17, Oct 2017 | Deborah Grey | Take action
This is the story of Indian mothers fighting for justice for their children. Women who dared to ask tough questions and were rewarded for their persistence with police brutality and violence. These women are resilient, courageous and determined to find the truth. But all they get in return is apathy. Their stories are a damning indictment of how India treats its mothers!
This is the story of Fatima Nafees, whose son Najeeb Ahmed, disappeared mysteriously from his university hostel in October 2016 and was never seen or heard from again. Najeeb was a pursuing a Master’s Degree in Biotechnology from New Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University. He was a sharp young man with what his mother hoped was a bright future. But one evening he ended up in a brawl with members of a student union affiliated with a prominent political party with an extreme right wing ideology. The very next day he went missing.
CJP stands in solidarity with Indian mothers demanding justice for their children. We salute the courage of Fatima Nafees, Radhika Vemula, Rupa Behn Modi and Asiya Begum. To know more about CJP’s work in empowering and supporting brave Mothers of India, Become a Member.
Najeeb’s friends suspected foul play and Fatima started demanding an explanation about what happened to her son. But nobody seemed to have any answers. The police couldn’t explain what happened. It was almost as if he vanished into thin air!
The case was then handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), presumably the country’s most trusted investigative authority… and yet today, five months after the CBI took over, Najeeb’s whereabouts remain a mystery. Undeterred, Fatima keeps asking pertinent questions, demanding justice for her son. In fact, Fatima together with a few of Najeeb’s friends and human rights activists organised a peaceful protest against the CBI’s ineffective investigation, on the first anniversary (October 13-14, 2017) of his disappearance. “Kahaan hai mera beta? Kaun batayega mujhe,” (Where is my son? Who can tell me?), she kept asking over and over.
On October 16 Fatima was protesting on the street outside the Delhi High Court where the court was hearing a habeas corpus plea filed by Fatima that her son be produced by the police and the Delhi government before the court. However, shortly after Fatima started speaking to media persons about her year long ordeal, policewomen swooped on her, grabbed her arms and dragged her away to a police vehicle to be carted off to Tilak Marg police station. At one point they even held her legs and bodily lifted her! All the while Fatima was screaming and struggling, but the police didn’t let go of her. The way the police manhandled a frail old woman showed how little they cared about her well-being.
The police claim they detained her as she was trying to enter the High Court premises, a claim many other present on the spot contest. But the question isn’t whether she was trying to enter the court premises or if her detention was valid, but the manner in which she was escorted away from the protest site. The brutality and impunity with which the police behaved was for all to see. Is this how we treat mothers in India?
But Fatima is not alone.
Radhika Vemula, mother of deceased Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, was punished and humiliated for her struggle to get justice for her son. Her son Rohith was a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad and committed suicide in January 2016, an action called ‘institutional murder’ by the burgeoning student movement that emerged after his death. Rohith was a student activist and a member of the Ambedkar Student’s Association. He was often seen campaigning for Dalit rights and also at the forefront of protests against human rights violations. Following his vocal outpouring at a protest against the hanging of Yakub Memon, prime accused in the 1993 bomb blast case, members of a right wing student’s association labeled him as ‘anti-national’. In fact, members of the same group also allegedly physically assaulted him so badly that he required surgery.
Rohith was also suspended and barred from the hostel. The University also reportedly stopped paying his monthly fellowship. For 13 days before he took this step, the students barred from their hostel rooms were sleeping within the University premises in a makeshift Dalit Veliwada (the segregated space for Dalits in Indian villages). Rohith’s suicide was his last recourse after suffering months of bullying, harassment, physical violence and mental torture at the hands of University authorities as well as the said student’s union. A month before he died an eloquent letter to the VC sarcastically said that every Dalit student should be given a bottle of poison and a hangman’s noose when he or she is admitted. This document is a scathing indictment of the racial, caste bias that is still a reality of Indian campus life, 70 years after Independence.
But Radhika’s story begins where Rohit’s story ends. Instead of acting upon the heart rending pleas of a grieving mother, Radhika’s credibility, her child rearing skills and even her character had been called into question in the most repugnant manner possible with full support of the state machinery. First the central government (through prominent women ministers) accused her of lying about being a Dalit. The allegation was that Radhika belonged to an OBC (Other Backward Caste) family and therefore she could not be considered a Dalit.
But as it was discovered and subsequently proved later, Radhika was actually born into a family of Dalit migrant labourers had been adopted and raised by an OBC family. Though she never met her biological family, Radhika suffered discrimination at the hands of a few members of her adoptive family as she was Dalit. In fact that is how she became aware of her Dalit antecedents. The next allegation was that Radhika’s estranged husband and Rohith’s father was not a Dalit, therefore Rohith could not be considered a Dalit. But this involved defining Radhika’s identity using husband’s caste identity, a move that highlighted the twin discrimination based on caste and gender.
However, in Aprl 2016, the Collector of the district who is the authority on the issue, certified, when asked by the National SC/ST Commission that she was in fact, a Dalit. Later, the Collector under pressure to rescind the earlier report/certificate even issued a notice to Radhika asking her to prove she was Dalit within 15 days. When the truth that Radhika was indeed Dalit came to light, the matter was put to rest. The tasteless allegations against RadikhaVemula were clearly just a ploy to tarnish a woman’s trustworthiness in a bid to crush her spirit and prevent her for demanding justice for her dead son.
But Radhika’s suffering wasn’t limited to psychological trauma. February 26, 2016, two days after then Minister for Human Resources Development, Smriti Irani’s impassioned yet factually questionable speech in Parliament, while Radhika was attending a candle light vigil for her son in Delhi, she was manhandled, physically assaulted and dragged away by the police. Furthermore, just like in the case of Najeeb, Rohith’s mother and friends held a demonstration in Hyderabad on the first anniversary of his death. Radhika addressed Rohith’s fellow students outside the University gate and alleged a threat to her life. The police prevented them from entering the university campus and put up barricades to keep the swell of protesters away from the gate. And just like Fatima, Radhika too was taken into custody shortly afterwards.
Both these cases show how India humiliates, punishes, restrains and shames its mothers for standing up for what’s right. And if this is not the India of your dreams, perhaps you can take a small step to help restore the dignity of the Mothers of India.
Image: Amir Rizvi (Adapted Collage : Part of Picasso’s Guernica, a mother is holding the limp corpse of her child. She is wailing with her head thrown back, and her eyes are looking upward; perhaps she is asking God why the circumstances of her life are so miserable.)