(New York) – Police in India failed to intervene when alleged supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assaulted university students in Delhi on January 5, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. Witnesses reported that dozens of masked men and several women carrying sticks, hammers, and bricks and shouting pro-government Hindu nationalist slogans entered Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and went on a violent rampage inside the campus for about three hours, injuring more than 30 students and teachers.
The Delhi police filed a complaint of rioting and assault against unknown people. However, a video shows the police allowing the attackers, many still carrying iron rods and sticks, to leave the campus without trying to detain or question them. The police also stood by and failed to act as a mob chanting nationalist slogans gathered at the campus gates, and beat journalists and a political activist. A mob also attacked an ambulance attempting to enter the campus to attend to injured students.
“Students and teachers begged the police to intervene during the attack at Jawaharlal Nehru University, but the police simply stood and watched the attackers walk away,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “All too often police in India use excessive force and arbitrarily arrest peaceful critics of the government, but are derelict in their duty to maintain law and order when violent ruling party supporters are involved.”
Several students told Human Rights Watch that the attackers were members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student group affiliated with the BJP.
A postgraduate research scholar at the university who was injured when the assailants threw stones at students, said that she recognized some attackers as ABVP members accompanied by outsiders. “The police were present in the campus when the violence broke out,” she said. “We sought help from them and then we ran to flee the attackers, but the police never came to our aid.”
Another graduate student who was injured said: “They threw something made of iron at us and it hit me near my eye and it kept bleeding. It took me two hours to get to the hospital because the mob did not let the ambulance come inside the campus. I recognized some of the attackers as JNU students from ABVP. Police were supporting them. The campus security guards also did nothing.”
The Indian Express reported that many people carrying sticks who were gathered outside the campus said that they were affiliated with the ABVP. Several news organizations tracked down messages on WhatsApp by ABVP members or BJP supporters that appeared to plan the violence.
Jawaharlal Nehru University, with its history of progressive education, is considered a bastion of liberalism in the country. Hindu nationalist supporters of the BJP have long criticized, harassed, and even accused students of sedition. Student union elections are bitterly contested between ABVP and student groups affiliated with leftist political parties.
During the January 5 attack, assailants beat Aishe Ghosh, the president of the student union and a leader of the leftist Student Federation of India. Ghosh accused the police of failing to intervene although she had informed them about “unknown people gathering at the campus” hours before the violence broke out. A statement by the university’s teachers association condemned the violence, saying it was unleashed “with the police standing by as mute spectators.”
Students led demonstrations in several parts of the country to protest the violence against the JNU students. The Indian Medical Association also condemned the “mindless violence on doctors and nurses who rushed to treat the injured” at JNU.
Students said they believed they were attacked because they were opposing a fee increase announced by the government. Disagreement over the matter had already led to growing tensions between student groups opposing the increase and the ABVP, which backed the government decision.
The ABVP has denied any role in the violence, saying that 25 of its members were injured in the attack, and blamed the assault on student groups affiliated with leftist organizations. The BJP condemned the violence, blaming opposition political parties.
The police inaction at JNU contrasted with their use of excessive force against demonstrators, including many students, protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act in recent weeks. On December 15, 2019, police in Delhi entered the Jamia Millia Islamia campus after anti-government protests and struck and injured students with lathis (long batons).
Article 1 of the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials states that, “Law enforcement officials shall at all times fulfil the duty imposed upon them by law, by serving the community and by protecting all persons against illegal acts, consistent with the high degree of responsibility required by their profession.”
The Indian authorities should promptly and impartially investigate all allegations of police abuse, including inaction during the mob attack on Jawaharlal Nehru University, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Indian government has an obligation to ensure that the police act in an impartial manner according to law,” Ganguly said. “Unchecked partisan behavior by the police will only end up making the force more political, communal, and unaccountable.”