It is more than four months now and yet, the reality has still not sunk in. Zubair Ahmed, an educator, journalist, activist, friend for two decades, and the best-known citizen of Andaman Islands, is no more. Early in the morning of July 8, it was with shock that I read the WhatsApp message from another friend in Port Blair. Zubair had died the earlier evening; tragically, devastatingly, he had taken his own life.
One felt a sudden sinking helplessness and despair, and the mind went racing in multiple directions to make sense. How many questions still not answered, how many roads still not taken. The mind and heart reaches out to that one last question, but that is precisely what will not be allowed. That closure will never come. These are the most eternal silences.
Zubair was my go-to person to discuss anything related to the islands. There was no one else who understood and knew the islands as he did. He was knowledgeable, perceptive, and insightful. More importantly, he was hugely gutsy and cared deeply for the islands and its denizens. He was a lone voice of sanity asking the world, and more crucially, his fellow islanders, to understand “their own” islands for what they were. “We are the Andamans,” he would say, “We should be the Andamans—why become a Dubai or a Hong Kong or a Singapore?”. And he had the capacity to immediately go deeper. “First understand how Singapore became a Singapore,” he would argue, “before we want these islands to become a Singapore.”
He despaired more about the apathy of the islanders than of the machinations and ambitions of those in power. He continued nevertheless (that was his courage reflecting), and I often got the sense that there was a lot of well-meaning ground support for him. The common islander understood that he cared and that he would speak for them, even if they could not speak for themselves. He had many ears to and eyes on the ground and in the corridors of local power that were willing to trust him with information and insights.
This is how Zubair made his journalism effective and powerful. For many years he worked with his mentor and guru Govind Raju as they edited and published the highly readable and impactful news magazine The Light of Andamans. There was a lull when Raju passed away a little more than a decade ago, but many efforts followed, including another highly effective, if somewhat irregular online periodical The Sunday Islander, that Zubair brought out entirely on his own. He was as convincing and insightful while writing about a local issue or place that many even in the islands may not have known about as he was when writing on matters relating to the rights of the Jarawa community that would generate immediate international attention. For him, both were equally important.
The wide-ranging impact and influence of his work became evident in the reactions and memories that came flooding in from across the world, from journalists, researchers, anthropologists, and general Andaman and Nicobar enthusiasts. “This is very sad and shocking”, wrote Itty Abraham, professor at the National University of Singapore. “I was able to meet Zubair and tap into his deep knowledge and concerns about the Andamans. I visited his house and he was a gracious and kind host. He will be sorely missed.”
“Zubair came across as a bold, fearless journalist and someone deeply committed to truth and justice,” said professor Janki Andharia of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, who knew him since 2005. “He was never superfluous and meant everything that he said and wrote.”
Friends and family are currently working on bringing out a collection of his diverse writings and it will be an invaluable resource and account of the modern-day Andaman and Nicobar.
Challenges of small town
Zubair was also a petitioner in the case that was to be filed in the Calcutta High Court challenging the hugely destructive project being pushed currently in Great Nicobar Island. Being a small towner in India is not easy and these were the moments of courage and conviction that made Zubair stand out. We have to acknowledge that small town India, its vested interests, and the state apparatus here are not particularly kind to the voices that speak truth to power. One only has to look at the sordid saga playing out in the islands at this very moment to understand why this is so. A now suspended IAS officer is alleged to be at the heart of a sexual exploitation racket when he was the Chief Secretary of the Union Territory. Zubair unhesitatingly stood up and questioned every single time, be it the topmost bureaucrat, the Lieutenant Governor of the islands, or the police chief.
He suffered, too, because of this, including when he was imprisoned in April 2021 for a tweet that he had put out on a matter relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. The charges were flimsy and ridiculous, prompting the court to grant him bail immediately. He was released in a day but his phone that was seized then, his family says, has still not been returned. It was a blatant exercise of bureaucratic power that needs systemic solutions. Otherwise the most relevant and important voices will never be heard and we will all be drowned out in an ocean of mediocrity, sycophancy and meaninglessness.
Why Zubair went, we will never know. Could we have done something to help him is a question that we will never be able to ask. We do not have that answer ourselves and he is not there any more to answer it. It is a twin burden for us to carry to the end. Many of us (me, certainly) continue to see a blank wall now when we think of the islands and of Zubair. One cannot even imagine the sense of pain, loss, and grief being experienced by his wife, children, parents, and other near and dear ones. We can only grieve for the loss of a deeply meaningful life. And hope we do justice in the work we do and live up to what he would have expected from us. For his islands and his islanders!
Pankaj Sekhsaria has been researching the Andaman & Nicobar for over 25 years, and is the author offive books on the islands.
- Zubair worked with his mentor and guru Govind Raju as they edited and published the highly readable and impactful news magazine The Light of Andamans.
- He despaired more about the apathy of the islanders than of the machinations and ambitions of those in power.
- Zubair was imprisoned in April 2021 for a tweet that he had put out on a matter relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Friends and family are currently working on bringing out a collection of his diverse writings.