Written by : Murtaza Shibli
Shujaat Bukhari was one of the very few Kashmiri journalists who lived under a tight and imposing police security; at least two armed guards protected him round the clock, in addition to a comprehensive security cover for his newspaper office and residence. Hitherto unknown assailants – news reports suggest there were three or four of them – pumped dozens of bullets into him near the famous Lal Chowk, in the heart of the city and one of the secure localities in Srinagar that is filled with a large presence of security personnel. In such a fortified milieu, it is bizarre as well as scary that he was targeted from close range with an AK-47 assault rifle. He received more than 40 bullets and died within minutes of the attack; a photograph showing his facedown body curled inside his large four wheel drive will haunt Kashmiri scribes for a long time.
The ferocity of the attack, which also killed his two security guards and severely injured another, clearly demonstrates that the intention of his attackers was to mete out a sure and brutal death to the senior journalist. The operation looked more like a professional James Bond style assassination rather than the handiwork of Kashmiri militants – a ragtag lot of angry youth with no arms training – who are motivated by their anger and frustration at the continued dance of death provoked by the Indian rule and its deliberately enacted misdemeanours. The murder, aside from being widely seen as an assault on the press freedom, is a severe blow for the entrepreneurship of local Kashmiri journalism. As the owner of a news conglomerate – a daily newspaper each in English, Urdu, and Kashmiri – Bukhari displayed an extraordinary understanding of the market and great business acumen. Although his flagship newspaper, ‘Rising Kashmir’, continued to struggle for want of readership which remained minuscule as compared to the leading daily ‘Greater Kashmir’ or even the late entrant ‘Kashmir Reader’, it was a great success in commercial terms. According to data from the Jammu and Kashmir Information Department (JKID), ‘Rising Kashmir’ was the second highest recipient of government advertisements next only to ‘Greater Kashmir’.
The difference between the readerships of the two newspapers was in tens of thousands; according to an informal survey conducted by the JKID last year, the daily circulation of ‘Rising Kashmir’ was modestly placed at fewer than 1500 copies as compared to more than 60,000 for ‘Greater Kashmir’. Regardless, ‘Rising Kashmir’ remained extremely influential within official circles – both military and civilian, a testimony to Bukhari’s personal charisma and astute business sense. As a journalist, his forte remained his ability to network and master the networks. He would effortlessly mingle with competing actors in India and Pakistan, and within Jammu and Kashmir – from the unionists to pro-freedom separatists and from Indian Army officials to peace activists. Perhaps, that is why his demise is being felt across the board.
But his death is a much bigger blow for the Indian government’s efforts to bolster the new movement towards reconciliation and accommodation with the pro-freedom separatists – in Kashmir and across the border in Pakistan. More than his journalism, Bukhari was very active in Track II diplomacy. To my knowledge, he was the only Kashmiri Muslim being allowed by the Government of India to freely move between the two sides and pursue people and institutions in the quest for attaining long-term accommodation with Kashmiris on behalf of the Indian state. Bukhari was able to make deep inroads in Pakistan, amassing an impressive number of public intellectuals and policymakers as his friends. This might have irked his opponents, at home and abroad, but this does not explain the motivations behind his murder. I have known Bukhari since the late 1980s when we started journalism almost around the same time while he was still working as a clerk at the Accountant General’s Office in Srinagar. Although he was a few years senior, we enjoyed a warm relationship and even shared a flat in Srinagar at one point. Our association dwindled over the years as we changed trajectories and developed our own distinct ways of thinking. After more than a decade, we resumed contact in early 2011 when we both attended a Kashmir conference in Muzaffarabad in Azad Jammu and Kashmir. Later, we would meet again at a dinner at the Punjab University, Lahore, in 2015. Hosted by a very close friend, vice chancellor of the university at the time, Mujahid Kamran, we interacted briefly as everyone else was trying to grab his attention and engage him in conversation. Last month, we narrowly missed each other, again in Lahore, as he was coming back from a high-profile conference on Kashmir, held in Islamabad and sponsored by the British NGO, Conciliation Resources. Bukhari’s murder in the heart of the city and in broad daylight is a crude reminder, yet again, that fortifying locations and involving military personnel to regulate men and movement is not anything equivalent to peace. That a senior journalist who benefited from stringent official protection could still fall to the bullets shows that security cannot be entirely predicated on the deployment of security personnel. Such a lazy countenance has long been discredited in Kashmir, a prospect trashed by none other than the Indian army chief himself. In a newspaper interview last month, General Bipin Rawat spoke candidly about the limitations of military power in solving the crisis in Kashmir, and emphasised the need for dialogue and political resolution. Aside from the customary condolences that have been pouring from all sides and directions, it is important that the murderers of Bukhari are unmasked and their motivations unearthed. That could bring some consolation to the place that is blighted by wanton violence from all sides.
Written by : Murtaza Shibli