Every morning, a distraught mother sits in the silence of her ramshackle home in Badaun in despair, holding a pair of khaki trousers that comforts her with the scent of her missing son.
Fatima Nafees, 61, is isolated from the cacophony of the Assembly election that has engulfed Uttar Pradesh for almost two months and continues to dominate the news on televisions. For she is on what she calls 'life's biggest search' for her eldest son, Najeeb Ahmed, a first-year MSc student of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) who went missing after a fracas with students in the campus.
Najeeb’s disappearance has forced her to renegotiate life with Allah, the merciful, the benefactor. All she wants is for her son – a brilliant student of biotechnology for whose studies she had sold all her jewellery – to walk through the door and demand food.
She says Najeeb was the best of her three sons, who could have become a scientist, an IAS officer, or perhaps even a judge, if he had luck on his side. Najeeb – who had once tried hard to become a doctor, though unsuccessfully – did not go to tony private schools but rather studied at lowly government-run educational institutions, cracking first class marks throughout. The other sons, Mujeeb and Haseeb, are not even a patch on their brother, says Fatima.
But her brilliant son is missing since October 2016 and Fatima does not know whom to ask where he is. Without fail, she would pray every day: “Please return my son, else let me be there and see what has happened to him. I won’t ask for anything else.” And then, she breaks into a paroxysm of sobbing. “When will he return home? It’s been almost five months now.”
Gossip fills hear ears every now and then. People call her from Delhi, saying Najeeb is hiding in Gurgaon, perhaps in Noida. There are others who express fear that he must have been killed and buried at an undisclosed location. Fatima shudders, hoping against hope that her son is alive, and safe.
Her ailing carpenter husband is unable to earn, unable to do anything at home. Fatima and her sons travel almost every fortnight to Delhi, to visit the campus where Najeeb was seen last by a handful of friends. There, she sits at Ganga Dhaba, a popular roadside eatery that runs round the clock within the campus, meeting lawyers, handful of friends, and if lucky, one or two politicians.
Almost every time, her tea grows cold; Fatima sits motionless for hours hoping for some news about her son. She remembers everything, including the last time she spoke to Najeeb.
It was the morning of 15 October, 2016, Fatima received a call on her phone when, en route to Delhi, she was at the Anand Vihar railway station. She was worried because Najeeb had told her about a scuffle in the hostel, and that he was taken in a JNU ambulance to the Safdarjung Hospital and treated for external injuries. The doctors wanted to get him admitted for observation but insisted on a police complaint, Najeeb backed out and returned to JNU.
And then he hung up. An anxious Fatima headed for Delhi, calling Najeeb every hour but his handset went unanswered. When he called, an infuriated Fatima admonished her son for not responding to her calls. Najeeb laughed: “I was in the washroom, Ammi (a colloquial term for mother), my phone was on charge. Kindly wait for me, I am heading for Anand Vihar.”
That was the last Najeeb spoke to Fatima, who waited for more than two and a half hours, not realising she was in for some harrowing, uncertain times. She rushed to Najeeb’s hostel room and found everything but her son: His suitcase, books, tea mug, pens, writing pads, clothes, shoes... everything.
Fatima sensed Najeeb at every corner of the room. She scrimmaged through his clothes, books and bedding, even toiletries. She remembered her previous visits to the hostel, memories locked in, waiting for release. No one could tell her anything, including those with whom Najeeb had a near-violent argument that triggered a complaint from the warden of JNU’s Mahi hostel. In fact, Najeeb even wrote an apology letter to the JNU authorities, confessing it was he who hit first.
The gang of nine accused, now named in an FIR by Delhi Police, met up with Fatima and Najeeb’s sister Sadaf Mosharraf but said nothing. The nine students were members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). They told Fatima that the altercation was over voting issues for hostel elections.
The ABVP maintains that its members, Vikrant Kumar, Ankit Kumar and Sunil Pratap, had met Najeeb at his room on 14 October, 2017, seeking his vote in the upcoming election for Mess-secretary. The scuffle – claims ABVP – happened after Najeeb hit Vikrant for wearing a red-thread on his wrist, usually associated with the Hindu faith.
The ABVP members retaliated, which led the warden to intervene, along with JNU Students’ Union president Mohit Pandey. Najeeb admitted that he began the scuffle and agreed to leave the hostel on or before 21 October, 2016. The minutes of the meeting, now with the police, has signatures of the ABVP members, Najeeb, his roommate, Mohammed Qasim, and Pandey.
Then Najeeb went missing and the search began. A Rs 10 lakh reward was announced by Delhi Police for anyone offering information about the missing student. Sniffer dogs were brought in by the cops and the woods at JNU were thoroughly and repeatedly searched.
