Shujaat Bukhari

A votary of peace in Kashmir

Print edition : July 06, 2018

Shujaat Bukhari. Photo: THE HINDU archives

Shujaat Bukhari (1968-2018).

Kreeri, located around 45 kilometres north of Srinagar, is a large village, with pretensions to being a town. It is home to an eclectic crowd, and its inhabitants represent the very essence of what is known as Kashmiriyat: intellectualism topped with dollops of humour coupled with a great urge to bond with one another and, of course, laced with food fit for the gods. Shujaat Bukhari, from Kreeri, was a mix of all these and more. In short, he was a dyed-in-the-wool Kashmiri who represented the very essence of Kashmiriyat—an intellectual, a fighter for peace and universal brotherhood, and a foodie.

I met Shujaat around 25 years ago when a tall strapping lad was introduced to me as the rising star of journalism in Kashmir. This “rising star”, I noticed, walked with a slight hunch as if he did not want to move away from the people around him and give them the feeling that he was beyond their reach. At that time he was working for a small local daily that often skipped an edition and was largely a family show. I realised that this young man would not stay there for long as he was fated for other things. Soon enough Shujaat switched and joined the only prominent daily in the State. This newspaper gave Shujaat ample opportunity to hone his journalistic skills, and also he found a great mentor in the owner, Editor Ved Bhasin, a person who he, in a strange way, was to emulate later in life. It was probably from Bhasin that Shujaat imbibed his other passion, his intense desire to bring peace to the Valley. And until he died Shujaat lived life to the full as a journalist and a passionate peace activist while judiciously balancing his third great love, his two kids and wife.

After working within the State for a number of years, Shujaat wanted to grow further, and his search for greener and wider pastures landed him with a job in The Hindu. With The Hindu he had entered a new realm of journalism. His challenge was to make Kashmir interesting for the readers mainly in the south. Shujaat, perhaps, was the first journalist in the State who inspired enough confidence in the Chennai office of The Hindu for it to make him its bureau chief in the State. It was here that Shujaat honed his skills by having to explain the nuances of Kashmir to the average reader in the south. This skill at explaining and simplifying Kashmir for the uninitiated reader stationed far away would help Shujaat later when he wrote for some international publications.

It was while working in The Hindu that Shujaat found his other passion in life, his lovely wife. Yet, this love story, too, had an interesting beginning. Shujaat’s father-in-law-to-be, Hafiz sahib, was a card-carrying member of the communist party. He was extremely wary that his daughter would marry a conservative man who would restrict her freedom. But Shujaat’s attitude and a little persuasion by friends convinced Hafiz sahib that Shujaat was the best thing that could happen to his daughter. Subsequently, Hafiz sahib became a great fan of his son-in-law and until his death this communist would proudly announce to anyone listening that he was Shujaat’s father-in-law.

After working with The Hindu for a while, Shujaat again got the itch. With the decline of Kashmir Times, Shujaat felt that there was room for an English daily in Srinagar. The problem was finding the money to start one. After looking for investors for a while, he decided to take the plunge. With a small investment from Hafiz sahib, Shujaat put all his and his wife’s savings into this venture.

He called it Rising Kashmir, as if in anticipation of the dawn that was yet to come. In the beginning it was difficult to keep body and soul together. Shujaat worked his guts out, constantly feeding The Hindu and also producing his daily, plus scrounging for money to pay salaries and rent incurred by Rising Kashmir. A few years later, Rising Kashmir stabilised, enabling Shujaat to leave The Hindu and become, like his mentor Ved Bhasin, a reporter/Editor/owner all rolled into one. But he kept his window to Chennai open by becoming a regular contributor for Frontline until the very end. (This issue of Frontline carries, on pages 90-91, his review of the book Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace by A.S. Dulat, Asad Durrani and Aditya Sinha.) His articles, some of them as cover stories, offered rare insights into the Kashmir issue.

At Kreeri in Baramulla district of North Kashmir, funeral prayers for Shujaat Bukhari.   -  S. Irfan/PTI

It was again during his days in The Hindu that Shujaat started playing an active role in propagating peace both in Jammu and Kashmir and in the region. He started working with a number of peace forums and in the process visited Pakistan and travelled virtually all over the world attending peace conferences. Recently, he had started working with a United Kingdom-based organisation, Conciliation Resources, which works towards promoting peace between India and Pakistan and towards looking for opportunities to build linkages with the Jammu and Kashmir regions of the State. In this context they had taken a number of initiatives, one of which was promoting cross LoC (Line of Control) investment and trade. As part of this process, Shujaat organised two highly successful conferences. The first one, with an organisation called Brief, on building peace within Jammu and Kashmir, was held over two days in Delhi last year. The other, held recently in Dubai, looked at ending conflict within the Valley and also between India and Pakistan, especially between Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.

This last conference also earned Shujaat a lot of enemies, mainly the extremists in Kashmir, who viciously trolled Shujaat on social media. After these attacks, one wonders why security was not stepped up by the State government for Shujaat, considering that in 2006 militants had kidnapped him. That time he escaped, but this time terror made sure that the life of this votary of peace and independent journalist was snuffed out. But then if the attendance at his funeral is any indication, his death has only given greater strength and impetus to the ideals he lived by.

Rahul Jalali is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.

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