Enforcing silence

Print edition :
Shujaat Bukhari’s murder was clearly intended to silence the moderate voices in Kashmir.

THE assassination of the senior scribe and the editor of Rising Kashmir, Shujaat Bukhari, is not only a shocker but a major game-changer for Jammu and Kashmir, currently going through a violent turbulence. This is perhaps the most high-profile killing in the State in recent times, intended not only to shock and awe, but also to deliver a message that the confrontation between the terrorists and the state has taken a turn for the worse, where not just innocent civilians in the path of fire, but personalities doing little more than propagating peace and dialogue between New Delhi and Srinagar also are at risk.

Shujaat was a brave and independent journalist who committed himself to peace in the region, taking an active position not only through his writings but also through track-three efforts that required him to attend conferences across the world. He had been consistent on this and was alternately critical of Islamabad, New Delhi and Srinagar for thwarting peace and refusing to talk. He was careful not to take pro- or anti-political party positions, and as an independent journalist, he took a position on issues.

His murder was clearly intended to silence moderate voices in Kashmir and induce sufficient fear in other journalists and scholars who have been on the peace bandwagon, so that they think several times before they write or speak. Two militants and one Pakistani have been arrested for the murder, although more details, including the motive, are not known. However, this has not stopped the Bharatiya Janata Party leader and former Minister Chaudhary Lal Singh from openly threatening Kashmiri journalists with a “Shujaat-like” fate if they cross the line. He did not identify the line; if he had done so it might have given a better indication of why Shujaat was killed.

Kashmiris are now caught in a crossfire, a situation reminiscent of the 1990s when civilians were caught between the guns of the state and the terrorist. The vicious cycle that led to record casualties during what is now referred to as the “decade of militancy” has brought the Valley again under its grip, with militants and security forces killing with impunity.

The assassination highlights three points. One, the media in the Valley have come under direct threat. Gun-toting assassins can penetrate high-security areas in Srinagar with ease and drive up to the door of any person—prominent or not—and kill him. This in itself is inhibiting and is made more so by a supposedly pro-Pakistan blogging site that has been issuing wild threats for a while now. It has gained credibility as it had targeted Shujaat shortly before he was killed. It has now come up with the names of two more senior journalists, Iftikhar Geelani and Ahmed Fayyaz, along with a hit list that includes scholars, who it claims have been defending the Indian state.

On the other side of the spectrum are the likes of Lal Singh, who have used the assassination to threaten the entire media in Kashmir.

Two, it has weakened the constituency for peace: individuals like Shujaat had been trying to juggle the establishments in Pakistan and India in a bid to start a dialogue. It is clear from the above that the peace constituency currently does not find favour with either, and has to thus silence itself lest it be silenced by the gun. And that for now, and at least the immediate future, if not longer, violence will prevail, with voices for peace being a nuisance and an irritant. More so, those like Shujaat who have international recognition, who had been attending several meetings to try and facilitate a dialogue.

And three, no one is safe. This message as mentioned earlier has been communicated strongly with Shujaat’s assassination, which will in all probability drive the more vocal and erudite Kashmiri indoors. For, if the killers could get to Shujaat, who did have some kind of security, not a single person—including other editors and politicians—can see themselves as secure. The list on the blogging site in fact mentions many of those known for their moderate and intelligent views and who are frequent travellers to New Delhi, Islamabad and other world capitals.

“Stay well under the radar and respect the rules” is the message. And in the face of the current confusion in Kashmir about those who had Shujaat killed, the “rules” clearly are to be non-controversial and not take positions that might rile any one; in other words, to be silent and neutral in this war that is being fought on Kashmiri soil.

The question then is the motive. And the police have failed to come up with the answer. Who benefits most from Shujaat’s death? The answer is not as clear-cut as it was when the separatist leader Abdul Ghani Lone was killed. The comparison is being made because Lone, too, was trying hard for an India-Pakistan dialogue at the time, and had been travelling to Islamabad to try and bring both sides together. He was killed in 2002 just before Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was to land in Jammu, and the act was clearly intended to demonstrate that peace efforts were not just fragile but futile. At the time, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference was divided on the issue of dialogue, and Lone had stirred a hornet’s nest with his efforts for peace and talks. In fact, his son Sajjad Lone, who was Minister in the PDP-BJP government, had at the time blamed Pakistan for the assassination.

It is ironical, but perhaps not a coincidence, that two major assassinations—Lone in 2002 and Shujaat in 2018—were of two prominent persons who were most active in pursuing peace. Even in troubled and uncertain times they had continued with their mission. Kashmir was emerging from a decade of violence in 2002, and today it is entering a period of violence with proponents of peace paying a price. For the record, it might be recalled that the assassination of Mirwaiz Maulvi Muhammad Farooq, father of Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, was also because he had taken the side of peace. He was assassinated in 1990 shortly after he had issued a statement describing the kidnapping (in December 1989) of Rubaiya Sayeed, daughter of the then Union Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, as “un-Islamic”: Kashmiri columnists at that time noticed the tirade of criticism against him in Pakistan. This was at the beginning of the long period of violence in Kashmir, and Maulvi Farooq, who was a prominent and influential personality, was killed to strike fear and to silence voices that took a pro-peace position. Interestingly, at the time, National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah blamed Mufti Mohammad Sayeed for the killing of Maulvi Farooq, not directly but by not providing sufficient security. Some years later, Mehbooba Mufti responded by accusing the National Conference of masterminding Lone’s assassination.

The truth, as they say, is never out in Kashmir and remains within the shadows of subterfuge and conspiracies.

Seema Mustafa is the editor of The Citizen.

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