The clashes at Delhi's Jamia Millia University between protestors against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the police were not merely about a contentious law. It reflected our deepest, innermost fears and how we are trapped by them.
From the heads that split open, the stones that were thrown, the lathis that swung, and the tear gas shells that ricocheted from the library floor, emerged a story that could be a metaphor for our times.
When the constabulary of the Delhi Police faced irate students and indeterminate locals at Jamia Millia Islamia University, where I spent two and a half merry years at the Mass Communication Research Centre (MCRC), it was the collision of two 'others'.
Usually in such a debate, the easy supposition would frame the argument as a clash between a majoritarian police force, assumed to be mostly Hindu, against a student body or protestor group which is predominantly Muslim, in a location in and around the Jamia Millia campus, which might be framed in majoritarian discourse as an area surrounded by Muslim ghettoes.
In this telling of the story, the 'other' is the Muslim, the victim of the majoritarian (Hindu) assault, first through the new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which critics say discriminates specifically against Muslims, and next, through police action in an area which is perhaps seen in some popular imagination as the home of the 'other', a Muslim ghetto.
Through my years in MCRC though - some of the most pleasant times in my life - I realized that in the social construction of this debate in this manner, especially at a time of strife, creates two, and not one, 'other'.
It is not only the university, its location, and by extension, its students, who are victims, but also the policemen and women, and indeed we who participate in the debate from the outside.
When I first entered the university as a student, I realized that there were these two victims. To see the first set, you had to hear parents who would not send their children 'to a Muslim college in a Muslim ghetto'; some were questioned by parents for having done so - "Was it wise? Was it safe?"
In my two-and-a-half years at the university, through countless late night production meetings and shoots, I never felt unsafe. But I realized that there was another set of victims. This I discovered through conversations with classmates and friends who lived in the Jamia area, around the university. Several of them would have liked their families to move out of the tightly-packed lanes and by-lanes into more spacious surrounds in nearby Greater Kailash, Kalkaji or Defence Colony. But in almost every case, an elder in the family, more often than not the father, would argue fiercely against such a move. There was always a What If that crept into that conversation. Even though I knew, and know now, many Muslim families scattered in all parts of the city, for many families living in the Jamia area, that was their only option. Or - as one father of one of my friends told her - one could shift out of India. Go to America, or England, or Dubai. But in Delhi, Jamia was the only place that was going to be their home.
At the heart of both stories, as at the heart of the clashes, are people trapped in the fear of the 'other'. Trapped quite like in the clashes we saw outside and inside the university - both sides terrified of a future that they can hardly comprehend. Both sides determined and resolute in their determination that a moment of truth was upon them.
The university now says only a handful of the protestors were their students and many 'locals' infiltrated and swelled the crowd, often committing the most violent acts of arson in the course of what began as a peaceful student protest.
The police - how many of them really understood the law that they were ostensibly defending and how many of them were saw in the mob before them existential threats to their future - responded by their own methods of force against the arson. But sometimes, as it always happens, they caught not the arsonist but merely an agitated student.
If there are injured students, a couple of them said to be nursing bullet wounds, there are also today at least two police people who are in intensive care, mauled by the fury of the mob.
If you observe the videos that have come out, there is the unmistakable stench of abiding fear in them, and a hopeless sense of the impossibility of any conversation, reconciliation.
Between these two sides in that conflict, there was the creation of the perfect Otherland where one's adversary is so far away, in imagination and conscience, that there is not a bridge in sight.
In Otherland, there is no common ground whatsoever with the enemy.
It is in my opinion this Otherland that we must worry about even more, much more than any conflict, any clash, no matter how violent. Rage, once expressed, creates its own cathartic path back home, to a place where the act of being enraged and having expressed that anger creates space for reason, having hated, it becomes possible to dilute the hate.
But none of this is attainable in Otherland where there is no cessation of hatred, for there is no shared humanity, no common purpose, not even the commonality of wanting to hurt and observe the adversary being hurt.
In Otherland, there is only the desire to eliminate.
My alma mater must now climb out of this Otherland, and so must the rest of us.
(Hindol Sengupta is an award-winning writer of nine books.)
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