Investigations revealed that Najeeb was last seen in the campus on the morning of 15 October. Delhi Police claims that some students saw him at the auto rickshaw stand, supposedly heading for Jamia Millia University in the southern fringes of Delhi.
The cops further claimed that they even asked Jamia Millia officials to show them CCTV footage of that week, but the request was flatly refused. Till date, the footage has not been shared, despite an official request submitted by the Delhi Police.
Multiple searches within the hostel and campus have yielded nothing; constables of Delhi Police got irritated with Fatima’s repeated requests and told her to stay away. She then turned to politicians – their names would easily total India’s best power pack – but all they could offer was solace.
She met up with Union home minister Rajnath Singh, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, but drew a total blank, only sympathies. “Each one pointed towards another, saying they were not directly responsible for the search. All of them said they will offer their best. But my son has not returned,” rues Fatima.
After having hundreds of people traipse through her home for almost half a year, Fatima, not surprisingly, has learnt how to organise her emotions for what she intended to speak about Najeeb. Sometimes, she allows her sons to talk about their missing brother.
“He was a brilliant student, very studious, wanted to learn the flute,” says Mujeeb, pain writ large on his face. Najeeb schooled from Florence Nightingale Academy, Badaun, and graduated in Biotechnology from Invertis University, Bareilly, and had joined JNU in August, 2016.
Mujeeb says he is not aware whether his brother went to Jamia Millia University after the attack. “The fight had rattled him up. That the Left leaning students no longer had total control in the University was worrying him, he felt Jamia Millia was a safer bet for him,” says Mujeeb.
What worries the family is the slow pace of the probe. The Delhi High Court, which continues to hear the case of Najeeb’s disappearance, has already pulled up the Delhi Police for slow progress. Now polygraph test of persons connected with Najeeb’s disappearance are being explored as an option; other leads have not yielded any fruit. But that’s easier said than done because repeated requests for such tests have been rejected or ignored by the students, delaying the process inordinately.
And then there are other problems. The family claims that cops keep visiting their home in Badaun and also of their relatives, looking for Najeeb. “This is total harassment,” says Haseeb, the third brother. But the cops say such raids will happen, since he is still listed as a 'missing person'.
"We are still working on the premise that Najeeb is hiding somewhere, or he may have been kidnapped by some people. So search operations will continue," said Ravindra Yadav, joint commissioner of police (Crime). He said the latest raid in February, 2017, at Najeeb’s ancestral home took place because Najeeb’s email was accessed by his maternal uncle Ashraf Qadri. The police had been keeping a watch.
Yadav said it's proving difficult to trace Najeeb because he left his cellphone in the hostel, along with his wallet. He said the cops were probing all possibilities, including whether someone with vested interests had deliberately kept him captive to foment mischief.
It is reliably learnt that even relatives of the students were being kept under surveillance, but nothing has worked. But what is strange is that the cops have not questioned those allegedly involved in the brawl the night before Najeeb disappeared. “We have sent notices for lie detector tests,” said Yadav.
At JNU, many have – expectedly – fallen silent. Najeeb does not figure in their conversations anymore. Senior officials of the University refused to comment, saying that the case was sub-judice. A mail to JNU vice-chancellor, Mamidala Jagadish Kumar, went unanswered. Najeeb’s roommate, Qasim, says Najeeb left the hostel after the fight. “He was a very quiet person and did not tell me anything before leaving the hostel, I am equally worried.”
A senior member of the RSS, J Nanda Kumar, said it would be grossly inappropriate to blame Najeeb’s disappearance on the ABVP. “The hostel authorities have obtained details of the fight where Najeeb has admitted to his fault. It would be grossly wrong to blame ABVP for Najeeb’s disappearance,” Nanda Kumar said in an interview. “The police is investigating the case, the matter is being heard in the court.”
Alok Singh, president of ABVP unit at JNU, said he, along with JNU students union president Pandey, even protested the decision of the three hostel wardens to expel Najeeb as he had admitted to slapping Vikrant. “We requested the warden to defer punishment until Najeeb was in a position to make a proper statement, and the three wardens agreed.”
But there are others who differ. Kawalpreet Kaur, president of the CPIML Liberation-backed student group AISA's Delhi University unit, says the ABVP students must be questioned to get to the bottom of the case. “Everyone is shooting in the dark,” says Kaur.
Caught in the crossfire are Fatima and her family members. Fatima says she will urge the lawyers to argue in the courts as to why the JNU officials did not ask the police to question ABVP members, including outsiders involved in the clash.
The lie-detector test, it seems, is key to the crisis.
Updated Date: Mar 10, 2017 14:30 PM