A man of peace

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Shujaat Bukhari at his “Rising Kashmir” office in Srinagar. A file photograph. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Shujaat Bukhari, a great unifier who enjoyed the confidence of all stakeholders, was clear that there should be normalcy in Jammu and Kashmir and the people should live in peace.

IN May 1997, a group of journalists who had just completed the first leg of training for the War Correspondents’ Course (WCC) at the Indian Army’s Military Intelligence School in Pune were posing for a photograph with their certificates. Shujaat Bukhari, the slain editor-in-chief of Rising Kashmir, and I were part of that course, which has since been renamed Defence Correspondents’ Course by the Ministry of Defence although much of the Armed Forces continued to call it the WCC. It was still early days; we were just the second batch of the course.

When Shujaat received the certificate from the acting commandant, Brigadier Sharabjit Singh, he stared at it for a while, and then said, “I cannot take this home.” The legend on the certificate read: Military Intelligence School and Depot. “This will be enough to brand me an Indian agent,” he said. For many of the correspondents present there it was the first insight into Kashmir. Later that summer, Shujaat did not participate in the battle inoculation exercises—which required the participants to crawl through a trench for a distance of about 20 metres as medium machine guns opened fire a few feet above. “This is almost a daily event in many parts of Kashmir,” he said.

In some ways, this is how Shujaat narrated the life he lived to many of us. Recalls Pankaj Maniktala, a senior journalist from Nagpur, who was part of the same course: “I remember, during the course, each time a senior Army officer addressed us or engaged with us informally, Shujaat would ask probing questions. He would know when and where the officer served in Kashmir, the officer’s predecessor and successor in the post in the Valley, and would ask specific questions about the conduct of the Army during the tenure of the officer.”

Maniktala adds, “This made some of the officers uncomfortable. But Shujaat always allowed the officer some leeway. It was almost like saying ‘nothing is ever forgotten in the Valley’.” Never a theoretician, Shujaat’s learning came from the Valley’s troubles. He was open to engaging with all shades of opinion and often sought to meet officers both from the Armed Forces and in New Delhi to discuss Kashmir. In fact, when he was in Chennai in 2002, he made it a point to call on K. Vijay Kumar, a Tamil Nadu cadre Indian Police Service (IPS) officer who had been posted as Inspector General of the Border Security Force (BSF) in Srinagar from 1998 to 2000. I was part of that meeting. Some of Vijay Kumar’s popularity in the Valley can be traced to the fact that he invited local journalists to be part of the combing operations at the height of the militancy.

Shujaat was careful to always insist that the Kashmir story should be told by a Kashmiri; it did not matter on which side of the border that person was. The Indian and Pakistani versions had a spin that was all too familiar. Realising the importance of disseminating factual information about Kashmir, Shujaat was always willing to help news organisations outside Kashmir to locate a contributor. After all, more than a generation of journalists had lived under threat and the constant reminder that that very morning could be the last. “He had helped many journalists in the Valley. When we [at Hitavada] were looking for a contributor, he chose a journalist for us, who was very balanced in his writing,” recalls Maniktala.

Kind-hearted

Shujaat never lost his cool. His friend and a long-time photographer, Nissar Ahmed, says: “I have never seen him lose his temper or be rude to anyone. He was a kind-hearted man.” Nissar fears that Shujaat’s killing will spiral the violence out of control and push the Valley back by a few decades in development. He fears for lives and livelihood, and points to both Jammu and Leh, which have been savouring the fruits of development. “We have seen how things can improve. Shujaat Saab worked hard for that. But again, suddenly, we have no one of that stature to push things,” he lamented.

Shujaat’s brother Basharat Bukhari, who was a Minister in the Mehbooba Mufti Cabinet, said they never discussed matters concerning Rising Kashmir at home. If that were the case, State government advertisements would not have been stopped for Rising Kashmir. “As a brother, he always listened to me. But I have never interfered or offered suggestions on how he should run the newspaper. We kept it that way, and it worked well for both of us,” he told me at Kreeri, Shujaat’s native village near Srinagar, even as he received visitors more than a week after Shujaat’s killing. Basharat, 52, who had worked for All India Radio as a journalist before becoming a politician, said he did not intervene even when Shujaat wrote a report criticising the government’s functioning. “It was discussed and I learnt from him his viewpoint,” he said.

Worried about loss of trust

In 2016, when Shujaat was in Chennai for a lecture at the Asian College of Journalism, he asked me if I could take him to a local hospital for a blood test. It was nearly impossible in Srinagar to have a blood test done because of the curfew following the killing of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, a Hizbul Mujahideen commander. Shujaat seemed particularly disturbed during that trip. He had travelled to Tral in Pulwama district of Jammu and Kashmir for Burhan Wani’s funeral and had come back shaken. “No one from the media, us included, is any longer considered neutral. They [the youngsters at Burhan’s funeral] think we are all promoting only the Indian agenda,” he said. He worried about what would happen if this loss of trust spread across the Valley. He was equally worried about the anti-Muslim narratives being promoted in the rest of India and said the impact of these incidents on the people of Kashmir would be bad.

