Najeeb Ahmad and the Muslim Question in India

Sarbani Bandyopadhyay


Although I am not a great admirer of Nehru, I feel it pertinent to quote one of his positions on the dangers Hindu communalism posed than Muslim communalism: “Muslim communalism cannot dominate Indian society and introduce fascism. That only Hindu communalism can”. Najeeb’s disappearance is the latest incident at the micro level to show how valid that statement still remains. Even if we are to forget the massacres and other killings, the fact that even after losing the JNUSU elections, indeed after being routed, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) can still act in this manner and no step is taken against them is not merely shocking. It is evidence enough of the deep-rooted legitimacy Hindu communalism enjoys in this society.
In a piece on Shishir Tripathi makes some ridiculous statements. He believes that unlike the earlier protests post 9th Feb 2016 this one over Najeeb’s disappearance defies any logic and hence fails to garner the support earlier protests could. It is true that compared to the 9th February incident and the protests, and more glaringly compared to the protests that rocked many cities and universities across the country after the institutional murder of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, these protests over Najeeb’s disappearance are indeed low-key. But it is not because (as Tripathi claims) the protests defy any logic. It is because Muslim lives are not considered to be valuable at all. It does not matter to the ‘nation’ imagined to be constituted of caste-Hindus if Muslims die. I believe Najeeb Ahmad was a kind of experiment the Sanghis engaged in to test the limits to which they can go with their politics of violence. He became that testing ground. Heba Ahmed, JNU student, in one of her Facebook posts had very rightly stated the following: “The pattern of ABVP-RSS-BJP constructing a discourse of Hindu victimhood is again at work. This time, instead of targeting a Dalit student where they will forced to be defensive, they have made a frontal attack on a Muslim. They chose their target for the lynch mob carefully: a Muslim student who is new in campus, who is friendless and defenceless. ABVP has alleged that Najeeb made a religiously motivated attack on their cadre campaigning for hostel elections. The fact that Najeeb was brutally lynched, even in front of the hostel warden, has been twisted and erased. The fact that a graffiti saying “Muslims Are Terrorists”, “Pakistani Mullah Go Back” have been left in the common room and the washroom of Mahi-Mandavi Hostel is being completely ignored by the administration. That even now, the hostel in question resembles a war-zone in which Muslim students still feel intimidated and threatened is not being considered. The administration has consistently refused to file an official complaint in this matter. It is high time that Muslim students come forward in large numbers to seek justice for Najeeb, to assert their presence and to emphasize that nobody can bully or intimidate us.

The issue of freedom of speech has become more of a concern for this country after the election of Modi as Prime Minister. That intolerance has been on the rise since May 2014 is a view that not merely Leftists, or Dalit activists, or pseudo-secularists are claiming; liberals here including Gurcharan Das have raised such allegations. However, had Kanhaiya Kumar not been arrested under charges of sedition I wonder if JNU would have been able to garner as much support as it did. For we are too fond of ‘territorial integrity’ to let slogans of azaadi for Kashmir go without legal raps especially when we have a Prime Minister who is known to be a strong man, who was a former RSS pracharak and one who does not attend ordinary gatherings but hunkaar rallies. Moreover, it is laughable that Tripathi should make such a comparison between the legitimacy of the protests in Kanhaiya’s and the illegitimacy of the same in Najeeb’s case. His primary ‘argument’ here is over what was at stake: freedom of speech of a student leader. In Najeeb’s case, let us remember, his life as a student on a university campus was at stake, I am not even bringing in lofty ideals of freedom of speech or other such ‘rights’.
So Najeeb’s disappearance is an incident that should bother any university administration worth being called so. That is a point most, unlike the Shishir Tripathis, would accept. But the question is not simply over one student who has disappeared. Najeeb at a micro level embodies the Muslim question.
He is a Muslim student, who was assaulted by the ABVP students not only in his room but even in front of the hostel warden’s office; something more should also be noted. The communal slogans painted on the walls of the dining hall of Mahi-Mandvi hostel where Najeeb was staying and the attitude of the JNU administration and the Delhi police speak volumes about the nature of justice Muslims can expect in this country. The JNU administration decided to believe and act on the basis of the statement of the former ABVP leader Saurabh Sharma and called Najeeb an ‘accused’ in its press release! Delhi police refused to file an FIR! All these show certain patterns. Unlike in the post-9th February incident, the JNU administration was reluctant to act; it did not till date take measures against the ABVP students named in the complaint filed; instead the victim has been called an accused. In some instances mentioned here one finds similarities over the HCU case where five Dalit students including Rohith Vemula were thrown out of their hostel and which finally led to the death of Rohith Vemula.
31st October’s “encounter” of eight “SIMI” under-trials is one more addition to the different ways in which the state gets rid of unwanted citizens at the macro level. These encounters are not new incidents. Encounter killings have been effective ways of curtailing dissent or channelizing it to other arenas. It is a matter of shame for us as citizens that this country in just 70 years of its existence as a sovereign state should have to its (dis)credit several genocidal campaigns euphemistically called riots. And in each such ‘riot’ the victims have been blamed. In 1984 after the killings of the Sikhs in Delhi following the murder of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had stated that ‘when a big tree falls the earth shakes’. In 2002 over the genocide of Muslims, one of the most brutal in our post-independence history, the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi had invoked Newton’s third law of motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Modi’s reference was to the burning down at Godhra of S6 coach of the Sabarmati Express that was carrying karsevaks. Fact-finding teams and a research piece by Tanika Sarkar for instance on the Gujarat genocide clearly show that the genocide was a result of months of meticulous planning by the Sangh parivar and not merely a spontaneous reaction to the Godhra killings. How the train caught fire at Godhra is itself subject to controversy. But Indians have been mostly content with considering the genocide to be the result of a cause, that being Godhra. The fact however becomes clear from the different investigative reports that Gujarat genocide 2002 was simply waiting to happen; Godhra, whatever be the truth of it, happened to be that excuse for it. The re-elections of Modi as Chief Minister and then his election as Prime Minister are only indicative of the roots Hindutva ideology has struck in this society. Ahead of the UP elections this “encounter” is going to be put to use by the Hindutvadis.


