Jawaharlal Nehru University’s campus in Delhi has played host to unsettling incidents all year, from the Afzal Guru commemorative protests in February to the arrests and siege atmosphere that developed in its aftermath. In August, there were startling allegations of sexual assault. The university is again on edge, this time because of the mysterious disappearance of a postgraduate student after a brawl with Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad activists and a blame game over the incident that has acquired sharply communal overtones.
On Wednesday, the Delhi Police announced a reward for information about 27-year-old Najeeb Ahmad, a native of Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun district who is pursuing MSc in Biotechnology. He was last seen in his hostel room on Saturday morning.
“He has left his phone in the hostel room and is still untraceable,” additional Deputy Commissioner of Delhi Police (south district) Nupur Prasad told Scroll.in. The police has announced a Rs 50,000 award for any useful information leading to him.
“A case of abduction has been registered on the basis of a complaint by his parents and we have sought help from Central Bureau of Investigation and other agencies in finding him at the earliest,” Prasad said.
The trouble seems to have started with an altercation late on Friday night between Ahmad and another hostel resident, Vikrant, a member of the ABVP, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Amid conflicting accounts, this much is clear: Vikrant and two others apparently visited Ahmad’s room while campaigning for the hostel mess elections.
A war of words is said to have broken out, following which Ahmad is said to have slapped Vikrant, something that he later admitted to the hostel warden later.
Scores of students soon gathered outside Room 106 on the first floor, where Ahmad had shifted from a dormitory barely a fortnight ago.
“We knew something would happen and suddenly we saw a few students pouncing on Najeeb,” said a student residing in Mahi-Mandavi hostel who did not want to be identified. “The group had now turned into a mob and they were set to kill him.”
The hostel warden rushed to the room immediately and the security groups inside the campus were summoned there.
“The mob, however, refused to stop and they assaulted Najeeb in front of the warden and the security guards, compelling them to take him to the washroom and lock him inside for protection,” he said.
The warden and the guards tried to pacify the crowd and then decided to take Ahmad to the warden’s office on the ground floor. Ahmad was assaulted again on the staircase, according to those present at the time.
“The mess election in Mahi-Mandavi which was supposed to take place on Monday has now been postponed for an indefinite time,” said another post-graduation student who resides in the hostel.
It remains unclear what led to the altercation. The police are said to have found strips of anti-depressants and sleeping pills in Ahmad’s hostel room. Following which, the state of Ahmad’s mental health was made out to be at the top of the list of probabilities leading to the altercation with Vikrant, a senior police officer said.
Ahmad’s parents have, however, claimed that he had no such medical problems.
His mother told media persons that Ahmad had called her up around 2 am on Saturday and described the incident, prompting her to leave Badaun for Delhi by the first morning bus.
She spoke to Ahmad once again around 11 am after she reached the Anand Vihar bus terminus in east Delhi, she said. But by the time she reached the university campus, Ahmad had disappeared, leaving his phone behind in the hostel room.
The warden’s claim that he saw Ahmad leaving in an auto in the afternoon, just before his mother arrived at the campus, has also come under scrutiny.
“If he wanted to flee, why would he have talked to his mother and told her that he was waiting for her at the hostel,” Aqdas Musharraf, Ahmad’s cousin who lives at Zakir Nagar, was quoted by the Times of India as saying.
Ahmad’s roommate Qasim said that he has not seen Ahmad since Saturday morning.
The relatives approached the police on the same day. When Ahmad could not be found for over 24 hours, a case of abduction was registered.
On Monday night, scores of JNU students gathered outside the Vasant Kunj (South) Police Station demanding immediate action against those responsible, asking for more efforts in finding Najeeb.
“Muslims are terrorist.” This is what a student found scribbled on a desk in the visitors’ room at Mahi-Mandavi hostel, soon after Ahmad had gone missing.
Someone took a photo of the scribble and shared it on his Facebook account. In no time, the movement #FindingNajeeb transformed into #IamNajeeb.
The JNU Student Union, currently controlled by an alliance of All India Students Association and Student Federation of India, is now claiming that the incident is not an isolated one and instead, reflects the ABVP’s alleged attempts to communalise campus atmosphere. Far from being about a missing student, the incident has now snowballed into yet another battle between the Left and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.
What added fuel to the simmering anger was a statement by the JNU administration, which mentioned Ahmad as an accused in the incident.
When a complaint of physical violence involving a student in Mahi-Mandovi Hostel on 14 October, 2016 at 10:30 PM was reported to IHA, the Administration promptly acted on it. Wardens of the hostel met and discussed all the issues related to the incidence with the students present, including the hostel president, JNUSU president and room-mate of the accused… The students were assured of a speedy inquiry. In the mean time the accused student’s parents lodged a police complaint saying their son was missing from the hostel.
An indefinite strike was called by the students union and immediate suspension of classes followed in most of the schools in the University on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, posters were pasted across south Delhi, though not too many could be seen within the university campus. Security guards noted down details of every vehicle that entered the university premises, with drivers being shown the posters and asked if they had seen Ahmad.
Protests by the student groups, including the ABVP, continued at the administration block. While the Left-backed groups and the student’s union demanded immediate action against ABVP, the latter demanded protection for Vikrant and two others, claiming that they were being threatened by members of the Left-groups.
“Ahmad’s roommate Qasim, who is himself a convener in AISA [All India Students Association] is giving wrong information to Najeeb’s family and others. The role of JNU students union president Mohit Pandey and Qasim should be probed,” said Alok Kumar Singh, President of the ABVP’s JNU wing.
Other students, many of them members of non-political minority student groups in JNU campus, expressed their distress at the fact that campus politics and the ideological battle had assumed centre-stage, pushing aside the collective call for finding Najeeb Ahmad at the earliest.
“The entire narrative has taken a turn,” said a student of Arabic studies who did not want to be identified. “The fact that Ahmad is missing now accounts for less than 25% of the dialogue. I cannot even see a poster inside the campus – or find concern about him in the voices of the leaders.”
“After the February 9 incident, there is a general tendency to blow things out of proportion,” the student said. “The concern is that we all know what is happening outside JNU today but this campus is considered a safe haven for minorities and others. If such things happen, the whole debate ends here.”
While many students blamed the JNU administration for not taking adequate action against those responsible, some even blamed the JNU students union for having failed to enter into a dialogue with the administration.
“If they [students union] can’t do it, they should resign,” said a postgraduate student in Russian Studies. “This is no excuse that the administration turned them down when they went for a dialogue on the matter.”
He added: “It is also shocking that the administration has failed to take any action against the perpetrators despite there being so many eye witnesses. If the perpetrators are left unpunished, such incidents will keep happening time and again.”