On July 2, as the distressing images of a three-year-old Kashmiri child sitting atop the lifeless, blood-splattered body of his grandfather landed on social media, it triggered a mass outpouring of grief. At the same time, the pictures came in for widespread public criticism.
Some saw it as a cynical use of the toddler to score a propaganda point. They said police who supposedly shot the images sought to highlight their Good Samaritan act of rescuing the boy in the middle of an encounter with the militants, who they accused of killing the grandfather. Many also termed sharing of those pictures on social media as unethical and inappropriate.
But the images still went viral, and that was a good thing. We should thank the Jammu and Kashmir Police for clicking these for us, that is if they really did so. The images, for once, have afforded the world an unfiltered peek into the horror that everyday life in Kashmir is. This reality was, otherwise, lost in the predictability of the daily violence contextualized by the India-Pakistan conflict over the region. And now after recent incursions in Ladakh also by China.
The boy’s pictures have brought the focus back on the people in Kashmir, revealing them in their lingering, unadorned grief. Kashmir needed this objective articulation, no matter if it came from the police with a contrary objective in mind: the images that allegedly were set out to be the propaganda ended up revealing the stark underlying reality of Kashmir. It is as if the images suddenly developed consciousness and agency of their own and somewhere along the way refused to do their master’s bidding and spoke for themselves.
Now, imagine the pictures hadn’t been taken, or not circulated at all, as many people on social media have argued: The grandfather would have died an obscure death, reduced to a statistic like most other killings in Kashmir. The child’s story would have been a supplementary detail in the textual news about the incident, hardly enough to pique the interest of anyone outside the Valley.
One invariable part of the continuing tragedy of Kashmir has been that its people are generally considered incidental to the long-standing conflict over the region. Across the world, Kashmir is primarily known as a dispute between India and Pakistan. And which it is, in part. Both countries claim the region and have gone to three wars over it. The troubled situation in Kashmir is seen as an extension of this conflict, with its people seen as acting on behalf of one or the other country. Their struggle, aspirations and agency count for little. Over 70,000 killings and their continuing humanitarian fallout have little weight.
What’s more, people continue to die every day under various labels largely unknown and uncared for in the rest of India. This has bred a numbness towards the conflict that remains as intractable as ever.
This is where the image of the three-year-old with his dead grandfather comes handy. It temporarily breaks the numbness and humanises the conflict. It reveals the situation unencumbered by its narratives and contestations – transcending even the contention over whose bullet hit the old man. It transforms a piece of statistic in police bulletins into a flesh-and-blood person with a story. And this story, in turn, becomes a metaphor for the suffering wrought by the conflict.
Over the past three decades, the war in Kashmir has been captured in thousands of pictures, many of them going on to become its defining images. One such picture was displayed in the cover page of the Time magazine’s December 1999 issue. It was a close-up of the haunting, grief-stricken face of an old woman from downtown Srinagar locked in an embrace with a male relative. She was the mother of Mohammad Ashraf Bazaz, who along with his wife Summaya, was killed when the three-wheeler they were travelling in ran into a cross-fire between militants and security forces near Nowhatta in Srinagar. People had blamed armed forces for killing the couple. But that was the time when there was no social media, so pictures wouldn’t travel.
In recent years, many poignant pictures of the children have gone viral. Among them, that of the six-year-old Muneefa Nazir, whose right eye was hit by a marble ball fired by Indian paramilitary soldiers last August. The image was part of a series of photographs by The Associated Press photographers Mukhtar Khan, Dar Yasin and Channi Anand, which won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.
But perhaps none of these images highlighted the tragedy of Kashmir as viscerally as the pictures of the child with dead grandfather. And this is why these images are the best thing that has happened to Kashmir in a long time. No matter who clicked them and what the intent behind their capturing was, the pictures have struck out on their own and shown Kashmir for what it is. And in doing so, they are serving an ethical and moral purpose, so they should be shared. The toddler is Kashmir’s version of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian child, the pictures of whose lifeless body, lying face down on the shore near Turkey’s resort town of Bodrum, spotlighted the plight of refugees fleeing the war.
In the past, such shocking images have galvanised redeeming global action. Kurdi’s picture had persuaded some European countries, including Germany and Britain, to take in more refugees. Earlier, the image of Ferida Osmanovic, who hanged herself in the cornfields of Tuzla after the fall of Srebrenica in 1995, became a factor in the subsequent Nato bombing campaign that brought Bosnian war to an end. Or for that matter, who can forget Kim Phuc, or Napalm girl, who in 1972 was pictured running down a road naked following a Napalm attack on her village in Vietnam that killed her two cousins. The picture not only won a Pulitzer prize but also helped catalyse the end of Vietnam war.
It is unlikely that Kashmiri child’s picture will make any difference to the region. As it has turned out, the image has generated little global outrage despite all the visibility the new communication means have afforded it. So one can hardly expect any calls for bringing an end to the lingering tragedy in the region, let alone any action to this effect. But this doesn’t detract us from the importance of the pictures to Kashmir. They hold our truth the way the Kashmiris know it, something that no amount of spinning would hide. Circulating and seeing them is thus an ethical and moral act.
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