A mini Jantar Mantar? Many prefer to call it ‘Jamia Square’
As a private school bus crawled past a bunch of protesters huddled together in the cold on a road on Saturday afternoon, half-a-dozen teenage students popped their heads out of the vehicle’s windows and screamed in unison: “We Want Justice”.
“Justice”, the protesters responded, raising their hands and clenching their fists.
The synchronised sloganeering and the immediate response didn’t come about in a day. A kilometre-long stretch of road outside Jamia Millia Islamia resembles a mini Jantar Mantar, Delhi’s “dharna chowk” for decades, ever since a protest by locals against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) on December 15 turned violent and led to a police crackdown in the university.
Since then, day after day, hundreds of people have been braving the bone-chilling winter and returning to this spot to make their voices heard. They have been peaceful, they manage traffic despite obstructing one carriageway of the road and when they wind up in the evening, some of them go on a cleaning drive.
GRAFFITI AND BANNERS
Along this stretch, there is hardly any boundary wall of the university that has been spared from graffiti. Public signboards have been smeared with paint. The green iron fences on both sides of the road is adorned with banners and posters – which include a photo exhibition of 80 images from Mahatma Gandhi’s life and a 20X6 blank banner that is now filled with hundreds of messages to the government. “We are being thrown out of the country,” said a 15-year-old school girl while penning a message.
She had borrowed a black sketch pen from one of two counters set up specifically for preparing banners and posters. “We have readied some banners based on popular slogans. Protesters borrow them when they arrive and return them while leaving. We also take orders for customised slogans,” said Mohammad Zakir, a research scholar.
A few metres away, an “open library” with books on Gandhi spread out on a carpet has been drawing young men. “Our libraries were destroyed by the police. This is a symbolic library. The government is afraid of educated people and this is our message to them,” said its “librarian” and MA student, Sahil Ahmed.
A legal helpdesk managed by Jamia’s law students seeks accounts of victims and eyewitnesses of alleged police brutality on December 15. While a vast majority of the protesters who gather here belong to the Muslim community, the volunteers said they make every effort to include everyone. On Christmas, they invited the Christian community, cut a cake and sang carols. At 4.30pm every day, they conduct a ‘Sarv Dharm Prarthana’ – singing prayers for every religion.
Otherwise, the protests are marked by speeches using loudspeakers, sloganeering and sometimes candlelight marches through the neighbourhoods. “One day, we all decided to fast. On another day, we distributed flowers to everyone who passed by,” said Zakir.
ALUMNI AND LOCALS CONTRIBUTE
The protests are primarily organised by the Jamia Coordination Committee, a recently formed group comprising of over 50 students and alumni. “Among other duties, we ensure the traffic is managed and no protester creates trouble,” said Safoora Zargar, an MPhil student.
But it is the varsity’s old students who are mainly funding the protests, said Mohammad Areeb, an advocate and the treasurer of Alumni Association of Jamia Millia Islamia (AAJMI). Another alumnus, Ghulam Hasan, said that he closed his small IT firm, since December 16 to support the protests. He spent ₹26,000 from his pocket for buying a set of loudspeakers for the agitation.
The protesters don’t fall short of food and water. On Saturday, Feroze Ahmed, who is a house painter and father to a girl studying in Jamia school, brought two cartons of chicken biryani. “Most of them are young students. They must be hungry. I bring food every day,” Ahmed said.
DAY AFTER DAY
This is no round-the-clock agitation. The daily arrangements begin around 10 am when volunteers use ropes to block one carriageway of the road and then divide the opposite carriageway into two separate lanes using more ropes. In the absence of any policemen, student volunteers regulate the slow-moving traffic.
Soon, a large white banner is pulled up across the other carriageway and carpets of varied colours are unrolled for protesters. The gathering begins to swell only by 2 pm or so. This Saturday saw relatively poor attendance. “Over 1,500 people have been gathering every day, but today the falling temperature seems to have an impact,” said Ali.
On some days, the protesters go on fasts, on other days they distribute flowers to all attendees.
“The protests end around 5.30 pm when an imam from the Jamia mosque calls out to us to wrap up. While others leave, a bunch of protesters clean all the garbage from the road. If you come here at night, apart from the banners and posters, there is nothing to suggest that hundreds of people were protesting just hours earlier,” said Mohammad Huzaifa, a local teenager.
At the end of the day, most protesters head home while a few head to Shaheen Bagh, three kilometres away, to join hundreds of other agitators, mostly women, who have blocked the busy Kalindi Kunj Road for a fortnight now as part of their protests.
While traders around the Jamia protest site said that the agitation here has had little impact on their businesses, in Shaheen Bagh most shops have been closed all through. “I am paying workers from my pocket for the loss of working days,” said Parwan Khan, who deals in recliner chairs.
In Jamia, apart from commuters, there are few people directly affected by the agitation. “The police do not come here through the day. At night, they take rounds in Maruti Gypsys,” said Mohammad Zakir.
Despite similarities with Jantar Mantar – Delhi’s most prominent protest spot – the agitators in Jamia would rather prefer their own identity.
“We call it The Jamia Square”, said Mohammad Areeb, with others around him nodding in agreement.