Visual Propaganda and the Systemic Stifling of Kashmir

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A woman with her nephew in Srinagar, in Jammu and Kashmir. Indian soldiers have forced most Kashmiris to stay at or near home. — File photo

Kashmir bleeds, the rest of India tweets. The media turnstiles keep on spinning. The cycle repeats.

Priyam Marik

A GHASTLY image emerges. Immediately, social media is flooded with swarms of polarised outrage, tempered occasionally by the apathetic silence or the calibrated cynicism of the few. Kashmir is reduced to a single picture, the latest visual to go viral.

Kashmir bleeds, the rest of India tweets. The media turnstiles keep on spinning. The cycle repeats. A new, horrifying image surfaces. Once again, India is provoked to react. Once again, India fails to reflect.

On July 1, an image of a three-year-old child sitting on top of the body of his dead grandfather, Bashir Ahmed, in Kashmir’s Sopore town, got circulated on social media. Local police issued a statement explaining that Ahmed had lost his life after being caught in the crossfire between militants and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). One CRPF officer was also reported to have been killed, while three others were injured in the face-off.

What followed was the kind of no-holds-barred visual propaganda that has become synonymous with violent incidents from the Valley. Sambit Patra, the official spokesperson of the BJP, tweeted the heart-wrenching photo with the insidious caption, “PULITZER LOVERS??” in a brazen jibe at the Pulitzer committee that had awarded three photojournalists from Jammu and Kashmir earlier this year.

Patra’s ostensible implication was that the “left-liberal” and “anti-national” Indian lobbies will not pay due attention to a tragedy inflicted by the Kashmiri militants, but will amplify their voices only when there is state-sanctioned repression.

Following Patra’s insinuation, India’s Twitterati got divided into the familiar silos of “sickulars” and “bhakts,” with the likes of Dia Mirza, Vishal Dadlani, and Hansal Mehta chastising Patra by labelling him as a “troll and chronic abuser” and a “vile disgrace of a human being,” besides questioning his lack of “empathy,” even as Anupam Kher lionised Patra by appropriating the words of Guru Gobind Singh. Patra, of course, was only too happy to respond to his opponents by extending the exchange of vitriol, pointing out the “difference between you and me.” Expectedly, there was no condemnation from the BJP of Patra’s tweet that had been shared over and over again on social media, with approbation and castigation jostling for virtual limelight.

Even without contemplating the searing heartlessness behind the caption Patra had used, it is possible to understand why Patra’s tweet was a convenient exercise of visual propaganda. By using a triggering phrase to describe the picture, Patra had successfully deflected attention from the fact that the family of the deceased had alleged that Ahmed was shot down, not by a militant, but a member of the CRPF, and that the child in the picture had also said that the police had gunned down his grandfather.

Additionally, Patra had shared another picture, which shows a CRPF officer carrying the child away to safety. It is clear from Patra’s actions that he wished to frame the issue in the characteristic binary of Kashmir, which asserts itself in depicting the perpetual opposition between so-called Pakistan-sponsored militancy and the defence of the Valley mounted by the valiant Indian army.

Such propagandist framing of the image achieved what Patra and his ilk wanted. It suppressed discussion around the three major questions that needed to be asked in the wake of the tragedy.

First, did the police personnel capture the concerned pictures and the subsequent footage of the child being shepherded home in the police car? If yes, what was the intention of the police in conducting this self-reportage, and why have they not been held accountable for documenting and spreading sensitive content that does not fall in their professional domain?

Second, how exactly will we arrive at the truth behind what happened in Sopore that led to the death of Ahmed- what is the evidence the police has to confirm that Ahmed was killed by the militants, and alternatively, how should the child’s comments (that implicate the police) be weighed into the case?

Third, and most crucial of them all, when will the BJP government of Narendra Modi take responsibility for the fact that militancy and political unrest, far from declining in Kashmir – as Home Minister Amit Shah has assured on numerous occasions – has only been aggravated since August?

And yet, none of these questions will be allowed to shape the conversation simply because there is no appetite to reflect on what happens in Kashmir. In keeping with the tradition of metaphorising Kashmir through images, we have forgotten to engage with the structures and the mechanisms that facilitate the culmination of these images in the first place, a forgetting that is now more acute than it has ever been.

Whether it be the photos of Sheikh Abdullah’s rabble-rousing speeches from the 1950s and 60s, or the pristine portrayal of Kashmir in the exoticised landscape of Bollywood songs over the next three decades, or the brutal visuals in the 2010s – from locals mourning for the “martyred” Burhan Wani to the infamous stills of the human shields to the pictures of marooned, desolate streets engulfed in a web of lockdowns – India has always seen Kashmir, without trying to understand it. Now, however, even the act of seeing has become a passive sensation, a process of accepting that every image, however gruesome, is inevitable.

In this context, Bashir Ahmed is viewed less as an innocent civilian who was killed in broad daylight and more as a “victim” of a ceaseless struggle, while his grandson is not just a child at a terrible place at a terrible time, but a living testament to the heroic commitment of the Indian forces.

The visual propaganda that the government, the police, the media, as well as we, the common Indians, have subjected Kashmir to, may have animated its existence as India’s most politicised entity, but it has also invisibilised the people that occupy it.

By observing Kashmir through the distance of television and social media and then by filtering those observations through the prism of national unity or separatist tension, we have been seeing Kashmir in the way we choose to, not the way it actually is.

Kashmir has been forced to lie suspended in a spectrum of identity, embodied by ever-changing images upon a palimpsest of national consciousness, without context, explanation, or scrutiny. Seeing Kashmir has become a surrogate for seeing India and the systems – effective or otherwise – that maintain it. Seeing Kashmir has become an act of systemic stifling.

A picture from Kashmir, whether it be of Bashir Ahmed and his grandson, or the ones that are likely to inundate our screens and phones in the future, is not worth a thousand words. It is, tragically, worth only the token of political partisanship that we have come to assign to it.

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The article first appeared in Madras Courier. The views expressed here are author’s personal and Clarion India does not necessarily subscribe to them. 

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