Danish Siddiqui: A Death In Afghanistan That Did Us Apart

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose silence over condolence after the Taliban crossfire killed Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, whilst social media users religiously trolled him for exposing the dark underbelly of Indian society.

The shrewd lensman is gone. Gone too soon, but gone for good. Imagine how the rapaciously ambitious photojournalist would have deliberately put the country into trouble after trouble by spreading lies with a click or two, had he been alive and kicking. His hyperbolic clickbait was designed to bait us, forcing us to answer, defend, refute, and silence those who dared to ask questions.

We were sitting pretty, we breezed through COVID-19 and were single-mindedly working to help the world with vaccines and highly effective advice pills when this man struck. His friends too played their part in perfect synchrony. At once, they all died effortlessly in hospitals, ambulances, vehicles of all types and sizes, and on the pavements, before gliding into the Ganga. We said there was enough oxygen in the air, but they still thought it was the perfect moment to click themselves out of this world. No doubt, we accorded them an excellent farewell, a direct passage to heaven.

If not the bhakts – a term now more synonymous with fans of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi than its original meaning of being God’s devotee – who else can make such an impetuous statement? Their pathetic rationale goes down well with the eerie silence their political idol Modi has chosen in his bid to consign renowned Reuters photojournalist Danish Siddiqui to oblivion.

Did the PM decide not to mourn the killing of Siddiqui while on assignment in Afghanistan because he put the government in a spot by unmasking the COVID-19 catastrophe that peaked in April-May? Or was it the iconic images from last year’s Delhi riots or protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act? Or the migrant crisis during the first lockdown from March to May last year? Or was it because he was a Muslim? The PM, who is often the first to tweet, had nothing to say.

Conflict zone

A Pulitzer Prize awardee, Siddiqui’s photographs laid bare the bitter truths of society. On July 16, when the news of his death in clashes between the Afghan Special Forces and the Taliban in Kandahar came, condolence messages poured in from across the globe, including from United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the US State Department, and Afghanistan’s Ambassador to India Farid Mamundzay. A week later, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani spoke directly with Siddiqui’s father living in Delhi over the phone.

Yet, India pre-empted any criticism by wielding a statement of condemnation by Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla at the UN Security Council. A tweet from Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur also came to its rescue. Unsurprisingly, a US-based Indian origin Professor Gaurav Sabnis wondered if the Taliban was better than the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Emboldened by Modi’s reticence, the Hindutva brigade showered vile tweets on the 38-year-old, reminding how he humiliated their country and religion with drone shots of COVID-19 cremation. Many satisfied their defatigable ego by claiming ‘Karma is real’. Some simply forgot that Siddiqui was a brave Indian killed in the line of duty and not a jihadi. Others felt the Indian agencies eliminated Siddiqui under the cover of Taliban assault. There were cries of hypocrisy after Twitter locked accounts for sharing photographs of Siddiqui’s body, asking why images of COVID-19 victims and their families that Siddiqui clicked were still in circulation.

Beyond the hullabaloo was the grim reminder of risks in war reporting. According to Reuters, Siddiqui was injured by shrapnel when the Afghan security convoy he was embedded with came under the Taliban attack at Spin Boldak, a town that sits by the Afghan border with Pakistan. However, no answers were given as to why he was not pulled out of the war zone despite the injury. While expressing regret, the Taliban had said it was not aware during whose firing the journalist was killed. “Any journalist entering the war zone should inform us. We will take proper care of that particular individual… We regret that journalists are entering war zone without intimation to us,” Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid had told CNN-News18.

Indian media watchdog Newslaundry, however, disputed its claim. “They killed him and kept his body. We contacted the Taliban and the Red Crescent, but they would not return it. After much negotiations, we were able to convince them to hand over the body,” Ahmad Lodin, an Afghan journalist and head of Afghan Orband Weekly, was quoted as saying. Lodin added that Siddiqui’s body had been “disrespected” and “mutilated”.

As Siddiqui rests in peace at his alma mater Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, his memories are lit up by the powerful shots he had clicked for the common man. His magical lens and astute mind could turn anything mundane into extraordinary. He deserved a hero’s farewell. 

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