Remembering Shujaat

Print edition :

A silent protest in Kolkata on June 15 against the brutal killing of Shujaat Bukhari. Photo: Bikas Das/AP

His incisive and nuanced reports enlightened people outside Kashmir on the multiple layers to the Kashmir issue.

The cowardly killing of Shujaat Bukhari could be a portent of things to come in Kashmir. The media in the Valley, already working under severe constraints, will miss the trail-blazing editor of Rising Kashmir who was not afraid of speaking the truth to the powers that be when the situation demanded. Shujaat’s incisive reportage for The Hindu and Frontline from Kashmir enlightened readers all over India. Through him, many readers came to realise that there are many facets to the complicated Kashmir issue. Many young and upcoming journalists in the Valley viewed Shujaat as a role model; he was a mentor and guide to them. He single-handedly made Rising Kashmir, the paper he founded, one of the leading English newspapers in Jammu and Kashmir and a newspaper of record.

This correspondent first met Shujaat while on a family vacation to the Kashmir Valley in the summer of 2008. Srinagar was suddenly engulfed in violence. The Hurriyat Conference and other opposition groups were protesting against a proposed plan, which was later shelved, by the Central government to acquire land for the safe conduct of the annual Amarnath yatra. The bandh and violence lasted for more than a week, completely ruining our holiday plans. The entire city was shut down. Even the boatmen on Dal Lake stopped going about their business. Any vehicle moving on the road was subjected to stone-throwing.

Suffice it to say that it was Shujaat who sprang to our rescue, arranging a police escort to the airport. Despite his busy schedule, he accompanied us to ensure that we reached the airport safely. We kept in touch occasionally after that, exchanging notes on the situation in Kashmir. On another visit to the Valley a few years later, I had the privilege of meeting Shujaat and his charming wife and daughter.

For a brief period, Shujaat had stopped writing for Frontline after resigning from The Hindu. When Mohammad Afzal Guru, who was an accused in the 2001 Parliament building attack case, was hanged on February 9, 2013, Frontline decided to do a cover story on Kashmir. At short notice, we requested Shujaat to contribute the lead article. He was more than happy to oblige and contributed an incisive piece. After that, he started writing in-depth and analytical stories regularly for the magazine. Frontline was his outlet to the Indian mainstream media. His nuanced reportage, straddling all sides of the debate, will be missed sorely.

There are many theories going around about the motive behind his assassination, which took place in a high-security zone in the heart of Srinagar. The slightly blurred video images captured by security cameras show three motorcycle-borne assassins riding away after pumping bullets into Shujaat and his two personal bodyguards, who were assigned to him by the state. Only one of the suspects bothered to cover his face. It took the police more than 20 minutes to come to the crime scene. That the killers could come into one of the most tightly guarded areas in Srinagar with weapons, kill and escape without trouble, speaks volumes about the security situation in the State capital.

According to investigating agencies, four people were involved in the killing. There was an attempt on his life earlier. In retrospect, Shujaat was a marked man for quite some time.

Several militant groups in the Valley apparently had not taken kindly to his repeated emphasis that a peaceful solution was the only way out of the never-ending conflict in Kashmir. Shujaat and his newspaper had a pronounced pro-Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) tilt. His brother was a Minister in the PDP-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition government. One of his close relatives was a senior police officer. As a journalist, he had cultivated excellent contacts in the corridors of power in New Delhi. To a certain extent, the militant groups as well as the political establishment in New Delhi viewed him with some degree of suspicion.

Particular mention is being made about a track-two conference he attended in Dubai last year along with participants from Pakistan. Kashmiris from both sides of the border were present at the conference, in which a consensus in favour of a peaceful solution to the Kashmir dispute had apparently emerged.

According to reports, most of the participants agreed with the views expressed by Shujaat that 28 years of almost continuous bloodshed was detrimental to the general well-being of the average Kashmiri. The conference was funded by a British non-governmental organisation, “Conciliation Resources”.

The Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Hizbul Mujahideen and the United Jehad Council (UJC), the umbrella organisation of militant groups in the Valley, were critical of the Dubai conference and characterised all those who attended it as “traitors to the Kashmiri cause”.

Shujaat had welcomed the brief Ramzan ceasefire that was declared in the Valley by the Indian government. The militant groups in the Valley, as well as their patrons and handlers across the border, were not happy when the media and sections of civil society greeted with relief the brief respite in fighting. For that matter, the Indian Army top brass was also evidently unhappy when the Centre acceded to the State government’s request for a Ramzan ceasefire. As soon as Eid festivities were over, the Army resumed its counter-insurgency operations with renewed vigour.

The LeT was the first to issue a statement condemning Shujaat’s assassination. But the finger of suspicion continues to be on the group. The Pakistani Foreign Office went one step further and wasted no time in suggesting that the Indian “deep state” was behind the assassination. Its spokesman said that it was “a terrible coincidence” that Shujaat was murdered “within hours of his tweet on the UNCHR report on Kashmir”.

The report was critical of all the major actors who have contributed to the never-ending misery of the people of the State. The report has apportioned blame to India, Pakistan and the militant groups for fostering a climate of violence. But soon after the tendentious statement from the Pakistan Foreign Office came out, a senior BJP leader and former State Minister, Chaudhary Lal Singh, warned journalists in the Valley to “mend ways” while reporting on the Kathua rape and murder case. Otherwise, he warned, they would have to face a fate similar to the one that befell Shujaat.

In late June, four suspects involved in the killings were identified. According to the State police, the Pakistan-born militant, Naveed Jaat, is the mastermind behind the killing. He had escaped from police custody while undergoing treatment in a Srinagar hospital last year. He is seen as the prime suspect as his face was captured in the CCTV footage as he and two others rode away from the scene of crime.

I will miss Shujaat dearly as a friend. There are so many other journalists like me outside the Valley who could claim to be dear friends of his. He leaves behind a huge vacuum in a State where the practice of journalism has become a life-threatening venture.

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