New Delhi: Three years and three months have passed since Najeeb Ahmed, an MSc biotechnology student then aged 27, left his hostel room at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) early on 15 October 2016.
Since then, a series of search operations across the country has been carried out by three different investigation agencies — the Delhi Police, its Crime Branch and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) — but there has been no trace of him.
In October 2018, the CBI gave up on its investigation and filed a closure report in court, stating that it was unable to locate Najeeb despite concerted efforts and declaring him “untraced”.
While the CBI has shut the case file, Najeeb’s mother, Fatima, is determined to fight for her son, as she believes that he is alive and will return home some day.
She is set to move court with a protest petition challenging the CBI’s closure report, filed in Patiala House Courts, on 27 February, calling the agency’s investigation “biased and partial”.
Speaking to ThePrint, Geeta Thatra, a JNU student who is assisting Fatima’s lawyer, said the purpose of the petition was to convince the court that the investigation was biased. The court, she added, should revisit some of the CBI’s conclusions and, if possible, investigate a few more aspects again.
“Firstly, we are going to tell the court that it is not a case of voluntary disappearance, as is being claimed by the CBI, and second, they cannot delink it with the violence perpetrated by ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) students and the attack on Najeeb that happened the night before he went missing,” she said.
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“The CBI has completely ignored the violence that happened the night before,” she said “Although it is unlikely that the court will ask the agency to reopen the investigation, we wish to set the record straight on these issues and also want them to take another look at certain aspects of the investigation,” she said.
Fatima claimed the CBI filed the closure report but “did not give us any documents (associated with the investigation, including statements) when we asked them”.
“The court, in April, directed the CBI to hand over the documents to us, which they have not done until now. What are they hiding?” she said. “This fight will continue.”
Asked about the petition, a CBI officer defended the agency’s closure report. “We have filed the closure report from our end with detailed notes on how and why it is being closed. Filing a petition is their right and we will do what the court directs,” the CBI officer said.
The night before Najeeb went missing, he was involved in a showdown with members of the ABVP, the RSS’ student wing, who were out seeking votes.
Although the police did call members of the ABVP for questioning and record their statements, their involvement in Najeeb’s disappearance could not be established.
ThePrint reconstructs the entire case from the day Najeeb, a “shy” student who once aspired to be a doctor, went missing from the JNU campus, piecing together the investigation that followed.
The ‘fight’ on an October night and a missing student
It was close to midnight on 14 October 2016, when a group of ABVP members allegedly knocked on Room 106 of Mahi-Mandvi, which Najeeb shared with room-mate Qasim, to seek votes for an upcoming hostel election.
There is no clarity on what actually happened between the students and Najeeb, but there was a scuffle and the 27-year-old was allegedly attacked.
Other students from the hostel, in their statement to the police, said that Najeeb had been “brutally” assaulted. He was then taken to Safdarjung Hospital and given medication, after which he returned to his room.
Qasim, his roommate was watching over him, the police said, something students on campus also confirmed.
What is known is that Najeeb spoke to his mother that night and then left his room the next morning without his phone.
According to investigators, however, Najeeb’s friends and roommate had told the police that he refused “to get any sort of medical aid or treatment” at the hospital and appeared disturbed.
According to a Delhi Police report, he was muttering that he committed a mistake. “Mujhse galti ho gayi, mera ilaj chal raha hai (I have committed a mistake, I am under treatment,” the report says he kept muttering that night, along with “Agar meri maa JNU aa sakti hai, toh kya hospital nai aa sakti (If my mother can come to JNU, can’t she come to the hospital)?”
Qasim, police claim, then called Najeeb’s mother asking her to reach JNU.
Police said Najeeb’s mother told Qasim that he should give him “his medicines” and not leave his side by the time she reaches the campus.
“Najeeb’s mother had told his roommate that he had some old problem and the relevant medicines would be in his room,” a Delhi police officer said.
“Najeeb did not have any visible injury nor did he complain of any discomfort,” the officer added. “They returned to JNU… Although Najeeb kept insisting that he would wait for his mother at the hospital. He further insisted on going to Gurugram where his aunt lives.”
