Healing in the Age of Agitation: How the Constant Protests and Tension in Delhi Affected My Mental Health

First Person

Healing in the Age of Agitation: How the Constant Protests and Tension in Delhi Affected My Mental Health

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

On January 5, 2020, a regular visit to the JNU canteen became a nightmare I will never forget. I was sitting with a group of girls at a table like we always did when a mob of around 50 people came pouring in. They were carrying sticks and started assaulting us without provocation.

Shocked, we ran into the kitchen for cover but the armed goons dragged us out. The mob surrounded us and started telling us to go back to our hostels. “This is what happens to those who protest,” they screamed. Then they started hitting us on our legs and made us run down the road. I was terrified; I was running for my life on my own campus which I considered a safe haven, a home away from home. It was humiliating.

We ran into a nearby forested area where we hid for a few hours. From there, we made our way to the nearest faculty member’s house. She was not around but her husband let us in. We were holed in there for two hours, watching the details of the attack on the news.

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Yes, most of us were angry. Yes, protest was our only recourse.It was a need, not a desire. And yes, protests are meant to be disruptive.

Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto / Getty Images

It was only around midnight that we decided to go back to our hostel after it was clear that the attackers had left the campus. The horror of that night did not vanish with the arrival of the morning. I thought I’d seen the worse that day, but the trauma that lingered on after the assault would prove a much harder obstacle to overcome than facing masked goons.

That night, and for many nights thereafter, my roommate and I could not get any sleep. Every little sound would wake us up. We became jumpy; were perpetually scared that someone would break in. We suffered from nightmares. This wasn’t the student life I imagined. My experience of being ground up in the gears of hate politics brought about a complete change in my perspective.

I have always taken deep pride in our country’s struggle for independence. I fully understood how people’s power could topple an empire on which the sun never set. It was through this idealistic lens that I viewed our struggle against the JNU fee hikes. We boycotted our classes, our assignments, and even our exams for over 90 days. We joined multiple marches and got lathi-charged each time — not because JNU students eat taxpayers’ money and waste time, but because we understood the value of education and wanted everyone to have access to it. Nearly 40 per cent of us would no longer be able to afford the fees if they were hiked as planned.

But after the events of January 5, I stopped romanticising our fight against fee hikes and instead took a step back to reevaluate. Yes, most of us were angry. Yes, protest was our only recourse. It was a need, not a desire. And yes, protests are meant to be disruptive. However, the attack on JNU meant that I now had physical wounds to tend. And while trying to cope with those, I realised how many mental scars were inflicted upon my psyche. For what? For wanting to protest.

It didn’t help the way outsiders reacted to what was unfolding on campus.

These mental wounds had begun accumulating much before January 5. Protests and movements are collective efforts. They run on a collective rage and a collective sense of purpose. More importantly, there is a collective understanding of what is right and what is not. But the individual who makes up the collective is often neglected. To protest means to engage with something that you find unacceptable. One battles with injustice and feelings of anger and helplessness at the same time. All of this combined takes a heavy mental toll on you before you realise it. This is what happened to me and a lot of other student protesters in JNU.

The routine which helped me get through the day – attending classes, studying in the library, engaging in friendly banters with classmates – no longer existed. I had voluntarily given it up for the movement. I was constantly engaging with uncertainty about the future. Since all administrative and academic activities were boycotted, there wasn’t anything to do; I was either spending my days in my room or aimlessly hanging out. All that my peers and I would talk about was the agitation.

Social media became a powerful tool of engaging with the movement. I was constantly bombarded with updates on the next steps the students’ union was taking, the admin’s farmans, and — more insidiously — images of violence. Pictures of brutal lathi charges and fellow students bleeding were everywhere.

It didn’t help the way outsiders reacted to what was unfolding on campus. After seeing the frightening images of the JNU attack, my parents wanted me to return home. I refused and fortunately, they understood. However, I had to deal with angry relatives constantly calling and claiming that I was brainwashed by political parties. Comments like “JNU should be shut down” and “You all should be taught a lesson” became routine. In their eyes, I went from a research scholar to a person who couldn’t think for herself in just one day. First, my agency was stripped away by the goons, afterward, by my “concerned” relatives.

I wasn’t alone in facing such family drama. My roommate broke down when the doctor asked her how she was, because her parents hadn’t even cared enough to ask about her injuries. After a while, images and videos of students and professors injured and bleeding became too much to see. We started feeling the pressure of living in a university under attack — for days, I couldn’t walk on the road where I was beaten up. The campus didn’t feel like home anymore.

It didn’t help the way outsiders reacted to what was unfolding on campus.

SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP
/ Getty Images

However, while the individual gets ignored in the collective, it is also the collective that comes to the individual’s rescue. A majority of us who participated in the movement and were also attacked were regular students. It was the teachers’ association and the students’ union who gave us adequate support in the aftermath of the attack. JNUSU provided us with a legal team to file complaints. They assured us that the common student will always have the union to back her up. Many teachers called and spoke to us, enquiring about our well being. Some put us in touch with the media to air our grievances. Others visited hostels to meet traumatised students. Mental health workshops and solidarity meetings were organised on a regular basis.

My supervisor constantly sent me encouraging and supporting messages. I was lucky that my parents had my back too. My dad urged me to file a complaint. But the teachers were there even for those who had to deal with toxic families. Private counsellors as well as lawyers circulated their numbers as they wanted to reach out to the student community.

It’s been more than a month since the January 5 attack, and we are slowly healing. Even writing this account was difficult because of all the haunting memories. However, it is essential to engage with our wounds — physical as well as mental and emotional — to sustain protests. Even for protesters, it’s important to take time off to heal. The collective must support each one in their quest for emotional healing as only a healthy individual can make a healthy collective. And only a healthy collective can have the strength to fight fascist forces.

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