In his introduction to the Modern Library edition of the Baburnama, Salman Rushdie considers the apparent dichotomy between Babur’s penchant for violence and his love of poetry, which he wrote as well. He was both, says Rushdie, a bloodthirsty warlord as well as a poet of refined sophistication. He believes it expresses the dichotomy of Islam itself: aggressive and ruthless streak in conquest, especially in the medieval period, yet cultured, urbane and pleasure-seeking when off the battlefield. Babur, for instance, can write that to quell a restive population he “had four or five people shot and one or two dismembered” and a few pages later sing hosannas to Kabul’s wine—“Drink wine in Kabul citadel, send round the cup again and again, / for there is both mountain and water, both city and countryside.”
For millennia, these extremes appear to have been reached more quickly and more easily in Afghanistan than nearly anywhere else. Though, unlike Rushdie, I do not think the dichotomy between a violent streak and a poetic imagination is exclusive to Islamic world, but to all cultures, in both pre-modern times and contemporary times. “There is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism”, as Walter Benjamin once wrote.
Babur described Kabul and Kandahar as commercial cities, where goods from all over Asia were sold, arriving via the legendary Silk Route that China has been trying to recreate as an expression of its superpower status. “From Hindustan, caravans of ten, fifteen, twenty thousand pack animals bring slaves, textiles, rock sugar, refined sugar and spices”, Babur wrote. He praised Kabul’s fruits, its “grapes, pomegranates, apricots, apples, quinces, pears, peaches, plums, jujubes, almonds and nuts.” He loved the honey grown in the mountain surrounding Kabul, and the meadows in the city’s outskirts.
On July 16, Danish Siddiqui, chief photographer of the Reuters, and one of the best journalists in the world, was killed in Spin Boldak, in Kandahar province on the border with Pakistan. Embedded with the Afghan government’s elite forces, he was covering the deadly aftermath of the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. The details of his death remain shrouded in mystery, although amid conflicting, sometimes lurid reports, a Reuters investigation suggests he and an Afghan officer and medic were left behind by the very forces with whom he was embedded. His body and face were mutilated before his body was handed over to the Red Cross. (The Taliban denies responsibility.)
In that introduction, Rushdie pointed out that Babur is famous for the mosque he built in India, making him a particular bugbear of Hindutva conservatives. A common and ugly slur used against Indian Muslims, as Rushdie noted, is that they are all Babur’s progeny.
Danish too encountered some of this hatred, as he took some of the most striking, internationally-known images of the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, of the 2020 Delhi riots, of desperate daily wage workers compelled to walk to their villages from cities hundreds of kilometres away in the wake of the first Covid lockdown and the death and misery that characterized the second wave. The anger expressed online by supporters of the government was all the more vituperative, even unhinged, because the evidence of Danish’s photographs, their indictment of power were so difficult to deny. As such, his work was in the best traditions of journalism.
War and photography have always been intimately connected in the modern world, as Susan Sontag observed in Regarding the Pain of Others. Photographs are the chief means of bringing information about wars into the living rooms of the educated classes living in cities across the world, which in itself, as she explained, is an entirely modern phenomenon. It is why journalists on the frontline so often become targets. A Human Rights Watch report “found that Taliban commanders and fighters have engaged in a pattern of threats, intimidation, and violence against members of the media in areas where the Taliban have significant influence, as well as in Kabul”.
The war against the Taliban in Afghanistan started soon after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre. Two months later, on 13 November, the day Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance, the New York Times ran a triptych, wrote Sontag, which “depicted the fate of a wounded Taliban soldier in uniform who had been found in a ditch by Northern Alliance soldiers advancing toward Kabul. First panel: being dragged on his back by two of his captors—one has grabbed an arm, the other a leg—along a rocky road. Second panel (the camera is very near): surrounded, gazing up in terror as he is being pulled to his feet. Third panel: at the moment of death, supine with arms outstretched and knees bent, naked and bloodied from the waist down, being finished off by the military mob that has gathered to butcher him.”
No other medium could have rendered the defeat of the Taliban around the world in such a humiliating manner as this triptych of photographs. Perhaps it is no coincidence that two decades later they have chosen to signal their revenge by perpetrating an outrageous and brutal war crime such as the murder of a photographer.
But what is generally missed or misunderstood in this complex discourse—the urge on the part of journalists and activists, who do this with the noble intention, not to say the courage and dedication, to expose war atrocities, and on the part of those who make war, to commit worse atrocities to subdue those who dared to document them in the first place—is that war photographs serve a limited purpose. As Sontag wrote: “For a long time, some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war.” Danish,
The simple fact is, we don’t—saturated by images of atrocities from all over the world, human beings have learnt to ration their empathy. And we have become partisan to the extent that we entirely dismiss photographs if they do not tally with our political convictions about a given situation. We see some of this happening already in the case of Danish’s death, where no agreement can be reached about the manner in which he died despite photographs being circulated online of his dead body and those seen by reporters and commentators who have written on the issue. The Taliban maintains it was a crossfire and refuses to acknowledge its fighters could have mutilated the body, blaming this desecration on the propaganda efforts of Afghan forces. Meanwhile, keyboard warriors who felt embarrassed and humiliated by Danish’s recent photographs of burning pyres symbolising the devastation wreaked by the second wave in Delhi, have not shied away from describing his death as karma on social media.
Nevertheless, even if they only reiterate a truth, which has a limited appeal, it does not take away from the harshness of that truth that photographs do convey and that Danish tried to emphasise through his last assignment in Kandahar. As Sontag writes, “Look, the photographs say…This is what war does. And that, that is what it does, too. War tears, rends. War rips open, eviscerates. War scorches. War dismembers. War ruins.” This is a truism that bears innumerable repetitions. It should be added that the effect of war or violence is almost always hardest on the those who are left behind. Men make war, is how Sontag starts the argument of her book, citing Virginia Woolf from her anti-war essay, ‘Three Guineas’. Women are often left behind to bear the brunt of violence committed by men. If it is cruel that Danish, a non-combatant, should have been killed as he tried to inform us in our armchairs of what was happening in the world, it is outrageously cruel that he has left behind a grief-stricken wife and two small children barely able to process the loss of their father.
I still remember what Danish told me when I met him after he returned from covering the epic folly of a Covid-times Kumbh mela. He had just completed his period of mandatory home quarantine. When I asked him how his experience was, I expected to hear something about poor Covid management or about the compulsion Hindutva idealogues felt to flout necessary precautions during a raging pandemic to host a religious festival. “Beautiful,” is all he said. It was the human spectacle that moved him, that energised him, not the politics.