“Shujaat was not merely a journalist, he was an intellectual. He knew the exact impact a government policy would have. He had this unique ability to diagnose the impact of incidents in the State,” says K. Skandan, a Tamil Nadu cadre Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, who was Joint Secretary (and later Additional Secretary) in charge of Kashmir in the Ministry of Home Affairs during 2007-14. He had several interactions with Shujaat during his tenure.

“His intentions were clear that there should be normalcy in the State and people should live in peace. He was a great unifier. He had the confidence of all stakeholders,” he added. You can do many things, but getting traction in the Valley is a totally different thing because of the scepticism that people harbour after having been betrayed multiple times since Independence. “Rising Kashmir was getting traction. Because Shujaat had access to all stakeholders, was very independent, and did not work for one group or the other,” says Skandan.

Naturally, he was a target of those who did not want peace in the State. He was well aware of this, and, after the first attempt on his life in 2000 took all basic precautions while venturing out. Shujaat was first kidnapped by militants owing allegiance to Pakistan and then by militants owing allegiance to India. He was let off but the detentions made him realise that there was no black or white when it came to the question of the Valley.

Shujaat could gauge the level of alienation of the people and returned with great despair from Burhan Wani’s funeral. “We have lost a man of credibility, one who had his heart in the right place, who would give an honest opinion on a given situation based on facts alone. He was very concerned that violence, once unleashed, would give space only to extremist elements,” says Skandan.

Shujaat was one of the six journalists honoured at the East West Center’s Media Conference in Singapore on June 25. “Since 1990, 21 journalists and media workers have been killed in Kashmir. On June 14, Shujaat became the 22nd on the list,” said Dilrukshi Handunnetti, a Sri Lanka-based journalist and lawyer. She said: “An editor, writer, scholar, linguist and a promoter of peace, Shujaat wore many hats, but journalism was his true form of worship…. Shujaat’s Rising Kashmir was shut down at least on three occasions. Reporting from a perilous location, the political playground for two countries, Shujaat raised a strong voice against the futility of ‘information curfews’. For all the glory associated with his brilliant career in journalism, Shujaat was a man who knew he was targeted, but relentlessly engaged in powerful storytelling from what he termed the ‘princely state’... Two countries continue an endless geo-political war…. Shujaat was deeply concerned that the Valley’s journalists were much like chroniclers of death and violence. They had to be lucky on a daily basis, surviving many adversaries—sometimes the government, the police, the military and others.”

Rising Kashmir

The press enclave in Srinagar is named after Mushtaq Ali, a journalist who was killed in a parcel bomb explosion in 1995. “The guy who killed Shujaat was sitting just across from where Shujaat’s car was parked,” said Nissar. After the three occupants—the two bodyguards and Shujaat—had boarded the car, the killer walked a few feet and opened fire from his automatic weapon. Deliberate. There are four sets of bullet marks on the brick walls behind. Not a case of mistaken identity. This was very clear,” he said. At the spot where the assailant sat waiting for Shujaat there is a huge banner with a picture of Shujaat.

There was no reaction to the gunfire from a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) post nearby. “There will be no reaction from them [CRPF]. They are more interested in protecting themselves and providing transit safety for their VIPs. They will not get into a local firing incident,” explained a senior journalist. “There are no crossfires so to speak here. First, the militants come, fire, and then they go. Then the security forces fire. It is possible that someone would get caught in either of these firings,” he added.

At the spartan office of Rising Kashmir, journalists narrated how the edition was brought out by ex-employees on June 14. Almost the entire team of the newspaper was in Kreeri for Shujaat’s funeral. It was around 10 p.m. that a decision was taken that the newspaper should be brought out. “The entire community from the press enclave cooperated,” a senior journalist at Rising Kashmir told this correspondent.

Journalists of Rising Kashmir emphasised during my interaction with them that Shujaat had not met Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti to seek additional security. (They were amused that some writers now pretended that they were among his best friends.)

“He met the Chief Minister because a few friends had organised the meeting after the government stopped advertisements to the paper. Shujaat was not keen on the meeting, but he was persuaded to meet the Chief Minister. Shujaat had argued against the need for the meeting when the Chief Minister had not informed him of the decision, but he was prevailed upon to meet her,” the journalist said.

Shujaat was involved in several projects in Kashmir. One was the inter-Kashmir dialogue, the first leg of which was supported by PANOS. His aim was to bring the people of Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir together because they, in the final analysis, were the stakeholders of the region. In fact, Shujaat managed to find funds to take the team across to several cities, including Kochi, Chennai and Bangalore. He believed that this dialogue needed to remain intact so that any misunderstandings among the people could be sorted out. There is a largely symbiotic relationship between the people of Kashmir and Jammu; in fact, most of the supplies to Kashmir goes from traders in Jammu. A smaller relationship exists between Kashmiris and the people of Ladakh. Shujaat wanted these links strengthened.

Another concern of Shujaat related to mental health issues of the people of the region. He was looking for support in training and related aspects, and had been in conversation with The Banyan in Chennai, an organisation that caters to mentally ill people. The conversation has ended abruptly.

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