A photo of a dead Kashmiri and the making of a macabre narrative

Mirza Waheed

Perhaps it does not require a moral compass to feel outrage and fury over the image of a three-year-old Kashmiri child sitting on his slain grandfather’s chest in the middle of a street. You probably need only one of the two to feel something: A pair of eyes or a heart.

The 65-year-old man, Bashir Ahmed Khan, was killed after a shootout between militants and Indian paramilitaries in the northern town of Sopore. Khan’s family have said he was killed in cold blood by Indian paramilitaries. The child, turned into a PR spectacle by the security forces, has also said it was the police who shot his “Papa”. The police insist Khan was killed in the crossfire.

Perhaps words such as “cruelty”, “depravity” and “dehumanisation” fall short in describing the narrative games that the Indian state and its extensions in the media now routinely play over Kashmir.

We are being asked to believe that militants shot dead a man out driving with his toddler grandchild, then a good Samaritan chose to first photograph the stunned child – no photojournalists could have been present at the scene – before handing him to the police to be rescued.

Interestingly, in the carefully composed photo, the child is not looking at his grandfather’s face, which might be a child’s first instinct, but has his back towards it. In turn, someone felt compelled to click a photograph of the boy in the arms of a uniformed cop during the rescue mission.

But perhaps not satisfied with still images, because what is modern PR without a video full of viral potential, someone chose to make a clip of the uncontrollably sobbing child who was, by then, inside a police vehicle. A voice can be heard saying, “We’ll give you a biscuit,” but the filming does not pause.

All this as a noble act of rescue. Curiously, no such sentiment was available for the grandfather whose dead body, the same set of images show us, a policeman can be seen straddling rather casually. A Kashmiri body quite literally under a jackboot.

It gets worse: The armed forces, journalists, cantankerous TV anchors, and a news agency known for its reliance on facts-as-defined-by-the-state, all chose to broadcast the video of a bewildered, heartbroken minor crying copious tears inside a police car. This is against the law almost everywhere on the planet. But Kashmiri lives, whether young or old, do not matter.

It did not come as a surprise, therefore, to see many Indian media outlets, seasoned journalists and political knuckleheads speaking in roughly the same language of cold calculation and profit: How best to deploy the photo of a stupefied three-year-old boy sitting on his grandfather’s bloodied corpse.

On the ground and on the airwaves, in the militarised space of Kashmir and among the halls of commentary in Delhi, the disregard and disdain for Kashmiris is now so complete, so pervasive that “the worst is [always] precise,” as a broken-hearted poet, Agha Shahid Ali, once said.

The responses to the viral image – a photo that should neither have been taken nor distributed – point precisely to the astonishing breakdown of basic codes of civility, common decency, and humanity among large sections of Indian society and media. Kashmiris have, of course, always known.

Soon after the near-dystopian incident in Sopore, more than a few media outlets and Twitter-handles chose to broadcast verbatim what the Indian police claimed. Police rescue toddler! The immediate family’s on-record version, that the old man was dragged out of his car, shot dead, and his grandson made to sit on his chest for a photo-op, did not matter or carry the same weight.

It would have complicated the story – a neat, unambiguous version is always helpful to and liked by the state.

It is necessary to note here that the Indian administration in Kashmir – not a press body, not an editors’ guild, or a school of media studies, but a group of government officials answerable only to themselves – recently came up with its own set of rules to define what constitutes news and journalism. Calling them Orwellian does not quite do justice to these rules.

Sambit Patra, a spokesperson of the ruling party in India, went further and chose a different tactic. Bizarrely incensed at the recent Pulitzer Prize that honoured three brilliant photojournalists for their coverage of Kashmir after the erasure of the region’s autonomy last year, he chose to deploy the image to scoff at the award. To poke fun, to mock.

Perhaps politics in contemporary India has all gone far beyond the confines of taste and ethics, perhaps it is now so far removed from what is right and wrong that a spokesman of India’s ruling party salivates at the appearance of a macabre photograph.

In the politician’s fertile mind, it made for good material perhaps because it allowed the regime to momentarily distract its loyal followers from the Chinese incursions in Ladakh. But it is probably even worse than that. The depravity is the point.

This kind of performative cruelty, germane to all occupying regimes and empires, will not be independently investigated because that is how the state operates among those it essentially considers an expendable people. It will be so because that is precisely how it has been all these years: A state of exception in which the lives of Kashmiris are always subject to the will and machinations of the colonial state.

It was like this before India illegally erased Kashmir’s nominal autonomy in August last year. Since then, it has run Kashmir according to a tyranny of law. A tyranny by law. A staggering 99 percent of habeas corpus pleas – requests to courts to review unlawful detention – in the state have been in suspension for nearly a year.

Indian TV studios ran both the footage of the toddler and an interview with the cop who supposedly rescued him, after all possible PR opportunities were exploited. There were no interviews with the family of Bashir Khan or with eyewitnesses from Sopore.

There is a saying in Kashmiri, “Khoon diy baarav”, which loosely translates to “blood shall speak”. It is the solemn cadence of that last word – baarav – that makes Kashmiris remember every zulm (oppression) and wound. In our present reality, the translation acquires a fresh potency: Blood shall howl. It is to this many turn to during times of unspeakable grief and fury.

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