“After reaching JNU, Qasim gave Najeeb certain medicines as instructed by his mother. However, Najeeb did not sleep throughout the night,” the police report states.
Resignation of the chief proctor
The sequence of events of the night was also corroborated by the then chief proctor of JNU, A.P. Dimri, in his inquiry report.
“I concluded that Najeeb was beaten up badly by a group of students and strict action should be taken against them,” Dimri had said. “People saw him being beaten up, but no one saw how the fight started.”
“I had asked the vice-chancellor to register a police case but he did not listen to me,” he added.
Dimri resigned from his post a couple of months after Najeeb’s disappearance, citing differences with Vice-Chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar about the way things were being handled by the JNU administration.
The search for Najeeb
It was after Mohit Pandey, the then president of the JNU Students Union, filed a complaint with police accusing nine ABVP members of thrashing and threatening Najeeb with dire consequences, that a case was registered.
The nine were subsequently booked.
“They were issuing death threats to Najeeb. It is pretty clear that they are involved in his disappearance,” Pandey had said.
As part of the investigation, the mobile phones of the nine accused were sent by the CBI to the Forensic Science Laboratory in Chandigarh. Nearly 122 gigabytes of data was extracted from six of the phones, including thousands of distinct files — 7,907 audio files, 1,440 video files, 4,015 text messages, 3,870 WhatsApp files, 1,14,488 image files, 29,608 SD-card files, and 20,717 miscellaneous files — and a 36,401-page extraction report prepared.
The data, however, did not reveal any relevant information.
According to the police, the other three phones could not be analysed as they were protected with a pattern lock and could not be cracked.
“Apart from analysing the data we also questioned the nine accused and also went through their call detail records but could but could not establish a direct link between the scuffle and Najeeb’s disappearance,” said the Delhi Police officer quoted above. “It also could not establish any conspiracy.”
Najeeb’s mother, however, has always slammed the police for their “inaction”.
“If they did not find anything in that data or their phones, why are they not making it public? We have asked the CBI to show us the phones and the material they claim to have taken from Najeeb’s laptop,” she told ThePrint. “But they have not given us a single document.”
The campus search
Alongside the investigation in the case, the police formed separate teams to start the search for Najeeb.
As part of an extensive search operation, the police divided the JNU campus in 11 zones and deployed over 560 policemen divided into several teams to carry out a “corner-to-corner search”.
Each team was headed by an assistant commissioner of police, assisted by three inspectors.
The police initially combed the 1,019-acre JNU campus, including all the 18 hostel complexes, classrooms, the administrative and academic blocks, terrace areas, septic tanks, cafeterias and the forest cover on campus.
After searching the campus, police extended it to hospitals, mortuaries, homes of Najeeb’s friends and relatives and religious places. A team even scanned through records of tickets bought by passengers from the ticketing office at the New Delhi Railway Station and the Kashmiri Gate Inter-state Bus Terminus.
When they could not find a clue, police took out records of all the UIDBs (unidentified dead bodies) reported since 15 October. Hospital records of accident cases wherein the victims were unidentified were also scanned.
“Our teams also looked through all admissions to psychiatric wards, casualty and emergency wards but could not trace him,” a Delhi Police source said. “After Delhi, the teams expanded search to adjoining states. Teams were sent to Ajmer Sharif dargah, two coaching institutes Najeeb attended in 2012, five prominent Barelvi seminaries — two in Bareilly, one each in Roorkee, Faizabad and Azamgarh — and the Invertis College, where he completed his Bachelor’s degree.”
The police teams also went to two schools in Uttar Pradesh where Najeeb studied but he could not be traced.
False alarms and the fake Islamic State angle
While the search for Najeeb was on, there were several hoax calls that the police received from individuals claiming that they saw the missing JNU student.
Police said that initially they would quickly dispatch a team every time they received a tip-off but most inputs turned out to be hoaxes.
“Our teams went to Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, across UP, Bihar, Northeast as we did not want to take a chance. But most tip offs did not yield anything,” another Delhi Police officer said.
Police then received a tip off that Najeeb was seen around Nepal. Since more than two sources confirmed the input, a search team was sent to Nepal and another to its borders.
