On June 14, 2018 the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published its first report on the state of human rights in Kashmir.
As people on social media were anticipating India’s rejection of the report, news of a shooting from Srinagar buried the UN exposé in the depths of our Facebook newsfeeds, as if someone erased it like it was fake news.
Three unidentified gunmen shot and killed Shujaat Bukhari, a senior journalist and editor-in-chief of a leading English newspaper, Rising Kashmir, and two of his personal security officers outside his office in the press enclave in Srinagar. Bukhari received multiple bullet wounds in his head and abdomen.
Such targeted assassinations of influential figures by unidentified gunmen are not a new development in Kashmir.
The ‘unidentified gunman’ is a mysterious character. He does not have a name nor is he affiliated with any organisation, state or non-state.
His association with state or any non-state actor is a matter of conjecture. Can we therefore think of him as a member of some Hollywood-style sleeper-cell?
He emerges out of nowhere in a busy street, takes out his weapon, kills his targets(s) and disappears.
He is never caught. The probes never end.
Assuming that such sleeper-cells exist, the question is who runs these cells? Who has the capacity to ensure that these cells function and survive for decades?
The general inference drawn by the police, other government agencies and some journalists is that these men are militants.
They are accused of ‘not giving peace a chance’ and are considered to be working at the behest of Pakistan and its ISI.
However, people in Kashmir do not rule out the possibility of the involvement of Indian intelligence agencies in such killings.
The shop-front discussants have their own way of theorising the conflict they are born and brought up in. “Why would militants kill anyone from the population they claim to be fighting for?” is the question they ask.
Arbitrary killing of civilians is thought to be a counter-productive measure that no militant movement that depends on the very same population for resources, movement, and membership would like to resort to. The fish would not want to contaminate the water it swims in.
High-profile killings and political assassinations as a tactic of insurgency doesn’t seem to have found many takers among the present militant leadership in Kashmir.
It’s mostly only policemen and grassroots workers of pro-India political parties that have been targeted by militants.
Militant groups generally take credit for the killings they order and execute. However, in case of Bukhari’s assassination, they have demanded an international probe.
Bukhari is perhaps the first high-profile killing of what is erroneously and misleadingly referred to as ‘new age’ militancy in Kashmir — a militancy apparently driven by religion. I have contested this notion in my on-going doctoral thesis.
It is not clear if militants killed Bukhari. Going by statements issued by United Jihad Council and Lashkar-e-Taiba, it appears unlikely that any of the militant groups carried out the assassination.
Also, since the security ecosystem in Kashmir is so widespread, it is nigh impossible for militants to freely ride on a motorcycle, in a city like Srinagar, wait for their target, execute the kill, and leave the spot without any retaliation.
But in rural areas, the military presence has not been able to deter militants from killing informers and policemen.
For such killings, people offer quick justifications. If someone turns out to be a police informer, his killing assumes a legitimacy of some kind in the popular imagination.
In the recent times, however, most of these informers have been caught by militants, made to confess their transgression on camera and the recording made public on social media.
Some of the informer are then freed after public shaming. The rules here have been fine-tuned keeping in mind the public response.
Bukhari’s assassination has received widespread condemnation, cutting across parties and ideological lines. His funeral was attended by people from both pro-freedom and pro-India camps. The nature of this gathering was an apt representation of who Bukhari was.
He was not only a journalist who reported and wrote widely about the on-the-ground situation in Kashmir, but was also actively involved in Track 2 diplomacy between Pakistan and India.
He believed that, through dialogue, it was possible to find a resolution to the otherwise intractable conflict that Kashmir, Pakistan and India are part of.
In many of the peace initiatives he started or was part of, it appears that he advocated de-escalation of violence and resumption of a sustained peace process.
Track 2, as an approach towards conflict resolution, has been subjected to criticism in peace studies.
Many, including myself, in the context of Kashmir, find it a pointless exercise that only allows a few to make fortunes out of it and pose hurdles to the resolution sought through other, more effective means.
While his positions were never publicly challenged in Kashmir, in India many dismissed him as a spokesperson of the jihadis in Kashmir.
Prominent Indian right-wing intellectual Madhu Kishwar referred to him as a Pakistan sympathiser masquerading as a voice of moderation.
The Indian government had earlier placed a ban on his and a few more newspapers in Kashmir from getting government advertisements, accusing them for giving space to ‘anti-India articles’.
Say whatever, Bukhari’s killing should serve as yet another reminder to the governments in Delhi and Islamabad that delaying the resolution of Kashmir conflict as per the wishes of Kashmiris will only lead to more violence.
The Indian state has invested heavily in developing a military architecture in Kashmir and has resorted to violence against any mode of expression that calls for a lasting resolution to the Kashmir conflict. All it has ever wanted from Kashmiris is total submission.
With a conflict management style that propagates measures like the Operation All-Out, any voice advocating peace and de-escalation of violence may not be melodious enough to ears used to the sound of war drums.
Bukhari’s assassination tells us that space for those who seek a middle-ground is shrinking.
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