The completely different responses of the police in this “encounter” case and in the cases against Kanhaiya, Umar, Anirban and others also show against whom the state would act. In the case of the former, videos shared by social/media did not become the basis for investigating this so-called encounter, indeed the police want to establish their veracity first. But in the JNU incident of February 2016 the police acted promptly on these videos against the JNU students. Even when it became clear that the videos were doctored the police did not take any action against the news channels instrumental in making and disseminating these videos.
On another larger scale involving “riots” look at the state response in the case of Muzaffarnagar (2013) and Bijnor (2016). Both involved cases of ‘eve-teasing’: in the former a Jat girl was allegedly eve-teased by a Muslim youth, in the latter a Muslim girl was eve-teased by five to six Jat youth. In the Muzaffarnagar riots that followed Muslims suffered heavy casualties although the BJP claimed that the UP government was acting against the Hindu community. In the case of Bijnor the members of the girl’s family were attacked. All the male members were shot at and three died of bullet injuries; the women were beaten and abused; the police had then simply detained six members of the Jat community but filed no FIR against them. Has the collective conscience of the nation gone on vacation in these cases? These are not stray, isolated incidents. They show the truth about Hindu communalism that Nehru feared.
It is ominous that the protests over the assault on and disappearance of Najeeb Ahmad should be such a low-key one. The Muslim question was not solved with the Partition of India in 1947. The first massacre of Muslims in post-independence India occurred a year later in the Hyderabad state. When the two independent Dalit organisations in Hyderabad joined the Razakars in defence of the Azad Hyderabad movement Ambedkar (pp 366-368) had unfortunately condemned and warned them against bringing disgrace upon their community by siding with the enemy of India. He made it explicit that Muslims were not friends of Scheduled Castes. Successive decades have seen rising violence against Muslims and Dalits and also increased bitterness between them which are actually detrimental to the interests of both.
It is absolutely necessary that Muslims, other minorities, Dalits and Adivasis should form better solidarity networks for the enemy is a common one: Hindutva politics and the Hindutvadi state. It is the same enemy that is behind the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula, the disappearance of Najeeb Ahmad, the carnage of Adivasis in Bastar, lynching of Muslims for consuming or possessing beef, the institutionalisation of mass killing and rape in Kashmir and the North-east, the burning down of Dalit hamlets and the murder of Dalits, the genocides elsewhere, the ‘encounters’ … the list is rather long. The Hindutvadi state will not simply stop with periodic massacres of Muslims; as the history of state-supported violence shows all oppressed identities of labouring classes, of Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, other national minorities are the targets. It is time that these oppressed groups come together in true solidarity (and beyond mere instrumentality) against the Hindutvadi oppressors.


Sarbani Bandyopadhyay is a doctoral fellow with the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay. Her research area is on caste and Bengali middle class. She also teaches Sociology at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. Her article “Another History: Bhadralok Responses to Dalit Political Assertion in Colonial Bengal” has been published in an edited volume on The Politics of Caste in West Bengal from Routledge.

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