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Modi Rejected an Indian Hero

Danish Siddiqui’s death should have been a moment of national unity. The prime minister made it the opposite.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
An art teacher gives finishing touches to a painting of Reuters journalist Danish Siddiqui as a tribute outside an art school in Mumbai on July 16, 2021.
An art teacher gives finishing touches to a painting of Reuters journalist Danish Siddiqui as a tribute outside an art school in Mumbai on July 16, 2021. INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images

Danish Siddiqui deserved to be an Indian hero. An immensely talented photojournalist raised in a segregated Muslim neighborhood in New Delhi, he became the first Indian to win a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. His tragic death earlier this month at the age of 38 on assignment in Afghanistan while covering clashes between the Afghan National Army and the Taliban could have been an occasion for national unity in remembrance.

Siddiqui’s death was covered as a national story, and there were ceremonial condolences from a few government representatives. But the loudest response was the silence of India’s Twitter-savvy Prime Minister Narendra Modi—and some of his supporters took that as a signal to besmirch Siddiqui’s work and life. A moment of potential solidarity thus became a moment of discord, with India’s Muslim community feeling estranged and unacknowledged for their contributions to the Indian society.

Siddiqui was a chief photographer with the international news agency Reuters and won the Pulitzer for covering the Rohingya refugee crisis in 2018. He photographed their arrival from Myanmar on the coast of Bangladesh and captured an iconic image of a woman, fresh off a boat, touching the sand on the shore, seeming both exhausted with the journey and relieved at escaping a vicious campaign of ethnic violence. Siddiqui went on to photograph the protests in Hong Kong and many other events in the region.

Danish Siddiqui deserved to be an Indian hero. An immensely talented photojournalist raised in a segregated Muslim neighborhood in New Delhi, he became the first Indian to win a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. His tragic death earlier this month at the age of 38 on assignment in Afghanistan while covering clashes between the Afghan National Army and the Taliban could have been an occasion for national unity in remembrance.

Siddiqui’s death was covered as a national story, and there were ceremonial condolences from a few government representatives. But the loudest response was the silence of India’s Twitter-savvy Prime Minister Narendra Modi—and some of his supporters took that as a signal to besmirch Siddiqui’s work and life. A moment of potential solidarity thus became a moment of discord, with India’s Muslim community feeling estranged and unacknowledged for their contributions to the Indian society.

Siddiqui was a chief photographer with the international news agency Reuters and won the Pulitzer for covering the Rohingya refugee crisis in 2018. He photographed their arrival from Myanmar on the coast of Bangladesh and captured an iconic image of a woman, fresh off a boat, touching the sand on the shore, seeming both exhausted with the journey and relieved at escaping a vicious campaign of ethnic violence. Siddiqui went on to photograph the protests in Hong Kong and many other events in the region.

But Siddiqui rose to the stature of a local hero for his critical work within India. He routinely exposed the shortcomings of the Indian government. In 2019, his images crushed the false narrative that students protesting in New Delhi against an anti-Muslim citizenship law were instigating violence. It was Siddiqui again who took the photo of an unarmed Muslim man being beaten by a Hindu mob in Delhi as the capital was engulfed in Hindu-Muslim riots. Most prominently, Siddiqui was among the first to shoot images of crematoriums packed with pyres of Hindus who died of the coronavirus this summer. His footage and photographs revealed the extent of the crisis unfolding in India and brought the world’s attention to it.

Modi’s silence upon Siddiqui’s death was conspicuous, as he had promptly tweeted his condolences when a Hindu journalist known for taking pro-government stances recently died of a heart attack after testing positive for COVID-19. Moreover, in India, as elsewhere, it is a big deal to win international accolades. The prime minister, critics said, could easily have written a few words to Siddiqui’s friends and family. It is possible that Modi was too busy with his work as prime minister. But his record of outreach to Muslims is poor, to put it mildly. He has previously been accused of deliberately not containing a pogrom against Muslims in 2002 when he was the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, and more generally of seeking to deepen social and political divides between Hindus and Muslims and between Hindu conservatives and liberal democrats.

It would also be in keeping with Modi’s record if he harbored resentment against Siddiqui for criticizing his work as prime minister. As Siddiqui’s images of the pandemic earned international attention, he was accused by Modi’s supporters of insensitivity, of profiting off of private family grief. The criticism was meant to divert attention from the high death rate that the Indian government was trying to hide. Siddiqui’s photos were capable of damaging Modi and his party electorally by showing that he had failed to protect Hindus, his voting base, from dying in droves.

