PM Modi's refusal to mourn the death of Danish Siddiqui has diminished him

The Afghan President and even the Taliban have condoled the death of photo journalist Danish Siddiqui in Kandahar. But as the world mourned his tragic demise, PM Modi's silence has been conspicuous

Danish Siddiqui (Photo Courtesy: Twitter/ @dansiddiqui)
Danish Siddiqui (Photo Courtesy: Twitter/ @dansiddiqui)

Sudheendra Kulkarni

Danish Siddiqui, a young Indian photojournalist, the bravest of his generation and also the most globally reputed, was killed in a combat zone that Afghanistan, sadly, has been for over four decades.

His death was mourned by millions in India and around the world. Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the UN, expressed sorrow. So did Ashraf Ghani, President of Afghanistan, and many other luminaries. One name in that list of prominent mourners is still missing: India’s own Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Modi’s silence is deafening. He is the Prime Minister of 1.38 billion Indians, and not of his supporters alone or only of those who voted for his party. Death does not bear any political flag or ideological colour. In death, all human beings are equal. When a well-known Indian dies— more so when he or she is killed in the circumstances that took Danish’s life — the nation expects the Prime Minister to express his condolences. One may even say he is obliged to do so by the high office he holds. Whether or not he liked the deceased person is immaterial. The prime minister simply must do what both tradition and official responsibility require him to do.

It is instructive here to see the contrast between Modi and another Prime Minister from his own party, the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Date: March 19, 1998. Vajpayee was sworn in as the 14th prime minister of India. On the same day, EMS Namboodiripad, a veteran CPI-M leader and a former chief minister of Kerala, passed away in Thiruvanathapuram.

EMS belonged to a party that was always uncompromisingly opposed to the BJP, which Vajpayee had founded. Had Vajpayee been a practitioner of Modi’s brand of politics, he could have simply ignored the demise of one who was his political foe. At the most, he could have issued an obligatory condolence message. No, he did something more, and quite unconventional.

He asked L.K. Advani, who had been sworn in as the Home Minister in the morning, to fly in a government plane the same afternoon to attend the communist leader’s funeral in Thiruvanathapuram. In his speech after the funeral, and in the presence of the incumbent general secretary of the CPI(M), the late Harkishan Singh Surjeet, and thousands of other mourners, Advani praised EMS. “Vajpayee ji has specially sent me here as a representative of the Government of India to pay tribute to the departed leader. The political differences between my party and the CPI(M) are well known. Nevertheless, both Atalji and I always admired Namboodiripad’s deep commitment to the cause he believed in. We admired his spotless character. Communists have also served the nation in their own ways.”

Modi once claimed he has a “Chhappan inch ki chaati” or a 56 inches broad chest. Quite a masculine boast it was. But the size of the chest is not the sole, or even an important indicator of a man’s strength. Qualities of the heart are. Sadly, by refusing to condole Danish’s death, Modi has proved he lacks these qualities.

Why didn’t Modi’s heart melt at the news of Danish’s killing? Because Danish’s lens had recorded some ugly truths about the happenings in India during Modi’s tenure.

“As a photojournalist my role is as a mirror and I want to expose the raw truth,” he had said in his TED talk in Mumbai in February 2020. So, he held the mirror to the mass funerals of those who died of the corona pandemic in north India, which so embarrassed the government. His camera captured the Rohingya refugee crisis. It shot images of the communal carnage in Delhi.

In particular, one photograph clicked by him — of a young man named Rambhakt Gopal, brandishing a gun and threatening to fire at Muslims in Delhi’s Jamia area in January 2020, with the police standing as conniving onlookers — went viral all over the world and deeply discomfited the government.

His lens did not lie. None of his photographs falsified the reality. They were not photoshopped to aid anti-government propaganda. But the mere fact that a Muslim lensman who worked for Reuters, showed to the world some aspects of the truth about contemporary India was enough to invite Modi’s displeasure.

And when the leader himself made his dislike known through his deliberate silence, his followers got the hint. Many of them poured venom on the slain man in the social media. “Karma caught up with him.” “He deserved to die.”

This was simply yet another display of communal intolerance by Modi’s Hindutva support base. We have seen it in numerous instances in the past seven and a half years. In all societies there are fringe elements known for their abominable behaviour. But in India, these have felt emboldened and empowered since the New BJP, led by Modi and Amit Shah, won the mandate in 2014 and 2019.

Danish’s death is also an occasion to reflect upon another ugly and menacing reality — the one in our western neighbourhood. Afghanistan has been witnessing unrelenting conflict ever since the now-extinct Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979. The Soviets had to retreat in defeat and humiliation a decade later. Now, Americans are in the final stages of withdrawal — again in defeat and humiliation after two decades of ruinous war. But our hapless civilisational neighbour does not seem to be close to experiencing peace yet.

Violent conflict is continuing between the forces of a government that appears to be crumbling and those of the Taliban, who look confident of capturing power in Kabul again in a few months. It is to this ongoing combat that Danish fell a victim, while on an assignment to cover it in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. Tens of thousands of Afghans, Russians, Americans and others have perished in this unending war.

In his aforementioned TED talk, in which he was at his articulate best, Danish had said, “I am a photojournalist who has the privilege to witness the best of humanity and the worst of humanity — and everything in between.” His life ended in an attempt to show glimpses of the “worst of humanity”. Sadly, after his death, we witnessed a mild form of “the worst of humanity” in the prime minister’s silence and the sickening reactions of some of his followers.

My heartfelt and tearful homage to Danish, who embodied the qualities — fearlessness and truthfulness, above all — that make journalism a noble profession.

(Sudheendra Kulkarni was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Views expressed are personal)

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Published: 24 Jul 2021, 10:22 AM