Social media has witnessed a flurry of comments and barbs over the silence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the death of Pulitzer-winning Indian photographer, Danish Siddiqui. His strident critics pointed out that Modi did not even tweet a message condoling the Reuters photographer’s death in a conflict zone in Afghanistan because Siddiqui specialised in capturing images which this government either wished to conceal, or caused it political discomfort.
In contrast, Modi’s admirers argued why Left-liberals did not ask similar questions of Modi when Sowmya, a caregiver from Kerala was killed in Israel’s Ashkelon, in an airstrike by Hamas on May 10. A leading anchor of a prime-time show termed the criticism of Modi not condoling the photographer’s death, as “a boorish response from the ‘Left-Lutyens’ community.”
From the other side, it was also pointed out that Modi had remained unmoved even after the deaths of lakhs of people in the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the record, however, Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur expressed grief over Siddiqui’s death and called his work an “extraordinary body of work”. Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla also condemned the killing and extended his condolences to the bereaved family.
His statement, however, was made in a specific context – the UN Security Council meeting in New York with the theme ‘Protection of civilians in armed conflict: preserving humanitarian space’ – where he asked the council to address the “complex nature of humanitarian situations around the world”.
It must also be put on record that a condolence message from Modi was also not required as per protocol. But expecting for him to respond to the tragedy was not trivialisation and obfuscation as the Bhakt brigade made it out.
It must also be noted that it was also not obligatory for the Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani to personally express grief, yet he conveyed his condolences. He reiterated his government’s “unwavering commitment to freedom of speech and protection of free media and journalists.”
It can be argued that Ghani’s reaction was an expression of accepting responsibility that Siddiqui was killed when he was in protective ‘custody’ of troops’ loyal to the Afghanistan government because he was embedded with them.
But then, the photographer was entrenched with the same side as the Indian government is currently, at least as far as its official stand is concerned. Siddique is being vilified by admirers of this regime – that he was killed by fellow Muslims and that too the Taliban, thereby there is no need to condole his passing.
The contrast in the approaches of the two leaders, Modi and Ghani, underscores the fact that Modi is perennially need-based in his actions: relationships are maintained only when it is necessary, and statements made only when there is an advantage to gain. In the case of Siddiqui, there were several layers of why a message from the prime minister was not necessary.
For any other prime minister, Siddiqui’s Pulitzer Prize should have been a matter of honour. But Modi and this regime are driven by the same sentiment that film actress Nargis was infamously guided by decades ago when she attacked the maestro, Satyajit Ray, in November 1980, a short while after being nominated by the government to the Rajya Sabha.
Her accusation? That Ray has secured international fame by peddling Indian poverty which according to the actress, was not the ‘true depiction’. Depiction of reality is a way of ensuring censure of the state.
In the case of Modi, and the absence of his response at Siddiqui’s death, the degrees of separation between the two are several. First, Modi does not feel the necessity of constant media presence – much of his political narrative in the initial years as Gujarat chief minister and prime ministerial candidate, was driven by portraying journalists, especially Delhi-based English media, as being vendors of falsity as well as holding a brief against him.
Perpetual media presence is something that is best avoided and he partially did that by stopping the practice of taking along a media team on his foreign jaunts. Taking the cue, this government has over the past seven years restricted access to journalists, newshounds as well as photographers.
It is not that Modi does not recognise the need for photographers per se. In fact, he introduced the selfie in the political arena when he famously took one after casting his vote in Ahmedabad for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. But, photographers around him are not to function independently and draw on their individual reservoirs of creativity.
Instead, they must remain mere operators of the camera who frame a picture as per the diktat. They cannot be interpreters of maladies or what they see in front of them, they are not permitted to be chroniclers of that moment which catches the subject unaware, or brings out the harsh poignancy of the moment.
Photographers under Modi’s command cannot be driven by the belief that their task is to capture that split-second moment which someone, somewhere, does not wish recorded and revealed. The task of the photographer, in Modi’s view – this is shared by his minions – is to prepare the visual element in a publicity brochure.
Stories abound how he personally instructs photographers who are either part of the support staff, or get access to his events. The episode involving Mark Zuckerberg at the Facebook headquarters some years ago remains a regularly watched video even now – he shoved Zuckerberg to one side as he was standing between Modi and the assembled camerapersons.
Siddiqui was anything but this. His photography was about freezing the expression of a lumpen, motivated by hatred and prejudice who whipped a pistol at people protesting a citizenship law. Siddiqui’s search was for the disturbing moment or event, whose occurrence was to be denied. He meticulously documented shattered dreams of migrants who walked thousand plus kilometres back to a secure roof. Siddiqui went into alleyways where mobs beat up the ‘other’ till death while the police stood guard. He did much more that discomfited the ‘system’.
And above all, his biggest ‘crime’ was an act of ‘blasphemy’: Being a Muslim how could he document a Hindu cremation ground with all its grey stillness?
In the era when dog-whistle politics has been mainstreamed from the highest quarters, a message of condolence would have ‘recognised’ Siddiqui for what he was. And that cannot be permitted, because much else would have been ‘legitimised’.
(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)
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