Where is Najeeb?

Print edition : January 06, 2017

Najeeb Ahmad's mother, Fatima Nafees, with Najeeb's portrait at protest meeting in New Delhi on December 14. Photo: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

More than two months after Najeeb disappeared from JNU following an attack on him by ABVP supporters, neither the police nor the university authorities have a clue about what happened to him.

ACCORDING to Amnesty International, “To ‘disappear’ is to vanish, cease to be, to be lost. But the ‘disappeared’ have not simply vanished. Someone, somewhere, knows what happened to them.”

Enforced disappearance is a crime against humanity under international jurisprudence. Unless Najeeb Ahmad is found soon, or it can be proved that the first year student of master’s in biotechnology at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) vanished into thin air, members and sympathisers of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), who thrashed him in the presence of hundreds of witnesses the night before his disappearance, are liable to be charged with enforced disappearance. Nearly two months after Najeeb disappeared, the police and the JNU administration remain clueless about his whereabouts.

Being a new student, Najeeb did not have many friends, but already had a reputation for being studious. He was staying at the Mahi-Mandvi Hostel. Hamid Raza, who stays in Room No. 107, which is next to Najeeb’s room, remembers him as a student who used to mind his own business. He recalled that a girl in Najeeb’s class had tied a rakhi on his wrist, and Najeeb had flaunted it with some pride for at least two weeks. “Which is why it is hard to believe that Najeeb could have taken offence at Vikrant’s kaleva [Hindu sacred thread tied on the wrist] and slapped him,” he said.

Najeeb was last seen on October 15, following an attack the previous night by a mob made up of members and sympathisers of the ABVP. The JNU administration’s feigned ignorance of the incident, which happened in the presence of wardens, security guards and hundreds of students, and its failure to bring the culprits to book is astounding but hardly surprising given the recent turn of events at the university.

Frontline spoke to more than a dozen students from different organisations to piece together the events of the night. But the names of the students have been withheld as they fear retaliatory action against them.

On October 14, the campaigns for hostel and mess committee elections were on. More than a dozen candidates were contesting this time and groups of campaigners were visiting each room every few minutes. When Vikrant Kumar, Ankit Roy and Sunil knocked on Najeeb’s door, they unleashed a chain of events that led to his disappearance.

Hearing a commotion, the first people to reach Najeeb’s room (No. 106) on the first floor recalled that the three students were agitated, accusing Najeeb of slapping Vikrant Kumar. “I turned to Najeeb to tell him that violence on the campus was unacceptable but, strangely, saw that blood was flowing from his mouth and nose!” one student said. It was, in fact, Vikrant who beat Najeeb with a chappal, claimed another eyewitness. Several students were trying to defuse the situation, and Najeeb was seen talking to Vikrant Kumar with folded hands but the latter was too angry to be pacified, he said.

Suddenly, about 25 people, many of them staying in the hostel, barged into the corridor shouting abuses and saying “ Maaro maaro!” An eyewitness said they appeared out of nowhere, as if they had been summoned. Najeeb was twice pushed into the room and the door locked to save him from the mob. While Ankit Roy was ranting about how his religious sentiments had been hurt by an insult to the kaleva, another student took Najeeb to the toilet to wash the blood off his face. The security guards at the scene started taking down names and it was then that many students who were trying to defuse the situation realised that Najeeb was a Muslim.

Another eyewitness said that Ankit Roy then requested the person at the door to the toilet to let him in as he wanted to use the washroom. “The moment he stepped inside, he slapped Najeeb hard without any provocation. Vikrant Kumar, too, joined in the attack. They had to be dragged out,” he said. By then, JNU Students Union president Mohit Pandey, former general secretary Rama Naga, the hostel warden and some guards reached the spot. Attempts at reconciliation were made afresh, and it was agreed that Najeeb would be taken to the warden’s room on the ground floor.

Vicious mob

As Najeeb was going to the warden’s room with guards following him, he was punched, kicked and assaulted by a mob comprising ABVP students and outsiders, said the eyewitness. Students who tried to protect Najeeb were also hit. The lights of the hostel were switched off twice while Najeeb continued to be assaulted. The door to the warden’s office was locked, and while they were waiting for it to be opened, Najeeb was attacked again, he said.

