Shujaat Bukhari (February 25, 1968 – June 14, 2018) was a journalist and a pacifist first and foremost, before he was anything else. Precisely why, he wrote easily for pacifist publications on both sides of the border, being a frequent contributor to Pakistani weekly The Friday Times, as well as Indian mainstream publications such as Scroll, The Hindu (where he worked as the Srinagar-based reporter for years), while of course editing his print daily, Rising Kashmir. Unflinching in his fact-bound reportage and committed to peace and dialogue till he breathed last, Shujaat Bukhari’s murder, on the very day the UNHC report on Kashmir is published, is a tearful signpost of the times.
On the evening of June 14, bullets were pumped into his body, as well as his two PSOs, while he was about to board his vehicle, coming out of his pristine office in Srinagar’s Press Colony, named itself after a felled Kashmiri journalist. Just hours before, the United Nations High Commission for human rights had published its very first report on rights violations in Kashmir from June 2016 to the present time, and it accused “both India and Pakistan” for their excesses, while asking for an internationally monitored inquiry into the situation. This was also the time when ceasefire owing to the occasion of Ramzan, the period of pious fasting for Muslims, leading up to Eid-ul-Fitr, which will be observed after the moon rises later in the evening today/tomorrow, was announced by Indian security forces.
In his last column for Scroll, Bukhari expressed both hope and trepidation, saying “Ramzan ceasefire in Kashmir is only a symbolic gesture — but it can break the cycle of killings”. Clearly, he was a man who could be called the incorrigible optimist, a heart yearning for peace in the middle of the endless hellfire of flaying bullets – both from the security establishment and the deadly, hardened militancy gripping the Valley. While he called out New Delhi every time for its military excesses, for example when a CRPF vehicle mowed down a Kashmiri youth recently, or when Farooq Ahmad Dar was tied to a jeep and paraded by Major Gogoi, Bukhari also never minced words when mindless abductions, murders and lynching of Kashmiris serving in the Indian Army and/or J&K Police would shake the Valley. It is equally sad that Aurangzeb, a Kashmiri jawan belonging to 44 Rashtriya Rifles squad, was kidnapped and murdered the same day as Bukhari, and whose bullet-riddled corpse was discovered within a few hours of Bukhari succumbing to his own gun-shot injuries, killed in the line of duty.
Grave assault on freedom of press
It is no wonder that Indian press fraternity is scrounging for words to describe its anguish at this gutless act of cowardice, while also getting a glimpse into the extreme vulnerability of the journalist positioned in Kashmir, who calls Kashmir his homeland and who carries in his heart the dream of “self-determination”, all the time backing the political process over military/militant modes. Colleagues to too many senior journalists stationed in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and other megalopolises of Indian “mainstream”, Bukhari’s dual-core consciousness, his firm foot in Srinagar only underlined his great love and warmth for his Indian colleagues, as mournfully recounted by Suhasini Haider, Siddharth Varadarajan, Seema Chishti, Malini Parathasarathy, Barkha Dutt, Basharat Peer, Hartosh Singh Bal, as well as young men and women, from Kashmir and otherwise, he offered guidance to.
Today, both the current and former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir are heartbroken at the loss of a dear friend of theirs, while the much divided press rises together in solidarity with the true journalist. The Editors Guild of India has issued a strong statement condemning his assassination, saying: “An attack on a journalist challenges the very foundations of a free press and vibrant democracy, and more so in a state like Jammu and Kashmir that is going through militancy.” The Guild also called upon “the Centre to take note of the development and take necessary steps to ensure a situation where the media can discharge its duties without any fear of violence.”
Kashmir, an alpha bait
The killing of a noted Kashmiri journalist – the one who always championed compassion over violence – certainly aims to disrupt even attempts at brokering peace. It’s important to note that Bukhari had expressed hope in his Friday Times column published on April 20, 2018, when he found a silver lining in the darkened horizon of Indo-Pak relations as the two Army chiefs spoke the same language of “the need for dialogue”. As Manoj Joshi, the veteran Indian journalist with a keen eye on security and India-Pakistan affairs, says, Kashmir has been one of the best-covered insurgencies globally simply because journalists enjoyed relative immunity — they could go talk and move around without gravely endangering their lives, bringing out aspects of the everyday Kashmir, and speak for the invisibilised Kashmiris, the civilians caught in the crossfire of the security versus militancy bloody whirlpool.
Bukhari’s assassination breaks that periodically-punctured relative lull along with 17 other journalists who have been killed in Jammu and Kashmir, while covering the various waves of the insurgency. Both Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims have given their lives to uncover the wheels within wheels of Kashmir’s military-militancy complex, with deep states trying to deflect attention from unsavoury reports or extracting the price from those who foreground peace above anything else. The ugly symbolism of Bukhari’s murder, shot in the Press Enclave, just hours after he was defending his journalism from trollish right-wingers on Twitter, shielding his commitment to free and fair reportage that becomes a hundred times tougher when conducted from conflict states like Kashmir, couldn’t be overstated.
It is unfortunate that a credible think tank like @orfonline should allow this diatribe in absence of the person referred to. In #Kashmir we have done Journalism with pride and will continue to highlight what happens on ground. @samirsaran https://t.co/bGjajFT9yb
— Shujaat Bukhari (@bukharishujaat) June 14, 2018
Bukhari has called out Centre’s double standards when it decided to “stop ads” for three Kashmiri dailies, including Rising Kashmir, for bringing out aspects of the ground situation in Kashmir that didn’t pander to India’s ultra-nationalist lobby. He had told the Hindustan Times that the move to restrict government advertisements wasn’t “in sync” with the Centre’s purported outreach and dialogue, that too after the spiral of violence in Kashmir after the initial hardline approach towards insurgency from the current government got international condemnation. He was critical of the ridiculous division of the press fraternity between the “nationalist” and “anti-national” camps, bitterly lamenting the loss of nuance and compassionate objectivity amongst those beating their chests loudly on national television and social media almost daily.
That Rising Kashmir brought out a complete edition on the day Bukhari was felled by murderers of peace is a true testimony of his fearless and freedom-loving journalism and what he stood for. He died at the age of 50, but his name and ideas will live on, much like Gauri Lankesh’s.