Najeeb Ahmed is said to have left his JNU hostel on 15 October 2016, hours after a scuffle with ABVP members. Now, CBI is set to declare him ‘untraced’.
New Delhi/Badaun: Najeeb Ahmed is alive. His family believes so. The police believes so too.
But neither know where he is, one year, 11 months and 29 days after he left his hostel room in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) one October morning.
A series of search operations across India by three investigative agencies, the analysis of forensic and circumstantial evidence as well as statements and an expenditure of lakhs have only yielded a string of probabilities, speculation, and, now, a dead end.
The mysterious case of Najeeb, 27, an MSc biotechnology student at the premier university, has hit a wall with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) set to file a closure report. In the report, they are likely to declare him “untraced”.
The night before he disappeared, a Saturday, Najeeb was involved in a showdown with members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) who were out soliciting votes. This has stoked plenty of speculation.
Did he leave the hostel himself or was he abducted? If he did leave on his own, did fear or pressure have a role to play? Is he even alive, and if so, where is Najeeb?
Looking for answers, ThePrint goes back to the Sunday the promising student, known to be an earnest family man, was last seen at JNU’s Mahi-Mandavi hostel, and traces the investigation that followed.
He aspired to be a doctor
Most people, including family and friends, describe Najeeb as shy. He was the eldest of four siblings — three brothers and a sister — in a middle-class family, and grew up in a two-bedroom house in the bylanes of Badaun, a town in western Uttar Pradesh.
Najeeb 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.
When he cracked the MSc entrance exam for JNU in 2016, it was a dream come true. The family had not had a regular source of income since an accident left Najeeb’s father, a carpenter, with injuries that forced him to quit working. And for Najeeb, admission to JNU brought hope that he would finally be able to support his family financially.
“When Najeeb bhai cracked the JNU entrance exam, he was happy,” said Haseeb, Najeeb’s youngest brother and closest friend. “That year he had cracked the entrance exams for three other universities as well, Jamia Hamdard, Jamia Milia and Aligarh Muslim University. But he chose JNU because he regarded it as the best.”
“When he was leaving for JNU, he told Ammi, ‘Everything will be fine now. I will get a job soon’,” he added.
Sitting on the bed where Najeeb slept, pointing to his books in a shelf behind her, Fatima Nafees, his mother, is visibly bereft.
Najeeb, she said, was extremely studious. “He was mostly into his books. He studied for eight to 10 hours every day while preparing for his medical entrance exam and the same preparation made him crack JNU.”
Fatima said she and her husband made sure all their children opted for science studies. For a middle-class family living in a small town, she added, it was the only option to ensure good career options for their children.
At JNU, Najeeb kept to himself, with few outside his class knowing him till his disappearance, just 15 days after his arrival, propelled him to national headlines.
“Najeeb was not a friend, but I knew him because he was a classmate,” said a classmate, “He used to talk very less, but was very well behaved.”
The one person he is said to have hit it off with was his roommate Qasim, who reportedly slipped into depression after his friend’s disappearance and now refuses to speak about it.
The night before he went missing
Close to midnight on 14 October, a group of ABVP members knocked on Room 106 of Mahi-Mandvi, Najeeb and Qasim’s room, to seek votes for an upcoming hostel election.
No one knows what transpired between them and Najeeb, but a fight followed and Najeeb was attacked.
“We were in the next hostel when Najeeb’s roommate got a call that he is being beaten up,” said Rama Naga, who lived in the same hostel and was one of the first to see Najeeb after the fight.
“We saw that a group of students from the ABVP was beating him up brutally. When we tried to intervene, we got injured too,” he added.
The sequence of events was corroborated by the then chief proctor of JNU A.P. Dimri in his inquiry.
“I concluded that Najeeb was beaten up badly by a group of students and strict action should be taken against them,” said Dimri, “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 the vice-chancellor about the way things were being handled by the JNU administration.
After the assault, Naga said, Najeeb was taken to Safdarjung Hospital and given medication, after which he returned to his room.
“Qasim was watching over him,” Naga added. “All we know is that Najeeb left his room the next morning, before which he had spoken to his mother over the phone.”
According to investigators, however, Najeeb’s friends and roommate had told police that he refused “to get any sort of medical aid or treatment” at the hospital and appeared disturbed.
“Mujhse galti ho gayi, mera ilaj chal raha hai (I have committed a mistake, I am under treatment,” he is said to have 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 is said to have then called Najeeb’s mother and informed her that he was refusing treatment. “To this, she said that Najeeb had some old problem and the relevant medicines would be in his room,” an officer stated in one of the status reports filed in the case.
“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 to the house of his aunt.”
“After reaching JNU, Qasim gave Najeeb certain medicines as instructed by his mother. However, Najeeb did not sleep throughout the night,” the report stated.
The search begins
A case of Najeeb’s disappearance was registered after Mohit Pandey, then the president of the JNU students union, filed a complaint with police accusing nine members of the ABVP of thrashing and continuously threatening Najeeb with dire consequences. 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.
Following this, a handwritten complaint signed by 23 residents of Najeeb’s hostel was also submitted to police and this is what kicked off the two-year-long chase.
The initial search saw police comb the 1,019-acre JNU campus, comprising the administrative and academic blocks, 18 hostel complexes, open areas, terrace areas, water and septic tanks, the jungle area, and cafeterias.
The campus was divided into 11 zones, the search through each headed by an assistant commissioner of police, assisted by three inspectors.
Over 560 police personnel, two squads of sniffer dogs and four squads of mounted police, along with photographers, joined the operation too.
When Najeeb could not be traced inside the campus, the search was extended to hospitals, railway stations, houses of his relatives and friends, religious places, including temples and mosques, and even morgues, but clues remained elusive.
