Will this Photograph of the JNU Protests Go Down In the Annals of History?
The news on Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has been making its rounds in the media. I’m not here to retell that story for there’s a flood of media coverage, and a frenzy of real-time updates that have hijacked many of our timelines for the last few days. But amidst this outcry, one photograph captured my attention:
First published in the front page of the Telegraph, it was accompanied by a headline that is characteristic of the publication’s brazen approach toward controversial issues.
A headline so popular that it warranted its own headlines – which it received. But for me it was the photograph that stuck.
There’s something powerful about the photograph. An ability to instantly communicate, which makes the writer in me is slightly envious. The subjects are simple: a boy bracing himself for a blow. His hands cover most of his face, but not his expression of anguish. A throng of men surround him, identifiable not by face, but by big black leather shoes. The position says strike. The almost unnoticed, unsynchronised third foot to the left already lifted in the air – a glimpse of what is to come next.
One may ask why this moment is so significant. After all, it is just a single moment in a series of violent clashes: a series of protests, and arrests, amidst charges of sedition, and accusations of anti-nationalism. But perhaps the beauty of a photograph lies in its ability to simplify a narrative otherwise deemed complex.
Phrases that are repeated to the point where they simply become words strung together: Are we an intolerant society? Is the government resorting to violence to silence dissent? A discourse that echoes through the screens of our televisions, and computers till it becomes jargon, or a jumble of hash tags that appear and disappear on Twitter. From acche din, we are left with a deafening din.
But the photograph has a permanence that the transience of the television lacks. When the shrill voices of anchors turn to sooty archives, the photograph will reverberate with the agony of that moment. Our own history has revealed that photographs cannot be buried in the sands of time. The name Qutubbudin Ansari may not ring a bell for many, but his photograph will.
A photograph that became iconic of the terror inflicted during the 2002 Gujarat riots, circulated so widely that it drove its subject 2,000 kilometres away from the place it was captured. Regimes can manipulate, courts can interpret and the media can sensationalise, but the photograph doesn’t lie, and doesn’t let you forget.
Shekhar Gupta pointed to the eerie similarities that the JNU photograph carries with the one of the lone protestor at Tiananmen Square – a solitary subject, just this time juxtaposed against feet, not tanks.
Few may pick up on the fleeting moment that the photograph of the JNU protests captures today, but the truth is that it will tell a story to thousands tomorrow. A story more real and more raw than any jargon-laden judgment or antiquated article will be able to: a story of big black feet that displayed dominance in a moment of delirium, because they finally could. The real question is whether this is the story we want in the annals of our history.