What the Rohith Vemula and Najeeb Ahmed cases tell us about how India’s relationship with its ‘others’ – the minorities – is pathologised by the enforcement of exaggerated discourse of difference amidst unrecognisably similar lives and cultural practices.
But the other refuses to disappear; it subsists, it persists; it is the hard bone on which reason breaks its teeth.
– Antonio Machado
Najeeb Ahmed disappeared from his hostel room in JNU. What made him disappear? What fear? What consequence? No one seems to know. A boy disappeared from his hostel room without his phone, his wallet and his book of poems. He left no footprints. Did a storm carry off his body like a tree?
There are rumours and allegations floating around in JNU that allegedly prevented the university administration from working quickly enough to find Ahmed. But after several protests by students – both inside and outside campus – and a political meeting that drew in opposition leaders, including the Delhi chief minister, the police are finally searching for him in earnest.
The story of Ahmed’s altercation with students belonging to the ABVP has taken several shapes and forms. He has been declared an “accused”, even though fellow students insist he is the “victim”, giving details of how he was badly beaten up by a group of students despite the presence of authorities. But strangely enough, there is no verifiable account of his disappearance.
His mother faced detention on Sunday after she was dragged away by the police for protesting the state’s inaction on her son’s disappearance. “Where is my son?” she asked. In response, she was merely offered empathetic and worried faces. Ahmed has disappeared, but seeing the photographs and videos of JNU students protesting makes one feel that the boy hasn’t disappeared from the concern and commitment of his fellow students.
Ahmed refuses to disappear, like all those who people feel were wronged before they vanished from sight. He is a Muslim and thus his disappearance has opened up a legitimate debate around the consistent hounding and victimisation of minorities in the current political atmosphere.
The quickness with which Ahmed was declared guilty and his accusers were treated as paragons of truthfulness, further deepens the questions regarding the nationalist prejudices of our times. The ‘other’ is being constructed as an unreliable being worthy of suspicion and punishment. It is only by punishing the ‘other’ that the nationalist self seeks political pleasure and moral superiority.
This is done to grossly pathologise the historical and ethical relationship – particularly between Hindus and Muslims – by enforcing an exaggerated discourse of difference amidst unrecognisably similar lives and cultural practices.
The ‘other’ is not so other to be unrecognisable from one’s own cultural and moral perspective. The ‘other’ is not so other to be beyond the possibility of love. The ‘other’ is not so other that correspondence with him impossible.
If it were so, Guru Gobind Singh wouldn’t have written the Zafarnama to Aurangzeb despite their bitter enmity. The great Urdu poets Ghalib and Iqbal wouldn’t have found their poetic selves transformed by the presence of the kafir. Dara Shikoh wouldn’t have translated the Upanishads and Ambedkar wouldn’t have severely engaged with Gandhi.
History is an encounter of adversaries. But whenever such encounters do not result in the shedding of blood, they produce a battle of ideas, poetry, philosophy, art and culture. These encounters are immensely resonant with ideas and offer such promising ethical directions that by reinterpreting them, we understand our history and our present a little better. Without Amir Khusro there wouldn’t have been a khayal or tarana in Indian music, or for that matter, the tabla, and without Wajid Ali Shah there wouldn’t have been wide-leg pyjamas in Bengal, no Kolkata biryani or resala.
The ‘other’ refuses to disappear. The majoritarian hegemony of nationalist reason breaks its teeth unable to break, chew or digest ‘the other’ who contradicts and accuses but stubbornly refuses to disappear.
In Rohith Vemula’s letter, for instance, you find his love for nature, for original art, for the stars – a longing one may find in others, including in an upper caste Hindu boy. But Vemula’s yearning for nature, art and the stars is imbued with a pain – historical and political – that marks the “fatal accident” of his birth differently and introduces a different ‘childhood loneliness’ in him. Vemula will suddenly appear similar, and at the next moment, unfamiliar, to others.
It is similar in the case of Ahmed. Going through his public Facebook posts one finds a deep love for Pakistani poet Ahmad Faraz. All those who are fans of Mehdi Hasan in India will be familiar with Faraz’s poetry. Among the many couplets, he quotes in post after post, one reads, “Us shakhs se bas itna sa taalluk hai Faraz / Wo pareshan ho to humein neend nahin aati” (With her, the relationship is just this much, Faraz/ If she is worried, I am unable to sleep). All the couplets that Ahmed quotes are full of sadness and longing for love. Occasionally there is a couplet on romantic trust and its betrayal.
One can tell that love weighs heavily on his heart – a story too familiar to be only of a Muslim boy from Badaun. Ahmed’s mother was partially correct when she said her son is not into politics. On August 15, invoking a simple act of patriotism, he wished everyone “Happy Independence Day.” He also posted a photograph of various madrasas where boys celebrated Independence Day draped in the tricolour. But Ahmed is disturbed by politics or a certain kind of politics. There are two posts that are critical of the founders of the RSS. There are a few that show his anxiety for people who are victimised for beef eating and cow slaughter. In an India TV video – posted on October 1 – a priest in Dadri admitted to engaging in deliberate cow slaughter to create communal mischief.
These posts are political to the extent of Ahmed’s anxiety about the limits of life’s choices before him as much as they are a concern for others who face the same. There are no belligerent or angry posts regarding any political cause or concern. Ahmed is a huge fan of Bollywood music and has often posted songs by K.K., Bombay Jayashri, Kailash Kher and Arijit Singh among others. There are posts on faith, including quotes from Hazrat Ali. Though there is also an interesting post depicting a poster that reads ‘a man was asked if he was Hindu or Muslim, but his stunning reply was, he was simply a beggar.’
Religion doesn’t disallow Ahmed from accepting the purely material constraints of human existence. And his singular love and excitement for an MSc in Biotechnology comes forth in his asking his friends to pray for him, followed by his jubilant post on getting through Jamia Millia Islamia and JNU. Such have been the simple stuff of his dreams, pleasures and sorrows. It makes Ahmed like several other Indian boys who like him – Hindu or Muslim, secular or religious – are intensely dipped in romantic melancholia. This is not an attempt at romanticising or essentialising Ahmed, but at emphasising the vulnerability that we all share with him.
Ahmed’s disappearance raises questions, although not on his alleged mental condition, which his mother has strongly refuted. The only illness Ahmed seems to suffer from, if one goes by his Facebook declarations, is what we have all grappled with at various stages in life – the illness of overwhelming love. This makes one remember Alexander Pushkin’s poem ‘Love.’
“Keep the medicines on the table where they are.
This disease is incurable.”
There is yet another post of his which gains significance in this context: “Let nobody threaten you”. This mad heart realises the necessity of being brave in these times of intolerance. It matters that Ahmed is Muslim. It matters that he does not come from an affluent family. It matters that his side of the story was not heard. Vemula is no more but his spectre, his name on walls, pamphlets, posters and in articles refuses to disappear. He is part of the nation’s beleaguered conscience.
A nine-side football team from JNU, named Red Star JNU, played in the Capital Carnival tournament on Sunday while wearing jerseys with ‘Najeeb’ written on them. Predominantly of Malayalis, the team’s captain said, they cancelled their Onam programme on October 22 as everyone was “depressed” about Ahmed’s disappearance.
Ahmed won’t disappear so easily from our midst, as several students and his mother continue to hope for his return. The ‘other’ should not be allowed to disappear from our sight and our insight for all the unexpected challenges and pleasures they bring to our world with the otherness of their presence.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.