“The searches included looking for all UIDBs (unidentified dead bodies) reported since 15 October by physical examination, looking for all accidental fatalities reported since the date… and all admissions to psychiatric wards… all unconscious admissions in emergency and casualty wards where the identity of the person was yet to be established,” a source said.
The search then widened beyond Delhi, to the 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 Invertis College, where he completed his Bachelor’s. The two convent schools where he completed his schooling were approached too, but to no avail.
All exit routes from Delhi were combed as well, and all the eateries along the way searched.
Last seen in Jamia Nagar
Twenty-five days into the Delhi Police investigation, the case was transferred to the Crime Branch after Najeeb’s mother approached the union home minister with an appeal for a CBI probe.
And then, finally, a clue.
The analysis of CCTV footage helped investigators identify the auto rickshaw that Najeeb reportedly took from the JNU campus.
The Crime Branch traced the auto driver, who told them that he had dropped Najeeb off at Jamia Nagar in southeast Delhi, at a spot just a kilometre from where his uncle stayed.
However, the investigators did not find him there.
“His uncle said he never turned up,” an investigator said. “Unfortunately, we could not get the footage from the CCTVs installed in the area as it was not available.”
“A massive combing operation was carried out in that area, but we could not get any clue. All we know is that he was last seen there,” 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.
Last year, on the order of the Delhi High Court, the investigation was handed over to the CBI.
The Islamic State angle
Over the last two years, there have been several false alarms and tipoffs.
“Once we were told that Najeeb has become an ascetic and is living in outer Delhi,” said an investigator.
“A team was immediately dispatched [to the site] but it was found to be a hoax,” he added. “Similarly, we started receiving several inputs from across the country, from Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, and Northeast, and even Nepal…
“Each time, we had to send out a team as we did not want to take a chance. Each time an input came, we felt we would crack it this time, but always returned empty-handed,” the investigator added.
A media report once suggested that police were probing the possibility that Najeeb may have left the country to join the so-called Islamic State (IS), but the investigators reject the claim, saying they had not received any such clue.
The investigator said he once clicked on a pop-up that led to radical speeches, but added that he closed the link immediately without spending any time on it.
“He did not surf any sites to listen to any speeches by radical, terror groups,” he added, “We did not find any such information after scanning his laptop.”
‘He left the hostel himself’
While Najeeb’s mother believes he was abducted by the nine ABVP members, investigators say there is a high possibility he may have left the hostel on his own.
Najeeb, the latter said, had on two occasions left his home without informing anyone but returned after a few days.
“Najeeb left his phone behind because he did not want to get traced,” an officer said.
As part of the investigation, police also looked at his medical history and spoke to his doctor at VIMHANS. ThePrint spoke to the doctor as well and found that Najeeb considered himself a misfit on the campus.
“He was reportedly under stress,” a source said. “He was also undergoing treatment for depression and took sleeping pills. The doctors have conveyed that he was low on self-confidence and probably left the campus himself.”
Up to the Nepal border
Investigators led their probe with the belief that Najeeb was more likely to be alive.
“This is why we focused more on searching hospitals, houses of his relatives, places he frequented, instead of morgues,” an investigator said.
The investigators wrote to directors general of police across all states for an intensive search, even approaching different mental health hospitals on the assumption that he may have gone there for further treatment.
The DGs of prisons were also approached, as were all the madrassas and shelter homes. Investigators even searched railway tracks, but found nothing.
“The only possibility now was that he left the country,” said the investigator. “So, we then contacted the regional Foreigners Registration Office, to see if he had left India, but found no record of his movement outside the country.
“Thinking that he may have taken a road route via Nepal, his posters were put up across the Nepal border, but this did not yield any result,” he added.
Were the nine ABVP members involved?
Meanwhile, 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.
But the data did not reveal any relevant information.
The other three phones could not be analysed as they were protected with a pattern lock.
Police also recorded statements of the nine accused, questioned them at length, analysed their call detail records, and inquired about them, but did not find any evidence to suggest their involvement in Najeeb’s disappearance.
“There was a fight and Najeeb was beaten up, but it was only limited to that,” said an investigator. “We could not find any concrete evidence to suggest the involvement of the nine men in Najeeb’s disappearance.”
Even so, Najeeb’s mother insisted that police was trying to save the nine men owing to their affiliation to the ABVP, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the BJP.
Living in hope
Fatima is hoping against all hope that her son will be back home someday.
“I have recently renovated my house. I believe when the house looks positive, good things happen in the family,” she told ThePrint.
“This is my way of making sure there is happiness in the house so that my son comes home. I am sure he is alive,” she added.
Najeeb’s sister Shifa rummaged through their family pictures and picked out one to show ThePrint: A photo from a vacation to Mumbai, where the family is seen posing at the Gateway of India. She said she hoped her eldest brother will be back some day.
Fatima faults the CBI’s investigation, saying the government’s silence smacked of “a conspiracy”.
“Massive protests have taken place seeking answers for Najeeb, but no MLA from the ruling party has spoken about him or for him,” she said. “Doesn’t this smack of a conspiracy?”
She added that Najeeb was deeply close to her, a fact reiterated by Najeeb’s doctor.
“Najeeb was close to me, and spoke to me hourly,” Fatima said. “It is not possible that he is alive and he hasn’t called. There is something or someone stopping him from getting in touch with me.”
If there is foul play involved in his disappearance, she added, she was ready to forgive those responsible if he returns.
“Najeeb was my favourite among all my children,” Fatima said. “I just want him back. I will forgive everybody if he comes back to me safe.”
(with inputs from Ritika Jain)
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