Mr Abidi and I didn’t always agree on causes. But he was a no-nonsense guiding force for anyone who ever became complacent in the fight for rights.
I first interacted with Javed Abidi during the last week of May 2005. My class 12 results were out and I had done exceptionally well, topping the country in Business Studies by scoring 98 marks and getting 92 per cent overall.
My mother’s phone was ringing off the hook with congratulatory messages pouring in from all across the country – from her family that was proud of my achievements, stunned friends who had earlier written me off, and the media in whose eyes I had become an overnight celebrity.
Amidst these congratulatory calls, she received one from a Project Coordinator at the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled Persons (NCPEDP), which was headed by Javed Abidi.
Congratulating my mother, the coordinator quickly brought my mother back to the world by asking her “What’s next? Do you have an accessible college in mind for Nipun?” before asking us to visit Mr Abidi on a specific date.
My parents soon enquired and found that there were no accessible colleges in the University of Delhi. Their only hope now was to meet Mr Abidi. Soon, the day arrived and we headed in anticipation to meet him. However, we were surprised on reaching the venue that this wasn’t a one-to-one meeting but a full-fledged press conference on inaccessible colleges and my battle against them that made headlines.
This was the first taste of ‘activism’ for my parents and me. At that stage in life, I guess we weren’t ready to be confrontational, and I decided to apply to a private college for my graduation. A year and a half later, I’d be tired of studying for a scrap of paper and decided to reapply to Delhi University, where I got in to St. Stephen’s College and eventually worked to make it accessible.
When that press conference did happen, my family wasn’t too pleased. Perhaps, I had lived in a very protective environment. Perhaps, he should have told my family about his strategies and plans in advance. Or perhaps, I was a 17-year-old who didn’t understand the need to fight for my rights.
My next encounter with him would be a decade later, after I had been denied entry by a South Delhi restaurant as its management did not allow Persons with Disabilities (PwD) in as a policy. The restaurant management came up with flimsy, inconsistent excuses on having denied me entry ranging from ‘He might have been drunk’ to ‘it would have been a security threat to make him enter’.
Mr Abidi became my biggest ally against the restaurant both in and out of TV studios. He condemned the restaurant, threatening to take legal action to close it. On one of the channels, he even threatened to land up at the restaurant with an army of wheelchair users to prove our point. He was the perfect ally anyone in my situation could’ve asked for.
Mr Abidi and I didn’t always agree on the causes we fought for. However, undoubtedly, he was a no-nonsense guiding force for anyone who ever became complacent. I remember sending out a celebratory mail to stakeholders of Nipman Foundation after the disabled community had succeeded in lobbying for a reduction in GST rates on disability aids from 18 per cent to 5 per cent. He sent back a one line reply: “Thanks. We have a long road ahead of us.”
I knew that he wasn’t impressed, the battle had to continue till it reached zero. It was this mail that eventually inspired me to file a PIL against GST on disability aids.
My last encounter with Mr Abidi was on 11 October 2017. We had been invited as part of a delegation of disability activists to interact with CISF officials to ease security procedures for PwDs at airports, in the wake of the bad press CISF had been getting courtesy its insensitivity towards PwDs.
The meeting would end up being historic, with a shift from X-rays to ETDs while checking those on wheelchairs and those using prosthetics, thus enabling them to not get out of wheelchairs or removing prosthetics respectively.
We did negotiate hard in the meeting, but the battle had already been won when Mr Abidi had tweeted earlier in the day stating: “CISF has convened a high powered meeting on the matter of security procedure for people with disabilities at airports. I remain sceptical.”
From that moment on, it was the CISF that knew it was not doing us a favour but just ensuring we get our rights. And that was the story of Mr Abidi’s life. He wasn’t seeking favours, he was taking back our rights.
Nipun Malhotra is founder, Wheels For Life (www.wheelsforlife.in) and CEO, Nipman Foundation. He can be followed on twitter @nipunmalhotra