New Delhi: Thirty-eight days after Najeeb Ahmed, a student in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) went missing, his mother, sister and about 50 students from the varsity took out another march on Wednesday to demand that the search for him be intensified. The march was aiming to go from Mandi House to parliament, but was stopped by the police mid-way.
Reports quoted Najeeb’s sister as saying at the protest, “You (police) have seen him in Dharbhanga, but you are still unable to find him. It has been more than thirty days since he went missing but he is still untraceable. The government doesn’t care, it is now busy with demonetisation. The so-called big move is nothing but a cover-up of their other failures.”
Ahmed, a first-year MSc student at JNU, went missing on October 15. His disappearance came after an alleged altercation, a bawal, in the hostel the night before.
Thereafter, nobody can quite tell what exactly happened, with allegations flung from every side. Several contesting narratives have been floated.
The facts thus far are that there was some sort of altercation in his hostel on October 14, where he was beaten up by a mob – the nature of the attack (not to speak of the composition of this mob) differs from story to story.
A meeting took place after the attack with the wardens of the hostel, where a letter was produced, signed by Ahmed and several others. The letter, however, does not mention that Ahmed was beaten up at all, but instead implicates him. A wardens committee meeting on October 16 recognised that Ahmed had been attacked, but only after he went missing. A proctorial committee within the university, which released its report on November 20, found a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP – the student wing of the BJP), Vikrant Kumar, guilty of assaulting Ahmed and “using derogatory language with provocative behaviour”.
In a press conference on October 27, his mother, Fatima Nafees, said that she received a call from Ahmed around 2 am on the night of the altercation, following which she decided to come to Delhi from Badaun, Uttar Pradesh. She insisted that she was in touch with Najeeb throughout her journey, last speaking to him from Anand Vihar ISBT at around 12:30 pm on October 15, from where she took the metro. Arriving at JNU at 1:10 pm, she found that he was missing.
Qasim Dargahi, Ahmed’s roommate, reportedly left the hostel at around 11 am and is therefore unable to account for what happened. Najeeb’s phone was found in his room.
The JNU students’ union (JNUSU) has been organising repeated protests against “administrative indifference”, claiming that the vice chancellor, M. Jagadesh Kumar, even refused to speak to Ahmed’s mother until just before her first press conference. The university administration had even refused to file a complaint with the police, leaving it to the family and the students union to lodge an FIR for abduction. JNUSU president, Mohit Pandey, claimed at the October 27 press conference that the police has not done very much about it. Police inaction was stark with their refusal to question the “identified” attackers of Ahmed. The police went on to question four members of the ABVP on November 6 who students said they had seen at the altercation, but not Kumar, who was later named in the JNU’s internal inquiry.
JNUSU claims outsiders were involved in the incident on the night of October 14 and asked why the warden failed to mention this in the police report. Pandey also wanted to know why the police had not searched JNU thoroughly, especially the forested parts, as part of the investigation.
Delegations have been sent to Delhi’s lieutenant governor Najeeb Jung and the minorities commission, but to little effect. Ahmed’s mother and sister were reportedly detained and roughed up by the police on November 6 for organising a march to India Gate to demand that the police intensify their search.
The “insensitivity” of the authorities has been highlighted repeatedly by the union and by Ahmed’s family.
On November 19, DNA reported that CCTV footage from Jamia Milia Islamia University that the police wanted in connection to Najeeb had been erased because the university only kept records dating back a month.
On the same day, the Times of India wrote that a mysterious letter had reached the president of Mahi-Mandavi hostel from a woman in Aligarh who claimed to have met Ahmed. The letter has been submitted for forensic scrutiny.
Rumour and speculation has allowed Ahmed’s disappearance to be politicised in innumerable ways. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal told reporters on November 6 that he suspected police inaction was because of “political pressure”. He also said, “People who were involved in the brawl with Najeeb were questioned by the police yesterday, 22 days after he went missing. That was also a formality.”
The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Akhilesh Yadav also met Ahmed’s family earlier this week, promising to look into the possibility administrative intervention from the UP government.
Meanwhile, the lapses continue and the blame keeps shifting. Ahmed remains missing.
Who attacked whom?
Mahi-Mandavi, the hostel where Ahmed’s room is, is popularly perceived as an “ABVP hostel”, though of course it also houses several other students who do not share the same politics.
