As Civilian is Killed in Encounter, Police Place Kashmiri Child at Centre of Propaganda War

A photograph of the 3-year-old sitting atop the dead man was taken, apparently while the encounter had not ended. But while BJP leaders used the image to score political points against the opposition, the picture remains murky.

Srinagar: A three-year-old Kashmiri boy has been placed at the centre of a political war of words on social media after his grandfather was reportedly killed in cross-fire between militants and the police, while the child was present. His family has said that the grandfather, Bashir Ahmed, was killed by the police – an allegation dismissed by the police as the product of threats from militants.

Now, the family says the child himself has confirmed their allegation.

When this reporter met the family at their home on the outskirts of Srinagar, they said the three-year-old boy, AB*, when asked who killed his ‘papa’, had told them that the police did.

What the child said

AB was accompanying his grandfather when the latter was killed in north Kashmir’s Sopore town in cross fire between militants and government forces on Wednesday morning.

One Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) man was also killed in the militant ambush, while three CRPF men were injured.

Unaware of the tragedy that had fallen on his family, AB was playing in a plastic tub and eating snacks when this reporter visited his home on Wednesday evening.

AB’s parents told The Wire that their son claimed policemen had shot his grandfather, a claim they too believe to be true. AB confirmed this in the presence of this reporter, too, who met the child with the consent of his father and the support of his family.

When asked what happened to ‘papa’, which is what he calls his grandfather, AB said “goli mari” (he was shot). By whom, he replied “Police wale ne” (by the police).

“Papa (grandfather) ko goli mari policewale ne (A policeman killed grandpa),” the boy told this reporter. “Policewala ne gori mari (A policeman shot at him),”

“I enjoyed the drive (Mujhe gaadi mai mazaa aya tha…Papa died (Papa margaya)…police killed him,” AB said when asked to recall the incident.

While medical professionals and investigators are best placed to evaluate the evidentiary value of what he is saying, the boy is already being used in an official propaganda campaign aimed at establishing another story: that his grandfather was killed by militant cross-fire during an encounter with security forces on Wednesday morning and that the police and forces were responsible for saving the child’s life.

Scoring points on Twitter

The whole of Wednesday, a photograph of AB sitting calmly on top of the lifeless body of his grandfather, Bashir Ahmed, circulated widely on social media with BJP leaders promoting the narrative that there would be no Pulitzer Prize for the heart-rending image since the man had been killed by terrorists and not the security forces.

The reference to the Pulitzer was because of the official consternation the Pulitzer committee generated earlier this year when it gave a prize for photojournalism to three photographers from Jammu and Kashmir and referred in its citation to Kashmir as “contested territory”.

A second image from the Sopore encounter showed the boy walking away from his grandfather’s body while a soldier who is on the side crouching with his gun against a wall holds out his hand. It is not clear if he is trying to tell the boy not to come towards him or is summoning him over.

The photographs were tweeted by senior police officers and the photographer too is assumed to be someone from the security forces.

The pose of the Rashtriya Rifles soldier in the frame suggests either that the encounter had not ended or that he had not been told it was over, which raises the question of why the soldier or officer taking photographs of the child did not rush the child to safety – as is the standard operating procedure whenever there are civilians caught in an area where an operation is on – instead of pursuing his ‘photo op’.

This particular photograph was circulated on Twitter by the head of the BJP’s IT cell and included the familiar Pulitzer taunt and a dig at Congress leader Rahul Gandhi: “There will be no Pulitzer award or citation for this picture because it doesn’t suit the macabre narrative ‘Breaking India’ forces peddle on Kashmir… For them Indian Army can be nothing but evil. Even Rahu Gandhi won’t shed a tear, not even for the child!”

The ANI news agency also released a video of the child being driven away from the site to his home by the security forces. The child is traumatised and weeping and soldiers are trying to pacify him. Since the video is shot inside the jeep, it was presumably shot and released by the security forces.

Police blame militants

The police said militants attacked a CRPF and police party at around 7.45 am while they were placing a naka at Model Town in Sopore, some 50 kms from Srinagar. They said Bashir Ahmed came out of his car to take his grandson to safety and was fired upon by the militants.

However, Nazir Ahmad, a brother of the deceased, alleged that Bashir was asked to come out of from his vehicle and killed on the roadside.

“If he was killed in cross-firing, how come did no bullet hit his car”, he asked. “The police are lying,” he said.

The Sopore police took to Twitter to warn people that legal action would be taken against anyone circulating “false reports and rumours” about Bashir’s death.

At a press conference in Srinagar, inspector general of police (IGP) Kashmir range, Vijay Kumar rejected the family’s claims about Bashir having been killed by the security forces, calling it totally baseless.

He said that the family were levelling these allegations under militant threat.

“I want to ask them (family) whether they were present at the site of the incident. Did they see for themselves who fired? They circulated video messages blaming forces of killing their father from Srinagar, which is totally baseless,” he said.

Kumar said that if there is any eye-witness, let them come forward, “we will act accordingly.”

Meanwhile, former J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah decried the use of the child’s “misery” as a propaganda tool:

If ever a reminder was needed of a propaganda initiative sometimes running the risk of turning counter-productive, the same photograph of the child and his dead grandfather was tweeted by the Pakistani foreign ministry spokesperson on Wednesday afternoon with the hashtags ‘Indian Brutality’ and ‘KashmirLivesMatter’.

Acknowledging that someone from among the security forces had taken the child’s photo, IGP Vijay Kumar told reporters, “Going to the operation area with mobiles is wrong. I will ensure police teams going for the operation don’t carry mobiles along as that may pose threat to their lives. In 2018, many security forces personnel got killed while using their mobiles during duty hours, in standoff attacks.”

*The name of the child is being withheld and his image has been blurred to protect his identity.

This story has been updated to note that the reporter met the child with the consent of the family.

The original version of this story had a short video recording of the child narrating what had happened. The video was shot with the support and consent of his family but has now been deleted following objections from some readers who found it distressing.

Junaid Kathju is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar.