That Viral Photo: Why Did an Unknown Man Cry at Saleem’s Funeral?

That Viral Photo: Why Did an Unknown Man Cry at Saleem’s Funeral?

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Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam, Mohd Irshad Alam
Video Producer: Shohini Bose

Why was an unknown man crying copiously and wailing in grief and agony at the funeral of a 26-year-old Kashmiri man who he was not related to? Why did Saleem Malik’s death ­– at the hands of security forces and their guns, one night, during curfew – cause this unknown man (later identified as Ghulam Jeelani) to rip off his kameez and cry out like an animal in pain?

How was Saleem Malik, an animal lover and maker of school bags, related to this sobbing middle-aged man?

I wouldn’t know until I paid Malik’s family a visit – but before I did, Jeelani’s photograph at the funeral, shot by journalist Ahmer Khan, was already frozen in time. That photograph, that captured Jeelani with bare torso and arms outstretched, also showed pallbearers in his background running for cover through a dense fog of teargas.

That photograph, in the impulsive and reckless world of social media where facts often get clouded by emotions, began to be circulated as a photo of Saleem’s ‘father’. J&K’s top English daily, Greater Kashmir, the very next day, published a cartoon of a weeping man crucified to a cross.

It had an uncanny resemblance to the middle-aged man in Ahmer’s photo….

But first, who was Saleem and why was he killed?

A Murder Most Foul

The facts are these.

On 27 September, Thursday, the congested Noorbagh locality woke up to a barrage of gunshots. With Kashmir on the boil, no one could summon courage enough to find out what was going on. Turned out, in an overnight operation, security forces had laid siege of the rundown area situated at the western end of downtown Srinagar.

When the operation ended, 26-year-old Saleem Malik, an “affable” animal lover and a bag-maker who raised sacrificial sheep for a living, lay in a pool of blood in the compound of his house, shot multiple times in the waist and chest. Doctors at Srinagar’s SMHS hospital declared him dead on arrival.

In the midst of the tumultuous protests that erupted at Malik’s death, the powerful image of Jeelani at his funeral stood out and went ‘viral’ on social media.

Sifting Facts From Fiction…

At the time, a reporter’s itch in me wanted to know the story – and perhaps document it for posterity: a ‘father’ beseeching security forces to kill him too, or else stop the assault on his son’s funeral procession so that they may bury him in peace.

I visited Saleem Malik’s family on a warm October afternoon. Almost a week had gone by since the killing but the house continued to ring with heart-piercing but faint cries of women in mourning.

On the second storey of the brick-walled residence, Yaqoob Malik – Saleem’s father – sat in a corner of a hall running the entire length of the house.

But he didn’t resemble the grief-stricken man in Ahmer’s photo. Yaqoob’s shrunken, round face, in fact, is far from that man’s bearded, oval face. Had the shock of losing a son changed him so much? I thought to myself, doggedly scrutinising the photo on my mobile phone again and again, and trying to imagine Yaqoob in the man who had ripped off his shirt.

“His name is Ghulam Jeelani,” Saleem’s brother, Mehraj-ud-Din, said, peering at my phone. “He lives in our neighbourhood.”

I was surprised but not shocked. I called my editor and told him what I’d discovered. We decided to let go of the story.

But that very evening, my phone rang, flashing my editor’s name.

“We should go back and pursue the story,” he said, “What pushed the man to the brink of such despair that people confused him with the father of Saleem? What forced Jeelani to do what he did? What brought out a lava of emotions inside of him, and with such ferocity?”

Jeelani’s Grief

Noorbagh is a mixed population of around 1500 families of artisans, vegetable farmers, masons and daily-wage labourers – a majority of whom migrated to the locality in the early 90’s. Jeelani, who has three sons (all under 18 years of age), lives a couple of furlongs away from Saleem’s residence.

His house smells of freshly-sawed wood and plaster.

Jeelani, today, is away for work – and after a couple of queries, I find myself sitting with him in the lawns of a mosque in Safa Kadal locality of downtown Srinagar, on the banks of the Jhelum river.

The mosque is being expanded to accommodate more worshippers. The moment calls for celebration but Jeelani looks sad and broken.

“When dawn broke and the firing stopped, bad news came through. My whole world crashed in front of my eyes. It felt like my own son had been murdered, and not a neighbour’s.”
Jeelani

Was that why he had ripped off his clothes in agony?

Fearing trouble, forces had deserted the locality after the killing of Saleem. However, they returned to intercept the funeral procession amid fears of law and order breakdown. This had sparked clashes and the procession was teargassed.

“I don’t know why I ripped off my clothes but when they fired teargas at the procession, I could not bear the sight of it. I was shouting, ‘Kill me too’. They didn’t show any respect after murdering an innocent soul. How could I bear such a burden?”
Jeelani

Jeelani’s relationship with Saleem dates back some 15 years ago when he had just got married. When Jeelani’s second son was born, it soon dawned on the family that something was not right about him.

It turned out that he was autistic.

Holding back tears in his eyes, Jeelani said:

“Raising him became an ordeal. Our life became miserable. Even our relatives used to mock us – but it was Saleem who taught us that such kids are special in their own way. I will never be able to thank him. He is gone, forever. Who will buy candies for my son now?”

Superintendent of Srinagar Police, Sajjad Shah, said Saleem had a clean past,

“It needs to be investigated why an innocent young man was killed and under what circumstances. We will visit the family and speak to witnesses to ascertain the truth,” he said.

But ‘truth’, for Jeelani, is bleak and painful.

“I lost my second pair of arms, my second pair of legs, as they say. When I was sick, he used to fetch morning bread for us. He would get groceries for my family when I was away from home. A lump has formed in my chest which is growing with every passing day. I may not live long enough now but please write the truth. The kindest youngster in Noorbagh has been murdered. He should get justice.”
Jeelani

To return to the question we posed at the very beginning – who was Saleem Malik and how was he related to an unknown middle-aged man who ripped off his clothes and cried at his funeral?

To that unknown middle-aged man, Saleem Mailk was like his own son. Saleem Malik was his autistic son’s friend and confidante. And he was innocent.

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