The story begins with Vikrant Kumar (named in the proctorial inquiry), who was contesting the hostel elections for mess secretary. He is a student at the centre for Russian studies and an ABVP member. Kumar told The Wire that he knocked on Ahmed’s door while he was campaigning. He claims Ahmed slapped him as he was handing out a pamphlet, without any provocation on his part whatsoever. Kumar, whose wrist is adorned with a thick band of red threads, said that only after the first slap did Najeeb ask him pointing at his wrist, “Why are you wearing that?” following which a second slap was allegedly delivered. He clarified, “I don’t think he saw it at first, when he slapped me. I think he saw it later only and asked just like that.”
Kumar was accompanied by two other students, Ankit and Sunil, who were also out campaigning. Ankit at this point, said Kumar, went downstairs to get the guard while Kumar complained to Naushad, who lives in the room next to Ahmed’s.
Kumar said Kumar apologised to him and Naushad, but because of the noise, people were beginning to come out of their rooms. By the time Ankit came back with the guard, Kumar says that he had locked Najeeb inside his room himself because he sensed hostility and wanted the matter to be concluded.
The guard was followed by Pandey, the JNUSU president, and the three wardens of the hostel. Before they came, according to Kumar’s narrative, Shahid Raza Khan, who was campaigning on the floor above, had come down to see what the commotion was about and asked to take Ahmed to the washroom. Kumar also claimed that other people from downstairs – mostly people who loiter during the elections – had also come because they had heard “kuch bawal huya hai (there is some sort of altercation)”. Dargahi, Ahmed’s roommate and a JNUSU convenor belonging to the left-wing student group All India Students’ Association (same as Pandey), showed up around this time as well.
The wardens called everyone on the corridor to disperse and apparently asked Ahmed if he had slapped Kumar. According to Kumar, Ahmed conceded and agreed to go to the warden’s office. A meeting was held in which Pandey, Dargahi, Kumar and Khan were all present with Ahmed and a few others. It concluded with Ahmed and Kumar both submitting statements to the warden.
Kumar said that he demanded that Ahmed be evicted at once and claims that Dargahi agreed with him. But the senior warden apparently ruled immediate eviction out because where would Ahmed go at night anyway and besides who was going to pay his mess bill. It was therefore decided that he would be allowed to remain in the hostel till October 21.
When asked if he had beaten up Ahmed, Vikrant categorically denied it, but did however say, “Whether or not I wanted to hit him back became irrelevant. Other people, offended on my behalf, began to fight for me.”
Fearing that the incident might blow out of proportion, Kumar said that he went and registered a complaint with the police.
Cries of communalism
At the press conference on October 27, Khan narrated his own version, as a witness. The press conference was organised by JNUSU and Ahmed’s family to put the record straight and “counter misinformation”.
When Khan arrived on the first floor, he said he saw Kumar, Ankit and Sunil caught in a brawl with Ahmed, with some people trying to separate them. He claimed that he saw Ahmed bleeding from his nose and with a wound to his head. He stated that he saw Kumar beat up Ahmed and also claimed that Vikrant told him, “Bhaiyya, usne dhage pe haath uthaya hai (brother, he raised his hand against the thread)”.
Khan also claims to have locked Ahmed in his room to “save him from the mob”. Furthermore, he said that the guards took Ahmed out of his room and only then did he go to the washroom. Ankit and Kumar apparently asked Khan’s permission to enter the washroom, where Khan then claims that he “saw with his own eyes” that they beat Ahmed up. Khan also says that Ahmed was brutally beaten all the way down to the warden’s office and maintains that a mob lynched Ahmed even as the door to the warden’s office was being unlocked. He claims that the lynching continued in front of wardens and guards.
When The Wire asked Kumar if Ahmed had been beaten up even after the guards and wardens arrived, he said, “What do you think? Does anyone have the guts to beat another person up with a warden in front? Nobody wants to be thrown out.”
Khan’s account details the kind of abuse that was hurled, communally coloured, where some people had allegedly asked the warden to hand over Ahmed because “dharm ka mamla hai (it’s a matter of religion)”.
Some others, he claimed, went as far as to suggest that the wardens be beaten too if they intervene.
Khan said that the administration has accused the student’s union of communalising the issue, but insisted, “How are we communalising it? It was communal to begin with. This attack was communal.”
Ahmed’s family is has also alleged that the attack was communal in nature. AISA and AVBP both have their own versions of what transpired.
The Wire attempted to ask Pandey what his version of the events were, but unfortunately, Pandey has remained unavailable.
The Wire spoke to some students on Ahmed’s corridor, who were also present that night.
Saquib Salim, a resident of the same corridor and a student at the centre for historical studies, said he arrived on the first floor corridor of the hostel when Ahmed was already locked inside his room. There was some general hullabaloo, he said, from which what he heard was that some illegal resident or outsider had beaten up a resident, therefore everyone was outraged and ready to beat the “outsider’’.
