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Erasing Images: Modi And Beyond

By Farzana Versey

28 February, 2013

If his face could cause mental trauma to others, make people taunt the rest of the community for helplessness as the goons performed their ‘war dance’ with glee, one can well imagine how it must affect him.

On the 11th anniversary of the post-Godhra Gujarat riots, as I look at the photograph of Qutubbuddin Ansari I cannot relate it to him as the ‘face of the riots’. There is a reason I bring up this story after the first reports of it made for soft news in June last year. Has Ansari moved on and, if so, what does such individual erasure mean for a group?

When the Reuters photograph first appeared it bore the long caption: "An Indian Muslim stranded in the first floor of his house, along with a few other Muslims and surrounded by a Hindu mob begs to the Rapid Action Force (Indian paramilitary) personnel to rescue him at Sone-ki-Chal in Ahmedabad, March 01, 2002.”

During riots and other such calamitous events, news and photographs bear witness. One does not think about ethics, or whether one needs to seek permission. It was a helpless man seeking assistance. As it turns out, he did get it. In a BBC article, he is quoted as saying, “Then my life went into a tailspin. The picture followed me wherever I went. It haunted me, and drove me out of my job, and my state.” He lost a few jobs in the state and elsewhere because he was recognised.

I possibly used the image once. But I recall comments from two different groups:

1. The Indian rightwing said, “See, this is what can happen for all the past atrocities of Muslim rulers.”

2. Some Pakistanis held this up as an example of Indian Muslims cowardice, of having to live in constant fear.

I did not know his name then. It just made me angry, not only because of what happened but because of how it would be perceived. The very fact that he was a nameless person denied him an identity. He was by default a nobody. He had no claims that came to light; his case was not in any court, or at least not known; there was no news about his house, his family members, his losses. Nobody wanted to know about him except perhaps as a symbol.

It is after over 12 years, that he finally decided he had to exorcise this image. He wrote to the Ahmadabad police commissioner:

"Today I am living in peace with my family. Not only that, my children are also being brought up in a very good environment. It hurts me when even today I see my picture with folded hands depicting my helplessness in newspapers, websites and on covers of reports of some NGOs. I would request you to please impose a ban on the use of my picture in future. And also, ask all media, websites and NGOs to remove my picture from their documents."

The photographs are still available on the web. Worse, a film ‘Rajdhani Express’ used it. His lawyer sued the filmmaker:

"Ansari is facing serious social and family problems after the film was released in city theatres earlier this month. This has in fact created a circumstance of fear and danger to his personal safety and security.”

Let us see how people were to gain by using the photograph.

NGOs should have had better sense. They are fighting cases for several people living in refugee camps. Those camps are sufficient testimony. So, why Ansari? Because the activist cause relies on victimhood. This is not to deny the role they have played in bringing so many cases to light, but brochures need funds. Tapping for funds needs something identifiable. They too are catering to a sympathy market, a guilt trip.

The media used it because it has created the image. It goes beyond a photograph. It amounts to building it up, adding to the stock of helpless pictures that are reminiscent of the Ansari one. It has a snowballing effect, especially if you use cops or, better still, chief minister Narendra Modi as a contrast. It gives you something newsy with a touch of human interest, which seems to be the absolute tag-along with every news story.

Different political parties would use the photograph for reasons that would suit their agendas. The state government employed it as tacit threat and, for all the development and whitewash job, the Gujarat administration knew that this was its trump card. It will not let go of it so easily. Most other parties naturally found it convenient to show the ugly image of Gujarat by holding this one man crying for help as a mirror.

None of them knew his name.

It is disturbing that terrorists too have used this picture to claim they are fighting for the cause of Muslims.

Has anyone stood up for Ansari? He is right – everyone has been exploiting him. He works as a tailor now, and he may have realised that it is better to remove traces of the past. It is time that his pictures were removed, for by trying to express concern the media, NGOs and political parties are in fact working into the pugnacious narrative of a government that has shown it has enough muscle to muzzle any opposition in any form.

Having said this, and I maintain it is a matter of individual privacy and choice, let us not assume that all is well. There are refugee camps and ghettos. The moving on is tactical and practical; no one has made a proper inventory of those who left the state. There are cases pending against ministers and police officers.

We have a CM who does not think this is even worth giving any attention to. He is busy holding 3D conferences to reach out to people. This is not about good governance, but populism. Surprisingly, not many consider it so.

Memories are short or, more likely, selective as I wrote about the amnesia in Countercurrents two years ago. The hands of the powerful are long. Modi has realised that he has managed to fool a few Muslims, including that cleric from the Deoband, and those who have managed to rebuild their lives would not want to leave. He would not care even if they did, for it might just help with his idea of a pure state.

However, he has a backup plan ready: Dalits. The state’s social justice department has set aside Rs. 22.5 lakh, not for the education or health benefits of dalits, but to train them in Vedic rituals. In what is being projected as a bold move, manual scavengers will learn the ‘karma-kand’, thus far the prerogative of the Brahmins, and even perform at wedding ceremonies. It sounds good. Except that it is not much different from what ‘backward castes’ would do if they migrated to other cities – adopt a new profession. Instead of getting rid of manual scavenging, and offering them jobs in a potentially ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ atmosphere, he is pushing them into the standard Brahmin mode. He also forgets that there are still instances in his state where they cannot enter temples.

This new move will only draw attention to their caste when he attends ceremonies solemnised by them. And this seems to be the only motive. Some have suggested he moved fast when Mayawati announced her desire to be a PM candidate. I have maintained that Modi is not a contender; if at all he makes some noise it is only to assert his supremacy over opponents within his party at the bidding of the RSS. Therefore, the Mayawati factor is not important. He is trying to accommodate what are seen as fringe groups to play them against Muslims. High caste Hindus won’t be bothered about a few dalits learning some rituals that they will conduct among themselves, and the token big event for a photo-op.

This is part of the development agenda that few want to talk about. Develop a few to fall in line, make them into an example and show this as moving on.

You may wipe out footprints, but the congealed blood in eroded soles of slippers tell their own story.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.in/





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