Once inside, a statement was hurriedly drawn up and he was asked to sign, along with the JNUSU president and Najeeb’s roommate Qasim. The statement was drawn up as a request from Qasim to shift him to another room because he thought Najeeb was a threat (Qasim later withdrew his name from the statement, saying that he was not aware of its contents). It was decided that Najeeb would be given time until October 21 to vacate his hostel room. An illegal boarder, Abhijit, meanwhile, created a ruckus outside the warden’s office demanding that Najeeb be handed over to the mob. “By morning, we will bring you his dead body,” he shouted in the presence of more than 100 students, three wardens and security guards, said an eyewitness. When Frontline caught up with Ankit Roy later, he denied everything and claimed that he and his friends were innocent. “We are being victimised for the benefit of Left politics in JNU,” he said.

Later, Qasim took Najeeb to Safdarjung Hospital from where he called Fatima Nafees, his mother, at 2 a.m., telling her that something bad had happened to him on campus. “He asked me to come to JNU as soon as possible. I could not sleep after that and took the first bus to Delhi. I reached Anand Vihar ISBT at 11:30 a.m. and spoke to him on the phone. He said, ‘Ma, please come, I am waiting for you in my room’,” she said. Qasim was in the room with Najeeb until a little before 12:30 p.m., when mess hour begins, and Fatima Nafees, along with Najeeb’s younger brother Mujeeb, reached his room sometime between 12:30 p.m. and 1 p.m. In those few minutes, Najeeb disappeared. He was nowhere to be seen, but his wallet and phone were in the room. One chappal was lying in the corridor and the other on the stairs, a painful reminder of the scuffle of the previous night.

The next day, the JNU administration released a press note stating that Najeeb had slapped an ABVP student and that he would be expelled from the hostel. There was no mention of the attack on Najeeb. Instead, he was the “accused”. The JNU Teachers’ Association and the JNUSU took strong exception to this half-truth and called for protests.

Najeeb’s family, though in shock, did not give up hope and left no stone unturned searching for him. “Just give me my Najeeb back. I will take him and leave this place. We will never come back here and will forget everything that happened,” sobbed Fatima Nafees, who is staying at her relative’s house in Zakir Nagar. Ever since Najeeb disappeared, the daily routine for her and Sadaf Irshad, Najeeb’s steadfast cousin, has consisted of campaigning for Najeeb during daytime and giving interviews to press and TV crews after reaching home. Despite being tired, they answer every question in the hope that something might trigger Najeeb’s return home.

Apart from reporting tip-offs that Najeeb was spotted in Darbhanga and Nepal, the police have not made any headway in locating Najeeb. This is ostensibly because the FIR lodged after he disappeared was for a “missing person”. “Hence the people who attacked and threatened him have not been grilled,” said a student. Najeeb’s family members pointed out that when they reached the Vasant Kunj police station to lodge a complaint, the policemen told them what to write and when they gave the names of nine students who had thrashed Najeeb, they were not included in the first information report (FIR), but it was recorded as a separate complaint. “While the FIR was being written, the policeman received two phone calls. Both the times, he read out the FIR to the caller,” said a family member. They were also hurt by the fact that the police were searching dargahs after seeing a photograph of a dargah on Najeeb’s Facebook wall. “Why are they trying to build these stories around him?” asked Sadaf Irshad.

On December 8, the Office of the Dean of Students in JNU released a press note. It stated that the proctorial enquiry report had identified the students involved in the scuffle on October 14 and had recommended their transfer from the hostel with a strong warning. The Vice Chancellor, Jagadesh Kumar, approved the report and appealed to Najeeb to return to the university to resume his academic pursuits without apprehensions. In the same breath, he said that once Najeeb was found, the disciplinary action on him would be “revisited”. The irony was not lost on anybody. “Despite 20 students deposing against the ABVP students, despite the security guards’ report that Najeeb was attacked, despite the warden himself stating that Najeeb was attacked, despite the JNUSU president saying Najeeb was attacked, what is to be made of the administration refusing to take appropriate action?” asked a student, implying institutional impunity to the perpetrators of the violence.

