A photograph tweeted by the Congress in Jammu and Kashmir has been in the public domain for more than 24 hours.
The picture features a person resembling Union home minister Amit Shah with several others. The head of one of the persons standing behind him is circled.
Some social media users have speculated that the circled person resembles Talib Hussain Shah, who was arrested on Sunday in Jammu on the charge of being a Lashkar “commander” and the mastermind of several blasts in Jammu and Kashmir.
On Sunday, the BJP acknowledged that Hussain was associated with the party at least till May this year. The BJP blamed the online membership drive for his entry into the party and said he may have infiltrated the organisation to target the leadership.
But neither the Union home minister, never at a loss for words on matters of terror, nor the BJP leadership had confirmed till Monday night whether the picture features Amit Shah and Talib Hussain Shah. Neither had they denied it.
The Telegraph asked the Union home ministry on Monday evening about the authenticity or otherwise of the picture. The ministry spokesperson said the question had been conveyed to an official concerned and the spokesperson would get back once he received a response.
The reply suggested the spokesperson was not aware whether any serious effort had been made in the past 24 hours to check the authenticity of the picture.
This is an uncommon situation in a country where anyone can be imprisoned at the drop of a hat if the regime thinks that “fake news” is being propagated.
Amit Shah did attend an event in the capital on Monday. But, presumably because he was at the event as the cooperation minister (yes, he holds that portfolio too), no mention was made of the arrest of the alleged Lashkar bomber or his association with the BJP in the recent past.
A reputable website that published the picture said it had not been able to independently verify the image. The Congress did not add any such disclaimer. The party’s tweet with the image said: “Talib Hussain Shah (LeT commander & BJP leader) with Home Minister Shri Amit Shah. #BJPWithTerrorists.”
Had the picture been fake, Amit Shah’s administration should have come down heavily on the Congress, the Opposition party that had the temerity to file FIRs against BJP leaders for amplifying fake news about Rahul Gandhi and the Udaipur atrocity.
If the Jammu and Kashmir picture is indeed fake, there can be only one explanation for Amit Shah’s silence: he has borrowed a leaf out of Rahul’s book and forgiven those who played mischief.
The BJP was on Monday struggling to find answers about the picture. No BJP leader of repute in Jammu and Kashmir had declared till Monday night that pictures purportedly featuring Hussain and others, including BJP Jammu and Kashmir chief Ravinder Raina and Jammu MP Jugal Kishore, were fake.
The BJP on Monday fielded Abhinav Sharma, party spokesperson and former president of the Jammu-based High Court Bar Association, to deny that the Lashkar militant was ever formally part of the BJP.
Sharma faced tough questions at a media conference in Jammu, particularly on the purported picture of Amit Shah.
The BJP spokesperson did not specifically deny that Hussain was in the frame with Amit Shah. He claimed that Hussain had gained access claiming to be a journalist.
Asked about the purported letter showing the BJP’s Minority Morcha leader Sheikh Bashir appointing Hussain as IT department chief, Sharma said he might have done it on his own without consulting the party.
Sharma wanted journalists to be screened to identify fake ones. “Tomorrow, if somebody else’s picture with me goes viral…” he said.
The spokesperson was asked whether a journalist could attend what appeared to be a party picture.
“Yes, journalists can go (to such meetings). Why can’t journalists go?” he asked.
Senior BJP leader Avinash Rai Khanna, who too is purportedly seen in the picture, said he could not recall the meeting. He asked this correspondent to WhatsApp him the picture for his comments. Later, after repeated calls, he replied: “Let me verify.”
Another BJP spokesperson, R.S. Pathania, had on Sunday not denied that Hussain was in the frame with the home minister and told this newspaper that he had learnt from an “authoritative person” that the picture had been clicked in 2017.
Hussain is a resident of Rajouri’s Darj village. Its sarpanch, Alam Din, said it was Hussain standing behind Amit Shah in the picture. “He has been part of the BJP since he entered adulthood,” Din said.
BJP spokesperson Sharma is right on one count. Many people pose with public figures, and the leaders cannot be held accountable for all such photos. But when questions swirl around a photograph purportedly showing the so-called second-most important person in the country with an alleged terrorist, dodging cannot be the response.
A tweet from Mehbooba Mufti, former chief minister and erstwhile ally of the BJP, flagged a most relevant “what if” argument: “Imagine if any of these culprits were associated with any opposition leader. By now multiple FIRs would be lodged & godi media would lap it up by devoting endless prime time space to discredit the opposition.”