How do we as a society engage with the disappeared?
On June 29, the CBI announced a Rs 10 lakh reward for information about Najeeb Ahmed, a PhD student from Jawaharlal Nehru University who has been missing since October 2016. When Ahmed’s case was handed over to the CBI in May 2017, the court gave express instructions that the investigation must be headed by someone at or above the rank of a deputy inspector general. The case will come up for hearing on July 17.
More than eight months have passed since Ahmed disappeared from the JNU campus following a scuffle with members of the BJP-backed student organisation, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). Initially indifferent to the case, the Delhi police, under mounting pressure from Ahmed’s family and students, was eventually forced to launch a belated and half-hearted search. Till date, however, Ahmed’s family remains in the dark about his whereabouts since the night of his disappearance. Members of his family have expressed a singular lack of faith in the Delhi police. “We are as clueless about Najeeb now as we were on the first day,” his brother, Mujeeb, told the Indian Express.
The story of the JNU student’s disappearance is no longer visible on the front pages of newspapers. But by relentlessly pursuing the case – rendered particularly high profile by the recent volatility on the JNU campus – Ahmed’s family and friends have ensured that his name doesn’t totally fall off the radar of public attention. That a PhD scholar from one of India’s best-known universities can be missing for eight months without a trace, raises serious questions, not only about his case but about the subject of disappearance itself and how we as a society engage with the disappeared.
Every day, hundreds of people – young and old, women and men, girls and boys – go missing in India. Behind each such sudden disappearance is an individual narrative that ranges from the economic and political to the medical and personal. For just one glimpse into the ubiquity of disappearance, consider the May 15 report in the Indian Express, which, even as it focused on Ahmed’s case, also narrated another such case of disappearance: “Meanwhile, 20 days have passed since a 19-year-old speech and hearing impaired girl, Sunita, went missing from Adarsh Nagar Metro station. Just like Najeeb, police are yet to trace the girl. The girl’s parents too fear their daughter’s case will meet the same fate as that of Najeeb. ‘My daughter has been missing for 20 days. She is innocent, she cannot harm anyone. I fear something has happened to her,’ said Ram Saran, the girl’s father.”
According to Child Rights and You (CRY), a leading NGO, 180 children go missing on an average every day, including 22 from the national capital. According to Union home ministry data, the total number of untraced children in 2015 was 62,988 as against 34,244 in 2013. A report in the Indian Express observed that the number of missing children who remain untraced across the country has increased by around 84% between 2013 and 2015.
While many among the disappeared are lost to their loved ones forever, the more fortunate among them are tracked down after years of anxious wait by their families. Yet despite the trauma that accompanies someone falling off the map under mysterious circumstances, the issue of disappearances does not figure prominently in public discussion.
As we address the circumstances surrounding Ahmed’s disappearance, we would do well to reflect on how little we engage with the widespread phenomenon of disappearance in general, to address how lacking our public conversation really is about missing people. It may be argued that the agony of not knowing is something unique to the phenomenon of disappearance. The prolonged uncertainty surrounding the disappeared is potentially more agonising than confronting the stark tragedy of death or loss. The grey area between hope and despair can stretch out endlessly, denying closure to families of the disappeared.
The trauma of plumbing the dark depths of disappearance has provoked many authors and filmmakers into exploring this shadowy territory. In his semi-autobiographical novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, Hisham Matar weaves a moving narrative around the disappearance of his father in Libya. At the outset of the book, Hisham offers us a glimpse into the agony the family of the disappeared endures, of the endless groping in the dark – unseeing and unknowing – about the fate of their loved one. He writes:
“There has not been a day since his sudden and mysterious vanishing that I have not been searching for him, looking in the most unlikely of places. Everything and everyone, existence itself, has become an evocation to him, a possibility for resemblance.”
A well-to-do businessman and staunch dissident of the erstwhile regime led by Muammar Gaddafi, Jaballah Matar ‘disappeared’ from Cairo in 1990. Abducted by Egyptian secret service agents, Jaballah was subsequently incarcerated in Libya’s Abu Salim jail. Hisham, then 20-years-old, has since grappled with the agony of not knowing what became of his father. Did he survive the torture in that infamous jail? Or did he breathe his last inside the prison – never to be seen or heard from again?
In Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman’s stunning documentary Nostalgia for the Light, relatives of those who were ‘disappeared’ during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship search the Atacama Desert for the remains of their loved ones – some whittled down to shards of bones. The documentary draws parallels between stargazing, astronomy and politics, suggesting that just as astronomer’s look above and outward to understand the history of the universe, women look for their own pasts in the desert.
Closer home, the 2007 film Parzania revolved around the story of the family of Azhar Mody, a 10-year-old Parsi boy who disappeared during the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat. He went missing during the Gulberg Society massacre, in which over 60 people were killed. The film addresses the family’s search for their missing son – without any result in the end. Azhar was eventually declared dead following standard procedure. But his mother Rupa continues searching for him. A Times of India report quotes her as saying: “A few days ago, I went to Kerala and Vadodara to find him. I have hope that I will find Azhar one day.”
In India, as in the other cases mentioned above, disappearance often reveals the nature of governments and states. A December 2014 Hindustan Times report detailed how, on Christmas day that year, construction workers in a school in Imphal, Manipur, dug up eight skeletons, skulls and personal belongings. The school used to be a base for paramilitary forces during the period of insurgency in the state – a time when many people were alleged to have been disappeared. Similarly, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in Kashmir claims on its website that between 1989 and 2006 anywhere up to 10,000 people have disappeared in the state according to unofficial estimates.
Ahmed’s case might seem just one of the many such cases of disappeared people. But the fact that he has not been found, nor has any information surfaced, in eight months speaks volumes about how easy it is for certain populations to ‘disappear’ in India today. Over the years and decades, the value of human life seems to have steadily diminished. The growing numbers of the disappeared, tragically, seems to bear testimony to our national indifference to the phenomenon of disappearance.