Delhi Violence: Why the Picture of the Crying Boy Will Stay With Us Forever

Social Commentary

Delhi Violence: Why the Picture of the Crying Boy Will Stay With Us Forever

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

For the last few days, parts of Delhi have transformed into a war zone. Violent mobs roaming the streets, a hapless police force watching on, and an endless stream of communal slogans, have left 35 people dead, and almost 200 more injured.

The rest of the country has, meanwhile, responded to this unprecedented violence, as it does to most conflicts — with attempts to out-opinion each other, and be the first to release newer information, however unverified, on the internet.

Faced with an assault of alarming headlines, fact-checks by political commentators, and a stream of whataboutery from the internet regulars reminding us of the fallout of previous riots, there is obviously much to despair about. But considering our reaction to past conflicts, it’ll only take a few days before we end up getting desensitised to the actual violence, and move on from this carnage to the next pressing issue.

Until, that is, one image is circulated on the internet that is powerful enough to shock the humanity back into us, and bring us to the realisation that no matter what side of the debate we’re on, our fellow countrymen are suffering. This morning, the picture of a boy mourning the death of his uncle, who was killed during the violence in Delhi, and was shared widely on social media, could go on to have that effect.

In the photograph, we see a crying boy looking over the body of his uncle, a man named Mudassir Khan. The look of longing and helplessness on the boy’s face will – and should – haunt us. Enough that whenever we remember the Delhi violence years from now, the first thing we’ll think about is the weeping boy who lost a father figure. It was published on a day when a CBSE exam had to be postponed because of the barbaric few days of violence in Delhi.

Photographs are coded with meaning that goes far beyond what is immediately visible. Look closely, what does this one represent? Do you see a childhood, lacerated and abbreviated? Do you see the anguish in the female relative’s eyes, not merely for the loved one she’s lost, but for the life that the child will now lead, coloured forever by the trauma of laying a young father figure to rest so early? At eight years, when a child might be interested in the simple machinations of Avengers, how does one compute this very adult deprivation? Is there any accounting for these losses?

At the very least, I hope this image will remain one of the starkest reminders that whatever our political opinions are, there’s just no justifying the suffering of children.

These photographs distil the extent of a tragedy down to how it affects the most vulnerable, a totem that reminds us of the scale of misfortune.

That lesson has been driven home several times before, by images of children in conflict situations. These photographs distil the extent of a tragedy down to how it affects the most vulnerable, a totem that reminds us of the scale of misfortune. We’ve seen worse images, for sure – all through the last couple of months, the camera has captured students bleeding from their heads, men being dragged across roads, and a bloodied man cowering in fear as a mob beats him with sticks. These photographs have now been imprinted in our collective memories. But still, the thought that children too young enough to understand the implications of CAA-NRC or Hindu-Muslim differences must bear the brunt of the violence, is enough to leave entire countries speechless. And in some cases, even inspire action.

A recent example is, of course, Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body had washed ashore after he drowned in the Mediterranean sea. The photograph went on to make international headlines at a time when Europe couldn’t decide whether refugees were sapping up all their resources or contributing to cultural diversity. Days after it was made public, though, even the strictest governments seemed to have had a change of heart.

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The image of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body had washed ashore after he drowned in the Mediterranean sea, opened our eyes to the gravity of the migration crisis.

Chris Hopkins/Getty Images

The image had the most drastic impact in Canada, the country where Aylan and his family were desperately attempting to seek refuge, with even Conservative leaders like Stephen Harper cancelling photo-ops and drawing comparisons with his own son. The Citizenship and Immigration Minister suspended his campaign for the 2015 elections to go back to Ottawa and investigate the case. Outside Canada, a radio channel put out a passionate appeal for a world with open borders, and German newspaper Der Spiegel carried an editorial stating the need to either reform or abolish its refugee policy.

Even further back, there’s the famous picture of Vietnam’s “Napalm Girl”, a horrific black and white shot of a naked girl running down the street after she was badly burnt in a South Vietnamese napalm attack. The picture, which won the photographer Nick Ut the Pulitzer Prize, was seen with shock across a world without the internet, and went on to help end the violent Vietnam war.

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The famous picture of Vietnam’s “Napalm Girl” sent shockwaves across the world and went on to help end the violent Vietnam war.

Getty Images

Back home, the image of a man pleading before a mob — later identified as Qutubuddin Ansari — became a symbol of the 2002 Gujarat riots, much in the same way the picture of a woman being sprayed by tear gas in the face in Turkey, grew to become a symbol of the relentless protests that the country’s citizens have been putting up since 2013. Meanwhile, a few heart-wrenching images, such as the one of a starving boy being scouted out by a vulture in Sudan, take their toll on the photographers as well — the artist behind the iconic image took his own life the following year after stating that he was, “haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and danger and pain”.

There’s hope still, however. In some cases, these powerful documents have the power to influence opinion. Just two weeks earlier, a video went viral in which a Syrian man is training his daughter to laugh every time a bomb falls in the background. As the next explosion is heard, the girl first slightly jumps and then bursts into hysterical giggles, as her father asks, “It’s funny right.” The father and daughter turned into celebrities overnight, and have since, been invited to resettle in Turkey, far away from the incessant violence. Let’s hope that the image of this young boy in Delhi has a similar effect, and we can put aside our political differences for a few weeks and demand justice for the violence.

 

Correction: It was erroneously reported earlier that the boy in the picture was the son of Mudassir Khan, who lost his life in the violence. The boy is his nephew.   

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