Modi’s fans began trolling Siddiqui online for filming the pyres, and when he was killed attributed his death to bad karma, suggesting that he deserved to be shot dead. One of the most offensive tweets juxtaposed Siddiqui’s image of a packed crematorium with his own bullet-ridden body. This didn’t come from any fringe element but a member of Vishva Hindu Parishad, a right-wing Hindu organization allied with Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Mohammad Meharban, Siddiqui’s protege, said that a few words by the prime minister would have shut down trolls online but his silence empowered them. While Meharban didn’t think most Hindus despised Siddiqui, he accused them of being complicit in a hate campaign against Muslims by not standing up to it. “Most of the people in the country support Modi Ji, and that says they support his anti-Muslim politics,” he said. “I think that is because for a long time Modi Ji and his party have been brainwashing Hindus against Muslims. Our old Hindu friends now say we are not patriots, only they are. Modi Ji and his agents in the media have turned most Hindus against us.”

In the end, Siddiqui was claimed by Muslims, the media, and the liberal democrats in New Delhi, but most others in India either didn’t know about him or took the lead from the prime minister by quietly disowning him and ignoring the honor he had brought the country. In that way, the young journalist’s life and the reaction to his death in India revealed much about his homeland—how it was once formed on secular ideals but is now quickly slipping into a majoritarian state where Muslims feel insecure, under siege, and uncertain about their future. Siddiqui’s story is not just about the stories he covered but about the one he lived.

Siddiqui grew up in the New Delhi neighborhood of Jamia Nagar, where Muslims of all classes and ideologies—conservative, moderate, and liberal intellectuals—lived side by side and were mutually loathed by their Hindu neighbors. Siddiqui was the son of a dean and professor at the Faculty of Education at Jamia Millia Islamia university, and he was educated in a convent. But in India, even the achievement of higher education and economic status do not wash off the stigma attached to being a Muslim. Bilal Zaidi, also an Indian journalist, grew up in the same alley in the neighborhood of Jamia Nagar and knew Siddiqui well. “I knew exactly where he came from, a Muslim from a ghetto who spoke broken English,” Zaidi said. “I knew the struggles of a boy from a stigmatized neighborhood. For him to get a Pulitzer over many others who went to [Oxford, Cambridge,] Harvard and where-not, was remarkable.”

He went on to explain the obstacles boys like him and Siddiqui had to navigate on a daily basis. “Muslims cannot rent a house anywhere outside ghettos and struggle to open bank accounts. Before the digital transformation we could not order food online or take an auto rickshaw or taxi inside. Anything that required a human interface was a struggle,” Zaidi said. “We would be told straight on our face that Jamia Nagar was mini-Pakistan.”

Despite the odds, Siddiqui was among those who made a name and was successful in challenging the stereotype. He was an Indian who made India proud and became a hero of the local youth who saw him, not the bearded clerics spewing outdated views, as a more accurate representative of their aspirations.

“Pulitzer is a big prize, and my own sense is there are not many Indian Muslim kids who grow up with the ambition of winning a Pulitzer, a Wimbledon, or an Oscar,” said Mujibur Rehman, a professor at the journalism college within Jamia Millia Islamia where Siddiqui studied. “This was seen as an achievement, especially at a time the Muslim community is going through a deep crisis in India and it isn’t sure where it is headed.

“So here was a guy who portrayed what Muslims could be, their quest for dignity as it were. He brought the story of their suffering to a global platform, and those things connected with people.”

A few days before Siddiqui’s killing, a veteran Indian actor and superstar, Dilip Kumar, died. He was also a Muslim but had changed his name from Mohammed Yusuf Khan to a Hindu name early on in his career. Modi tweeted about his death and adequately expressed a sense of national loss. But Siddiqui didn’t make the cut, either because he was too young or not a Bollywood star, or perhaps because he was doing his job and exposing the government’s failings. Or perhaps because he came from an area that refused to accept Modi government’s controversial anti-Muslim law that endangered their status as Indian citizens.

We may never fully know why the Indian prime minister shied from acknowledging a brave Indian journalist, but his reluctance widened the gap between Hindus and Muslims, between fascists and liberal democrats. It left the latter feeling unsafe and uncared for in their own country. It also made many intellectuals, among them many Muslims, increasingly terrified of speaking out against Modi.

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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