While the progressive culture and politics of JNU discourage physical violence on campus, the incident was not the first time a Muslim student was at the receiving end of communal violence. “There is a feeling among students that in some hostels where the ABVP’s consolidation is growing, communal incidents are going unchallenged. Incidents of everyday violent behaviour have also increased in the recent past,” said a student. In the case of Mahi Hostel, every time there is an India-Pakistan match, the choicest abuses are heard from the TV rooms. The last time India lost a game to Pakistan, a student talking and laughing with a friend on an unrelated subject on the phone was slapped by an ABVP member. Another Muslim student had a bottle thrown at his head from the third floor of the hostel. After the February 9 incident (when JNU students held a meeting to protest against the capital punishment meted out to Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru), “Anti-nationals Go Back” was scribbled outside the hostel (everybody knows who wrote it, said residents). During Ramzan, a notice for Iftar was torn and vandalised. Recently, a Pakistan flag was planted in one of the common rooms. The perpetrators were not punished or even pulled up by the wardens in any of these instances.

Of the four wardens, at least three were known sympathisers of the ABVP and were often seen hobnobbing with visiting Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) functionaries, said a student. More recently, after a protest which was attended by students of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), a bag with a country-made pistol and cartridges was found 50 metres inside the North Gate of the campus. It was spotted by a guard and the police were alerted. A case under the Arms Act against unknown persons was registered. “Everybody knew students from AMU and JMI were on campus. It reeked of a ploy to criminalise Muslim students,” said a student. Earlier, in April, a loaded country-made pistol with a letter threatening the PhD scholars Umar Khalid and Kanhaiya Kumar was found on a DTC bus that goes inside the campus. It was signed by Amit Jani, chief of the Uttar Pradesh unit of the Navnirman Sena.

“When nothing was done to punish those responsible for these small incidents, it gave the perpetrators courage to do something bigger, which resulted in the attack on Najeeb, who was a new student without much political clout on campus,” a student said. While the campaign (seeking justice for Najeeb) has so far steered clear of foregrounding Najeeb’s religious identity, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore it altogether. “In the Nirbhaya case, it was understood that she was raped because she was a woman; in Rohith Vemula’s case, we knew he was killed because of his Dalit identity. Then why are we being made to feel so scared to say Najeeb was almost lynched because he was a Muslim?” asked a student.

Vendetta politics

Students who came forward as witnesses of the assault were sent show-cause notices in unrelated matters, discouraging others from coming forward. Shahid Raza Khan, an MPhil student who was vocal about the events as they unfolded that night, received a notice about his room. “It is par for the course in JNU for two students to mutually exchange rooms. This notice of the administration stinks of vendetta politics against me. Besides, the notice has got everything about me— my centre, my registration number —except my name wrong.” The Vice Chancellor also issued a notice to students organising a JNU Chalo march stating: “In this call a large number of outsiders are anticipated to participate which may create unrest and a security threat inside the campus. Hence, JNUSU is advised not to hold this gathering.... Violation of university rules will invite disciplinary action.” But the students were unrelenting. “The Vice Chancellor who failed to take the minimum responsibility for a student missing for 30 days issues notices criminalising protesting students. There were identified outsiders in the attack on Najeeb. What action did he take against them?” asked Satarupa Chakraborty, JNUSU general secretary.

Students’ organisations tried to build pressure on the administration and the police by holding protest meetings outside the administration block, outside the campus and in front of the police headquarters and by conducting solidarity marches, but failed to move the authorities to action. It was only when photographs and videos of Najeeb’s mother being brutally dragged by the Delhi Police and then being detained during one of the protests near India Gate went viral on social media and were met with condemnation that Lt Governor Najeeb Jung and Home Minister Rajnath Singh met the family and heard them out. “They have assured us of help,” said a teary-eyed Fatima Nafees. The Delhi Commission for Women sent a notice to the Delhi Police over the mishandling of women by male police officers at the protest after a newspaper carried on its front page a photograph of a policeman grabbing a female student.

Statements by Lt Governor Najeeb Jung in a televised interview seemed to build on the narrative that Najeeb was under treatment for depression and might have voluntarily disappeared. But Najeeb’s family members strongly denied such claims. “He might have taken sleeping pills for insomnia, which many people do, but that doesn’t lead to anybody’s ‘disappearance’. It is really unfortunate that the authorities are trying to prove that he was mentally unstable. It is an utter lie,” said a family member.

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