“Modi ji, why don’t you at least say something about my missing son now?” asked Fatima Nafees, 45, who is at the centre of a protest outside the Central Bureau of Investigation headquarters in New Delhi demanding justice for her son Najeeb Ahmad.

A student of biotechnology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Ahmad went missing from his hostel on October 15 last year.

The night before, Ahmad, 27, had been beaten up by a group of students belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Ahmad called his mother, a resident of Badaun in Uttar Pradesh, early in the morning and told her what had happened. Worried, Nafees got on a bus to Delhi. But by the time she reached the campus, Ahmad had disappeared, leaving behind his phone and wallet in his room.

According to university officials, Ahmad was been seen leaving the campus in an auto-rickshaw on the morning of October 15. Initially, the officials described Ahmad as one of the accused in the previous night’s brawl. However, later the police registered a case of abduction and offered a reward for information on his whereabouts. Following orders from Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, the Delhi police also formed a special team to search for Ahmad.

Over a month after the investigation got underway, the police claimed Ahmad had been seen getting out of an auto-rickshaw near the Jamia Milia University in Delhi. Then, the trail went cold. That revelation came in mid-November 2016. No headway has since been made in the case even though it has gone from the local police to the Delhi police’s Crime Branch and, eventually, the Central Bureau of Investigation.

“Failure of the police and the CBI is in sending such a wrong message to the world,” Nafees said on Saturday, sitting on a flex banner near barricades put by the police outside the CBI office to keep the protestors at bay. “I appeal to Modi ji, Rajnath ji and all Union ministers to at least urge the CBI to find my missing son. Otherwise this agency will do nothing.”

While the investigation has been stuck for the best part of a year, much else has happened around Ahmad’s disappearance – Jawaharlal Nehru University officials have installed iron grilles around Administration Block, the preferred site of protests on the campus and popularly known among the students as “Freedom Square”; news reports suggesting Ahmad’s links with the Islamic State that have since been refuted by the police.

Students protest outside the CBI headquarters in New Delhi. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey

No headway in investigation

Officials of the Delhi’s police South District unit, which first investigated Ahmad’s disappearance, recalled that it was a challenge to even find the student’s acquaintances who could provide them some leads.

“We somehow managed to find six students whom we could at least consider his acquaintances,” said an official who did not want to be identified. “One of them, who was from Manipur, mentioned how Najeeb would often ask him about his village and expressed a strong desire to go there some day. So, we sent a police team to Manipur but that did not yield any results.”

In the months after Ahmad went missing, both his relatives and the police got hundreds of phone calls about the student’s supposed whereabouts. Based on the calls they received, the police conducted searches across several states, but in vain. As for the calls received by Ahmad’s family, they barely said anything about him.

“Most of the calls we received were about other JNU students who had become popular for their direct and indirect association with an event commemorating the death anniversary of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru, which later led to a case of sedition being filed and the arrest of three students,” said Ahmad’s cousin Mujeeb, who now stays with Nafees in a rented accommodation in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar area.

Students protest outside the CBI headquarters in New Delhi. Photo credit: Abhishek Dey

A senior officer who was in the Crime Branch team, which investigated the case after South District police, criticised the first investigators. “The local police were so convinced about Ahmad’s introvert nature they missed out on many crucial leads,” said the officer who asked not to be identified. He added that the lead about Ahmad being spotted near the Jamia Milia University too had emerged only after the case was transferred to Crime Branch, around a month after the disappearance.

In the end, though, the Crime Branch too got nowhere with the investigation, prompting an the Delhi High Court to transfer the case to the CBI. The central agency has been tight-lipped about its findings.

However, on Saturday, as the protest continued for the second consecutive day, a group of police officers approached Nafees and informed her that a senior CBI official had agreed to meet a small delegation of the protestors and hear their demands. Nafees and three JNU students went in.

“The CBI has assured that they will take up the case afresh, looking into all angles and fresh interrogation of the parties involved,” said Mohit Pandey, former president of the JNU Students Union who accompanied Nafees to the meeting. “They also told us they are considering moving a court seeking permission for a polygraph test on the nine students who had physically assaulted Najib the night before he went missing.”

Meanwhile, even as the crowd of protestors that had started with more than 200 students on Friday afternoon thinned to a little over a dozen by Saturday evening, all roads leading to the CBI office remained sealed and paramilitary troops remained deployed around it.