THE devastating news came first in worried whispers, and then in an official confirmation: Syed Shujaat Bukhari had been assassinated. On TV, journalist Nazir Masoodi said in a choked voice, “[The] editor-in-chief of the English daily Rising Kashmir has been killed by unidentified gunmen […] just outside his office in the Press Enclave in the heart of Srinagar at around 7:20pm (IST) […].”
Professionally, I had known the slain editor for 14 years. The last time I spoke to him was on his birthday. Bukhari, 50 years old at the time of his death, was a widely travelled, full-of-life journalist. He is survived by his wife, Dr Tehmeena, and two children, son Tamheed and daughter Duriya.
In the profession, he was my senior by over a decade, having cut his teeth as a reporter for the Jammu-based English daily Kashmir Times in the early 1990s. Later, he worked as a special correspondent for the Chennai-based The Hindu for over a decade. For about two years we worked together for Deutsche Welle (Voice of Germany) as foreign contributors from Srinagar, before he started his own newspaper Rising Kashmir in 2008. Bukhari was also a promoter of his mother tongue, and one of the important cogs in the wheels of north Kashmir’s literary organisation Adbee Markaz Kamraz. Additionally, he was editor of the daily Buland Kashmir and weekly Parcham in Urdu, and Sangarmal in Kashmiri.
With a perennial smile on his face, Bukhari had not let the child in him die. Charisma and humour were his hallmarks, and his strong networking skills and affable personality ensured that his circle kept growing. Though easily hurt, he was often the first to initiate reconciliation. We disagreed on several issues, but he was never impolite and kept light-hearted one-liners handy.
In Kashmir, there are multiple narratives with regard to Bukhari’s assassination.
One view is that apart from being an influential editor, he was also actively involved in Track-II dialogues and various peace initiatives. He had organised several conferences in Delhi, Dubai and Bangkok on Kashmir as a representative of the Conciliation Resources (UK). This stirred debate about whether a journalist should become involved in such initiatives.
“Shujaat Bukhari occupied a dangerous space where his stature upset many in Pakistan, India and Kashmir,” said a key Kashmir observer who preferred to remain anonymous.
Two banned armed outfits, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, had expressed discontent after the Dubai conference held last July. In an interview, Hizb chief Syed Salahuddin had said that all participants of the Dubai conference were on “India’s payroll”.
Through a newspaper column, Ershad Mahmud — a Pakistani peace activist and one of Bukhari’s many friends — conveyed the message that there was a threat to the editor’s life, after which Mahmud had found someone to contact Salahuddin. According to Mahmud, the Hizb chief telegraphed that “Salahuddin is not so low as to order the assassination of journalists”.
“Minutes before his [Bukhari’s] death, he called me from Srinagar and advised me to take care as the campaign against us from fake social media accounts was getting shriller. His voice was wobbly, so I asked him to call later in the night to discuss in detail. Barely 20 minutes later, news of his cold-blooded murder started flashing,” wrote Iftikhar Gilani, a Kashmiri journalist based in New Delhi and one of Bukhari’s closest friends, in the Daily News & Analysis.
“If Bukhari’s closest friends knew that the threat to his life was so real, all they needed to do was to give a sound counsel […]. Shujaat could have stayed in either Delhi or Jammu for some months […],” a prominent political analyst said on condition of anonymity.
Rabid members of a particular community, which included Ashoke Pandit and Aditya Raj Kaul, had been after him on the social media space, accusing Bukhari of being “a pro-jihadi journalist”. Pro-Hindutva journalists such as Jagruti Shukla said that “Bukhari was killed by the same jihadi forces he sympathised with”, while Indian political scientist Madhu Kishwar accused Bukhari of taking crores of rupees from “agencies” without substantiating her claim. This forced Bukhari to file a defamation case.
On Kashmir’s home turf, a section of people accused Bukhari of being an “Indian collaborator” who in their perception was “on a mission to sabotage the Tehreek-i-Azadi [freedom struggle]” and of receiving funds from the Indian Army to sustain his newspaper. Ironically, Delhi’s federal government had curtailed advertisements to his newspaper, accusing it of propagating a “secessionist agenda”.
Since 1989, journalists in Kashmir have often found themselves to be sitting ducks for both state and non-state actors. The attack on Bukhari was an attack on free speech, free thinking and also an assault on an idea. Yet, his editorial staff came out with an issue of the newspaper hours after their editor’s killing.
On June 21, the entire Kashmir Valley observed a complete shutdown to protest Bukhari’s assassination on the call given by Kashmir’s Joint Resistance Leadership comprising Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Mohammad Yasin Malik. All militant groups and political parties from across the ideological divide condemned his killing.
Who killed him, then?
Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2018