New Delhi: Days after the Times of India carried a report insinuating that the missing JNU student Najeeb Ahmed could be an ISIS sympathiser – a charge Delhi police officials have denied – sections of the civil society and students across Delhi University college campuses have demanded an unconditional apology from the national daily.
On March 21, a TOI front-page story by journalist Raj Shekhar Jha had claimed on the basis of conversations with anonymous “highly placed sources” that Ahmed’s internet browsing history apparently showed that he was looking for information on ISIS’s “ideology, execution and network,” and that his searches included “ways to join ISIS” and similar such queries.
The story also claimed that the conclusions were drawn from a report on his browsing history, which was accessed by the Delhi police, from YouTube and Google, and has now been submitted to the Delhi high court.
Ahmed went missing from JNU, which he had recently joined as a research scholar, on October 15 following an assault on him by the ABVP, a student group affiliated to the RSS.
According to Jha’s claims in the TOI story, on October 14, a day before his disappearance, Ahmed was watching an ISIS video on YouTube when the ABVP assaulters knocked on his door.
Soon after the TOI story was published, many television channels picked up the news and aired the unverified information without confirming the charges with the Delhi police.
However, when a few journalists decided to verify the information, Delhi police officials denied having accessed any such report on Ahmed’s browsing history.
“We saw a report in the media claiming that Google and YouTube had indicated that Najeeb was listening to a speech by an IS member a day before he went missing and he may be associated with the organisation. The police has not received any such report. Any association with the ISIS has not come up in Delhi police’s investigation so far,” special commissioner of police and Delhi police spokesperson Dependra Pathak told the Hindustan Times.
Pathak further said that the police had not submitted “any such report or evidence to the high court” and that its “investigations have not yielded any such information,” clearly contradicting the TOI story.
Amidst contradicting reports, on March 22 the TOI was forced to publish a 75-word comment from the Delhi police, in which the police denied having accessed any such information on Ahmed.
In the verbal battle that ensued after the publication of the story, many students and activists condemned the practice of using anonymous sources while making such wild allegations in a case as sensitive as Ahmed’s.
Despite issuing a clarification, Jha made another attempt to back his story even as he was forced to accept the police’s denial.
To a question on Twitter by political activist Kavita Krishnan, who has severely criticised the report, Jha justified his report by saying that if the cops hadn’t received Ahmed’s browsing history, how could they confirm he had not checked ISIS videos
Responding to such unverifiable allegation on Ahmed, Krishnan, who is also a member of CPI (Marxist–Leninist) Liberation, said, “Can such smear journalism really get away with no consequences? Indian media does this regularly with terror-accused Muslim men, but now they are doing it with a boy who went missing after a public assault by a right-wing student group linked to the ruling BJP and RSS. I am distressed and angered by such journalism that causes such pain to the missing boy’s family.”
Ahmed’s mother had lashed out against the TOI report in a press conference on March 22.
Krishnan further asked, “Can the principle of protection of sources’ privacy apply to a senior police officer who plants such baseless, mischievous stories? Can a journalist really be allowed to throw random, suggestive ‘radicalisation’ mud on a missing boy in the hope it sticks in public memory, and when the same is explicitly denied by the investigative agency, turn around and ask ‘How do they know he didn’t Google IS if they haven’t researched his browsing history'”.
Many students in JNU alleged that the false information was planted by the Hindu right in the influential daily, which has been trying to defame Ahmed since his disappearance. The students alleged that the story was one of the tools through which the Hindu right wanted to shift the attention away from ABVP’s assault on Ahmed.
Meanwhile, despite the police denying the charges, ABVP issued a press release listing the details of the TOI story and foregrounding Ahmed’s possible ISIS links.
“It looks like Najeeb had already been influenced by Islamic fundamentalism and probably because of this he often got into a scuffle with people. The more unfortunate part of the case is that the police has not done enough in the case except traumatising nine students with polygraph tests. This looks like a communist conspiracy in which Najeeb was made to disappear on the directions of Islamic fundamentalists…and mislead the country,” the press release said.
Ahmed’s case has been a polarising issue between a large section of the academic community and the ABVP over the past few months, with the former alleging that the JNU administration has not only failed to take the case seriously but has also veered towards protecting the ABVP assaulters. In a political context, with many members of the minority communities reportedly being falsely accused in terror-related cases, such unethical practices in influential media houses are a clear cause for worry.