Posters of Najeeb were then put up across the Nepal border.
As part of their operation, police also contacted the regional Foreigners Registration Office to see if he had left India.
“We checked all records but nothing could be found to suggest that he moved outside the country. Nothing could be found in Nepal as well,” the second officer said.
A media report meanwhile claimed that police were probing the possibility that Najeeb may have left the country to join the so-called Islamic State (IS), but the investigators outrightly rejected the claim.
The Delhi High Court in October 2018 also directed the media to remove all reports and videos linking Najeeb to ISIS.
The Jamia Nagar link
After the local police were unable to trace Najeeb and his mother approached the union home minister with an appeal for a CBI probe, the case was transferred to the Delhi Police crime branch in November 2016.
The crime branch’s search teams pored through CCTV footage from inside and outside the campus and identified an auto rickshaw that Najeeb reportedly took to leave the campus that night.
The crime branch then traced the auto driver, who told them that he had dropped Najeeb off at Jamia Nagar in southeast Delhi, a kilometre from where his uncle stayed.
When the team visited the residence of Najeeb’s uncle, he told police that his nephew “never showed up at this place”.
“The auto driver told us that he got down in Jamia Nagar. We then found that his uncle stayed there and the spot where he got down was very close to his uncle’s house,” a crime branch officer told ThePrint. “This was the closest we could get to reach Najeeb in this case. But unfortunately, when we went to his uncle’s residence, he told us that Najeeb never turned up.”
Another search operation was launched in that area but nothing was found.
“We searched the area, scanned the CCTV footage that was available but could not find anything,” the officer added.
Another promising clue came as the technical analysis of Najeeb’s email and Facebook accounts revealed that the former was being used by someone in Badaun. A search team was immediately sent to the location, only to discover that the user was Najeeb’s maternal uncle.
In its closure report, the CBI has cited the warden as saying that he saw Najeeb leave the campus and take an auto. The statement was, however, recorded almost a month after the incident.
“The CBI has placed on record a warden of the hostel who has said he saw Najeeb leave in an auto. It is a false statement, because the statement was taken more than a month after the incident,” said Thatra.
“Before that, he did not communicate the same to anyone despite so many protests. Why did he not step out earlier when students, Najeeb’s mother, were out on the roads, protesting,” she added.
‘He considered himself to be a misfit in JNU’
Another theory that the police came up with is that Najeeb left JNU as he considered himself to be a “misfit inside” the campus.
Police sources told ThePrint that Najeeb, had on two occasions left home without informing anyone but returned after a few days and on the day he went missing from JNU, he deliberately left his phone behind because he did not want to be traced.
Police also claimed that when they looked at Najeeb’s medical history, they found that he visited a psychologist at VIMHANS in New Delhi.
“The doctor also told us that he was low on self esteem as he had struggled for four years to get a seat in a medical college, but when he couldn’t and that affected his self confidence,” the first Delhi Police officer said. “The doctor also said that his mother pushed him for giving JNU entrances and he cracked them only after two attempts.”
Najeeb’s mother, however, slammed the theory accusing police of a cover-up. She also said that she truly believes that the nine ABVP members were behind her son’s disappearance.
‘He is alive and safe’
Fatima still believes that Najeeb is alive and safe somewhere.
“I believe that nothing bad can happen to a person who is good at heart. Najeeb is alive,” she told ThePrint. “He was abducted and has been kept somewhere. He will return. I will fight for his return.”
The eldest of four siblings — three brothers and a sister — Najeeb grew up in a two-bedroom house in the bylanes of Badaun, a town in western Uttar Pradesh.
He struggled for four years to get a seat in a medical college, but when he couldn’t, settled for a Bachelor’s degree in biotechnology from a private university in nearby Bareilly.
He cracked the MSc entrance exam for JNU in 2016
“He is a very hard working boy. He is not a quitter. He would never leave his mother like this, as being claimed by many,” Fatima said.
She is particularly perturbed by the media reports linking him to ISIS. “He was linked to ISIS because the media wanted to give him a bad name,” she said. “He is an Indian, so why would he go against the nation? Moreover, the police found nothing to corroborate this claim and we have filed a defamation case regarding this.”
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