Guest Post by Shehla Rashid. Videos by Haider Saif and Samim Asgor Ali
Think of the person closest to you, and the place that they hold in your daily life, the bittersweet memories that they create each day in your life, the daily fights and the moments of affection. At times, you fight and simply want to go away from one another, seeking a temporary calm from each other’s absence. You resolve never to call him/her again, or to speak to her/him anymore. However, by the time dusk falls, you realise the emptiness of your time without them, and you make a phone call, speaking reservedly, trying not to sound desperate or sappy. You tell them that you are coming home, and ask whether you need them to get anything- as if that were the reason for the phone call. This person could be you sister, your partner, or your best friend.
Imagine if this person were to- one fine morning- simply disappear, without leaving a trace. Not only would it throw your life out of gear, into utter chaos and uncertainty, it would cause immeasurable pain, agony and regret that only you can understand.
“How I wish I was with him at that time.”
“Has he eaten in 25 days?”
“Is he even alive?”
You wish that your questions could reach him.
You regret every argument that you have ever had, every petty fight, every harsh word, and you wish that you could make it all right. You wish you could send him his favorite food. You wish you could see her smile once, or even see her cry, but see her, nevertheless. You wish, and wish, and wish. And you wish endlessly. You feel empty. You feel as if you are at the end of a long, dark tunnel with no light at the other end. You wish merely for a blinker to appear somewhere, if not a light.
You wish you had held him so close that only death could have separated him from you. Death is an event which leads to closure, after a certain period of grief. Disappearance makes you sway between hope and despair, endlessly. The condition of a person waiting for a ‘missing’ relative is similar to that of a convict on death row, waiting for pardon. It is not very different from being on a prolonged period of reprieve, where not only is the outcome unpredictable, but also the length of the wait.
At times, the absence of any news of their death gives you immense hope of their return. Even if they are being held by force, they might try to escape. If they are away due to fear, they might try to contact you. But the very next thought that grips you is that, if they were alive, they would’ve reached out, would have asked for help, made a call or hitchhiked home, sent an anonymous note, a crypted message, an unsigned letter. You keep your eyes, ears and all other senses wide open, so as to not miss, even by mistake, any feeble cry for help that may appear overtly, or in dusguise. You look for hidden messages/signals/gestures everywhere- to the point of paranoia. You can’t sleep- you want to make sure that you don’t miss a midnight knock, or a ‘missed call’ from an unknown number.
You plan celebrations in your head, in the event of their return. The very next moment, you think about the eventuality of their death, and how you would cope with that news, if and when it arrives.
On Diwali, Najeeb Ahmed’s family spent the night outside the Administration Block of JNU, waiting for their son. Their Diwali could not be complete without their missing child. When asked if she had eaten, Najeeb’s mother refused any food and said, instead, that, “when Najeeb comes back, I will throw a feast for all of you”, with tears still rolling down her wrinkled cheeks. The wait for a missing son is like an intertwined set of cables, each one representing, respectively, hope, agony and helplesness- all running together, all equally dominant, alternately. Hope is what binds the movement for Najeeb’s return together. Hope is what makes Najeeb’s devastated mother stand outside the Delhi Police headquarters or outside the JNU Administration block, seeking justice. Another mother, Parveena Ahanger, founder of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in Jammu and Kashmir, has turned hope into a movement, a campaign to bring back the loved ones of the waiting families affiliated to her association. Perhaps, associating and relating to one another’s agony makes the pain beareable, and allows one to fight back. She is a mother, not only to her missing son, but to over 15,000 youth who have disappeared in Kashmir, over the past two decades or so.
Hope is not an entirely beautiful thing- it tires you and it drains you. It stops you from giving up, but it also stops you from moving on. Hope turns into resistance precisely because it stops you from moving on. Moving on is easy choice; not moving on is a hard choice, and an informed choice. It is when you decide not to move on, that you connect the personal to the political. Every morsel of food that you take, every comfort of life that you may enjoy- shelter, warmth, the cool breeze of a fan- you tend to think whether the same is available to your missing friend, or your missing son. This is what makes an activist out of your ordinary self. That moment- when you think of your fellows while accessing the basic comforts of life- is the moment that turns you into an activist. Thinking of others’ plight while living your life is what characterises an activist.
Before Najeeb’s disappearance, his family members were quiet and kept to themselves, while JNU was full of activists. The roles have been overturned. The JNU community is akin today, to a mother waiting for her son’s return, while Najeeb’s family members have turned into activists, who, by not giving up, inspire the students to fight. While addressing students, a few days back at the Administration Block, Najeeb’s sister pledged to raise her voice for every injustice around her, from then onwards. It is the realisation that we are all vulnerable before those who are powerful, that makes us stand up for one another.
Disapperance signals the total breakdown of the state’s accountability mechanisms. No one is able to tell you how your son disappeared, or why he cannot be found. In Najeeb’s case, the police refuse to share information with the family or with the Students’ Union, on a regular basis. Secrecy marks the investigation, yet nothing is found. Not even a single clue. The day Najeeb went missing, his distraught mother went to the police station to file an FIR. She was told not to mention anything about the assault on Najeeb, and only report that her son is missing! This- despite the fact that she had come to Delhi precisely beause her son had called her up the night before, and told her about the assault. Najeeb had asked her to come as soon as she could. He had been assaulted. He was scared. Too scared to even get first aid. Too scared to go back to the hostel. One cannot even begin to imagine what his protective mother must be going through now, thinking how much he needed her presence, her unconditional embrace at that point. The 7 odd hours that it took her to get from Badaun to JNU cost Najeeb so dearly. It is painful and heartbreaking to think that he went missing just before his mother arrived.
The last thing that this helpless mother needed was to be dragged by the police. People are not even allowed to gather to express anguish and demand something, demand accountability. Members of the MHA-constituted SIT are seen boarding a 615 numbered bus, preventing people from protesting (as opposed to looking for Najeeb- their designated job). Individual students roaming around in the Central Delhi area are profiled and their ID cards checked. Even the Section 144 of CrPC which is often invoked to deny people their right to protest (and, hence, accountability) requires a threshold number of people to assemble and organise, in order for the police to disperse them. However, Najeeb’s sister, standing alone by the roadside, keeps asking why she’s being dragged away. No answers. Where is Najeeb? No answers. Why were sniffer dogs not called in the very next day? Why did police not interrogate those who assaulted and threatened to kill him? Why did the JNU Vice-Chancellor not file a police complaint in the case? Why is the VC actively omitting the fact that Najeeb was assaulted and threatened before his disappearance? No answers.
With the disappearance of Najeeb, disappears the overly present state and institutions- ever ready to crush protests and criminalise dissent. With his disappearance, disappear the answers, disappears accountability, disappears a reassurance that institutions will come to our rescue. Only one hope remains- the hope that people will get together unconditionally and demand answers. Until that disappears, the possibility of redemption exists.
Shehla Rashid is a student activist with AISA and a former Vice President of the JNU Students Union
Video of Song for Najeeb, courtesy Haider Safi, AMU
Other videos, courtesy Samim Asgor Ali