Ahmed was new, admitted only this semester and had been allotted his room in Mahi Mandavi about 15 days before the incident. Sharjeel Imam, who lives a couple of doors down, said that Ahmed went home soon after he moved into the hostel and had therefore not really lived there. It had only been about three days since he had come back. Consequently, nobody on the corridor really knew him and so it was easy to mistake him as an outsider.
Adding further to this “bahar ka ladka” confusion, a student had apparently gone downstairs to find out who lived in that room and come back saying that it was a ‘Saquib Salim’.
Salim, who was there, said that he then told the crowd that no, he was Saquib Salim, and whoever was in that room and refusing to get out was someone else. The residents and, by his own admission, Salim himself, were all ready to beat up the alleged outsider. Salim clarified that he had, till recently, been Dargahi’s roommate “on paper” though he had never actually lived in that room. He had filed a request and had gotten his official room shifted a week before Najeeb was allotted the same room. And evidently, the hostel office hadn’t managed to change the register by then, so he was still listed as a resident of that room.
Dargahi showed up at this point, according to Salim, but did not clarify “at least in front of me”, that Ahmed was his roommate, which again, did not help the fact that Ahmed was being seen as an illegal squatter.
Salim narrated the confusion of the situation on the corridor and said, “Some people were claiming he (Ahmed) is not from the hostel, some that he’s from a different hostel, while still others claimed that he isn’t from JNU at all.” It was only when he was taken downstairs that it was established that he was a legal resident.
There was definitely a mob waiting for Ahmed though, in Salim’s account, and he said that Ahmed had definitely been beaten up before he made it to the washroom. He also said that Dargahi, upon arriving, had declared that Ahmed be dealt with there and then, when a mob was already ready to beat him up, shouting that Ahmed be handed over to them from the other end of the corridor.
Salim was unable to see what happened to Ahmed between the washroom and the stairs, but seeing the guards he realised that Ahmed had managed to reach the stairs through the crowd.
There was a lot of “hungama (commotion)” on the stairs for nearly five minutes, he said. The lights went out, but whether this was intentional or by accident he could not tell. In all the pushing and shoving, lots of people reported some sort of manhandling or mild injuries.
The architecture of the corridor, he reiterated, would prevent any single person from seeing everything together, he said, and so anyone claiming as much is lying. Salim said he did not see Najeeb being beaten up in front of him.
Kumar, Ankit and Sunil, said Salim, didn’t seem like they were “in the mood” to beat up Ahmed further, but the others who had come up from downstairs were prepared for more. Salim admits that there were communal slurs hurled but he also added that there was nothing novel about that – abuses of all kinds, rooted in gender, race and so on are unthinkingly flung with regularity.
Adarsh Kumar, affiliated to AISA, who was also campaigning that night, and had visited Ahmed’s room just before Vikrant, said that he did not see any ABVP people there outside the warden’s office. When asked if there were people shouting asking that Ahmed be beaten up, he said, “Conversation then was more concerned with Alimuddin [the present president of the hostel, from NSUI] and Ahmed’s immediate eviction based on a claim that he was not mentally stable.”
A letter was written following this, where Ahmed had apparently conceded to slapping Kumar and wrote that he doesn’t remember anything, said Adarsh.
Salim and Kumar both agreed that this letter, which was also signed by those who were present at the meeting, including Pandey, told only half the story – that of Ahmed slapping Kumar – but made no mention of Ahmed being hit.
Dargahi had also written a letter, which he had apparently dictated to one Ayush Bhardwaj. Kumar claims that he was sitting next to them when the letter was being written. The letter begins by testifying that the claims of Ahmed’s mental instability are false, but then makes a 180 degree turn with Dargahi asking the warden to bar Najeeb from the room because he feels threatened. A few days later, Dargahi retracted the claims made in the letter, reportedly saying that he only signed it in faith and being uncomfortable with English had asked Bhardwaj to write, thereby implicating Bhardwaj. Bhardwaj, who people know to be an AISA sympathiser, put out a pamphlet rubbishing Dargahi’s sudden retraction.
When The Wire called Dargahi to ask for a statement, he said he was busy with the protest and hung up.
Evidently, there are still several gaps that need filling and several procedural lapses that need to be addressed. The political implications of Ahmed’s disappearance hang heavy.
Many non-partisan students are hesitating to support the movement because they are unsure about what to believe.
Salim said, “A lot of non-affiliated Muslim students have told me, one of them an ex-hostel president, that they are boycotting JNUSU’s call because they are not talking about Najeeb. Our interest lies in finding him and then we can sort out what’s what.”