ALIGARH, India – Inside Room 46 of the Morison Court dormitory, the university students huddled in the dark, too afraid to speak.
Police in riot gear pounded on the door. The next sound was glass shattering, then came the thunk and hiss of tear gas. Something exploded once, then twice, with a deafening noise. The smoke grew suffocating.
Shahid Hussein, a graduate student in history at Aligarh Muslim University, opened the door. The first blow hit him on the left shoulder. The police kept hitting him as they dragged him toward a tree outside, he said. There, two officers held his arms behind his back around the trunk, while others beat his legs with a wooden stick.
“It was not simply stopping protests,” said Hussein, 24. “They were taking revenge.”
The violence that unfolded in December at a predominantly Muslim university in northern India, little documented until now, was a key turning point in the most significant unrest to grip the country in years. It signaled the start of a broad crackdown by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in response to protests over a new citizenship law that critics say is discriminatory and unconstitutional.
In places where Modi’s party holds sway, authorities imposed temporary bans on public gatherings, shut off Internet service and arrested thousands. Police have even questioned schoolchildren who performed a play critical of the citizenship law.
In December, nearly 20 people were killed in India’s largest state during protests over the law, nearly all of them Muslims. Police detained minors, ransacked houses and beat unarmed people in their homes.
The response to the protests has deepened fears that under Modi, Muslims are becoming second-class citizens in the world’s largest democracy.
At Aligarh Muslim University, a century-old institution that is a four-hour drive from Delhi, hundreds of police entered the sprawling campus, firing tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and stun grenades, according to police documents and witnesses. Dozens of students were injured and several hospitalized: A doctoral candidate had most of his right hand blown off.
Such incidents are rare in India. “I don’t remember in my time – in British or free India – the police ever having entered the way they are entering now on campuses,” said Irfan Habib, 88, a distinguished historian who has spent most of his life teaching at AMU. The message is that “civil liberty is not yours,” Habib said, and that police “will decide who can protest and who can’t.”
The Washington Post spoke to more than a dozen witnesses, as well as doctors, university officials and lawyers, and reviewed police documents, photos, videos and footage from closed-circuit cameras of the incident.
A senior police official in Aligarh said that inquiries are underway into allegations of excessive use of force but that the response by law enforcement was appropriate. Students broke part of the university’s main gate and threw stones at police, he said.
They “got excessively motivated and wanted to create a ruckus,” said Preetinder Singh, the deputy inspector general of police for the Aligarh region. “We had to control the situation, and we controlled the situation.”
– – –
Once inside the arched main gate of AMU, the clamor of the surrounding city fades. There are long avenues framed by trees and 19th-century red stone quadrangles, one anchored by a graceful mosque with three white domes.
The institution now known as AMU traces its roots back to 1877. It was founded to educate India’s Muslims, who constitute about 14% of the country’s more than 1.3 billion people. By virtue of its history, AMU occupies a unique place in the debate over India’s identity.
Aligarh’s students “will determine the place of Muslims in India’s national life,” one of its leaders, Zakir Hussain, once told alumni. What’s more, “the way India conducts itself toward Aligarh will determine largely . . . the form our national life will acquire.”
In the days surrounding the passage of the citizenship law on Dec. 11, AMU was a campus in ferment. Students alternated between preparing for exams and holding demonstrations; on Dec. 13, thousands of students marched against the legislation.
For opponents of the law, the measure is a sign that Modi is moving the country away from its secular roots and toward the creation of a Hindu nation. The law established a fast-track to citizenship for certain migrants who belonged to six religions, excluding Islam.
Amit Shah, the powerful home affairs minister, has said the next step will be to require all residents to prove their citizenship as a way to weed out “infiltrators.” (The government recently told Parliament that “till now” it has not made a decision on carrying out the exercise, known as the National Register of Citizens.)
On the morning of Dec. 15, Tazeem Khan, 22, a slight third-year student with spiky hair, woke up early to prepare for a literature exam. After lunch, he met with fellow editors of a campus magazine. Khan didn’t know that within hours, he would be pleading for his life.
Late in the afternoon, disturbing news began to spread around campus: Police had entered Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, where they beat unarmed students and fired tear gas into a library.
Soon there was worse news. At least one student at Jamia had died. As the rumor ricocheted within the AMU campus, the anger and emotion grew (it turned out to be false). Outraged students poured out of dorms and moved toward the main gate after 8 p.m.
The gate was locked by an iron fence, and students swung it wildly back and forth until a portion of it broke, allowing them to walk through. About 100 yards down the road was a police barricade.
Nearly immediately, three witnesses said, police began firing tear gas canisters. Some students responded by hurling pieces of bricks in the direction of the police. Within half an hour, hundreds of police, including members of a statewide riot control unit, had arrived.
As police entered the campus, firing tear gas and deafening stun grenades, Khan ran into a large university guesthouse. He hid in a bathroom with several other students. He heard police beating students beyond the door. “Send help,” he said in a call to a friend at 9:41 p.m., according to an audio recording. “We’re all trapped here and we’re going to die.”
Police later broke down the door and began beating students with sticks and rifle butts, Khan said. He was thrown into a police van. Two fingers on his right hand were broken and his left arm fractured. He said police taunted him, calling him “anti-national,” and asking, “Why don’t you go to Pakistan?”
Mohammed Rehan, a 22-year-old education major, was walking toward the library between 10 and 11 p.m. when he saw riot-control personnel firing tear gas at students. Rehan said one officer pinned him down while others beat him with sticks and rifle butts.
He was dragged to a van where another student was already detained. Rehan said they were repeatedly beaten, called traitors and terrorists and forced to recite Hindu nationalist slogans. They hit him so hard his head began bleeding, Rehan said, and also burned his right hand. “I was extremely scared that night,” said Rehan. “I thought I would be killed.”
Mohammed Tariq, a doctoral student in physical chemistry, was on his way to the Morison Court dorm when he saw students running in the opposite direction. The last thing he remembers is slipping and falling to the ground.
He woke up in the hospital, his right hand nearly blown off, possibly by an exploding stun grenade. He keeps his amputated hand hidden under a thick red blanket and hasn’t told his widowed mother about the extent of his injury.
– – –
The detained students were released the following day. A police report later accused several injured students of crimes, including intent to murder. It blamed their injuries on “stone pelting by their fellows.”
The day after the incident, the university ordered all 28,000 students to leave for home, starting a chaotic exodus. Tariq Mansoor, the embattled vice chancellor of AMU, said the administration had asked the police to restore “public order” but expressed regret about the injured students. “We never anticipated they would enter [dormitories] and use excessive force,” Mansoor said.
Police say more than a dozen security personnel were also injured. Only nonlethal weapons were used to quell the unrest, said Singh, the senior police official in Aligarh, adding that outsiders had mingled with the students and police worried university property would be vandalized.
The crackdowns at AMU and Jamia galvanized protests across the nation. Demonstrations spread across Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, home to 200 million people. A group of women in Delhi occupied a large road in protest and have stayed there since. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in peaceful marches in Hyderabad, Mumbai and Chennai.
On a recent afternoon in Aligarh, students sat outside at metal tables, drinking tea at a canteen behind the library. Hussein, the master’s degree student, was preparing for an exam that was postponed due to the violence. His opposition to the citizenship measure was undimmed.
“Being a student of history,” he said, “you can smell the consequences.”