when in unison, have the power to change the course of inequality and fight for religious freedom, economic opportunities and fight any petty political ideology that hinders nation’s upliftment. I would love to quote Faiz here, ‘Zard patto ka ban jo mera des hai, Dard ki anjuman jo mera des hai’ We will fight, we will rise.”

On the question of why the two Muslim universities were treated in this unprecedented way, Nabiya says, “While beating up my male friends the police used words like, Kalima padh lo aaj tumhara aakhri din hai, Can you imagine their hatred?” She says it is the Islamophobic nature of the state which has led to this brutality. “And it has not happened suddenly, we have seen the policies the BJP government is making since 2014, it basically normalized the hate from 2014 to 2019 and now they are legalizing it.”

On question of how protesters are resorting to violence and damaging public property, Purusharth S from IIT Bombay says, “spirit of the anti-CAA protests is being taken away by saying the mob is destroying public property. There is ample evidence that police were also involved in these shenanigans but no traction is being given to that. A picture is being painted in which anti-CAA protesters are some urban guerrilla warfare people who are destroying their tax money. Since when did this become an issue? Mob lynching has done more damage to public property since 2014.”

21-year-old Project research assistant from Indian Institute of Technology Bombay believes pro-CAA protests are also welcome since, “it shows that people are involved in an issue to a level that tweeting from the comforts of their home is not enough.”

The backlash Modi government is receiving from the students across the country has been piling up for quite some time now as Prabhakaran from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) Hyderabad explains, “The demography in Central universities is different because of the fee structure and reservations, but since 2014 there has been an active interference by the government to curtail political activities. If you do anything you will be under surveillance, the administration will take penal actions, send show-cause notices, set up inquiry committees. These things are structurally done to curtail activism because it questions the Brahmanical culture.”

Pursuing Masters in Public Policy and Governance, Prabhakaran, who comes from a marginalised background, believes that the interference of the Modi government in university spaces to control student activism is more active than previous Congress government. “The role of student movement plays an important role because it questions the status quo. It counters the culture that has been placed in the institution.”

Talking about the violence that took place in JMI and AMU, he says, “The trend of police entering the campus started under the Modi regime. University spaces should be for students only and even professors’ role is limited till classrooms, the major stakeholders are students. I personally did not expect that kind of thing to happen in a campus.”

Prabhakaran was among 32 other students who were detained by Hyderabad police on December 19 for protesting against the CAA and NRC, as Section 144 was imposed around their campus. “I think student is the only opposition in the country. The new Opposition has already been created in this discourse. The JNU’s (Jawaharlal Nehru University) demand for public education does not come from any Opposition party speaking for affordable education.”

Talking about the NRC-CAA protests he says, “The protest is about changing people’s attitude. The growth of Hindutva increased to a great extent after Modi came to power. Hindus does not mean Dalits or Adivasis. Hinduism is nothing but Brahmanism. This law is about Hindu-Muslim divide and as a Tamilian, Sri Lankan Tamils have been here for 30 years and they identify as Hindus. If the BJP government really wanted to provide citizenship to Hindus they would have given it to them.”

Another TISS Hyderbad student Adityalakshmi told The Statesman that the government’s repeated steps to cut education funds especially for Social Sciences institutes and fee hikes have left students agitated. “The protests are challenging the Brahmanical Savarna elite system which is being reinforced. There is always going to be a difference when you learn from a classroom that is diverse and when you learn from a class that is extremely homogenous. When you shut down humanities, the basic foundation of society, and focus on stem courses degradation in universities are bound to happen.”

Talking about the NRC-CAA protests she says, “It is about the binary that has been created through communal politics. The attack on JMI and AMU happened because of their identity. RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) very systematically tried to treat Muslims as second-class citizens. When you place a far-right government in Centre this is bound to happen. This tactic of islamophobia has been applied by the Modi government in Gujarat in 2002.”

Recently Army Chief Bipin Rawat criticised the students for leading mass protests and blamed them for violence and arson which questions if students should engage in political movements. Studying Masters in Rural Development and Governance, Adityalakshmi says, “For example, I have my political science class today and I decide that I will discuss my politics inside the class only and as soon as I step out I have no concerns for my country at all, that kind of dichotomy cannot exist. A person will always be political. Our own identity is constructed by politics. What students of JMI and AMU faced is because of their identity and then how can you talk about separating education from politics when most of the decisions related to education are driven by political agenda?”

On how the gap between students who are protesting against this act and those who are supporting it should be bridged, 23-year-old Jatin from Jawaharlal Nehru University says, “People need to be talked to about this thing because our confined approach will then leave only universities as this venue where discussions happen. Conversations should happen among opposing parties and when this chain breaks the ruling regime gets a chance to instill fear. We should talk to those who oppose our views and our aim should not be to convert them into following our ideology but to give them something to ponder upon.”

A Ph.D. scholar in Modern History Jatin says, “In this era of godi media where people can’t rely on news channels I think it is through personal interactions and having talks with people in different areas. It is not just this government but our own political laziness which has strengthened this regime to take whatever actions they want to.”

He thinks it is important to be politically active and scrutinize the government’s actions instead of resorting to a yes-no answer. “People don’t know who infiltrators are and then they are saying yes they need to go. That is why the abrogation of Article 370 happened easily.”

Talking about the importance of protests Jatin says, “We should not expect a clear cut result from this protest however it should not stop us from vocalizing our opinion. People should know what is happening. It will open a skeptical mark on how something that was conveyed to us so easily and in a rosy manner by the government was in reality not so rosy at all.”