It is hard to believe Shujaat Bukhari is dead. He was one of the very few Kashmiri journalists who lived under tight police security with at least two armed guards protecting him round the clock, including his newspaper office and official residence. Hitherto unknown assailants, some news reports suggest they were four in number, pumped dozens of bullets into his body near Lal Chowk, in the heart of Srinagar, one of the secure localities in Kashmir. In such a fortified milieu, it is bizarre as well as scary that he was fired from a close range with an AK-47 rifle. The ferocity of the attack that also killed his two security guards and injured another one severely clearly demonstrates that the intention of his attackers was to mete out a sure and brutal death to the senior journalist.
Bukhari’s death is a blow not only for the press freedom but also to the entrepreneurship of local Kashmiri journalism. As the owner of a news conglomerate – a daily newspaper each in English, Urdu, and Kashmiri – he displayed an extraordinary understanding of the market with 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 remained commercially successful as it managed to get the government advertisements next only to the leader, Greater Kashmir. Besides, Rising Kashmir remained extremely influential within the official circles, a testimony to Bukhari’s personal charisma and astute business sense. As a journalist, his forté remained his ability to network and master the networks. He was popular across the board, among the competing actors in India and Pakistan, and within Jammu and Kashmir – from unionists to separatists, and extremists to pacifists. That is why his demise is being felt like a massive shock 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
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 on Track II. 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 Pakistan. He was equally popular in Pakistan and had amassed an impressive number of public intellectuals and policymakers as his friends. Only last month, Khurshid Kasuri, Pakistan’s former Foreign Minister while talking to me in Lahore showed deep appreciation for Bukhari and his energy and consistency. A couple of months earlier, Mushahid Hussain Syed, Chairman, Senate Defence Committee and a former federal minister invited me for a lunch at his home in Islamabad, a city where I have lived for some years. Syed, whom I have known for over a decade, talked about a recent conference in Washington where he had freely interacted with Bukhari and benefited from his nuanced knowledge about Kashmir and possibilities of peace between the two countries.
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 at some point. Our association dwindled over the years as we changed trajectories and developed our own distinct ways of thinking. After more than a decade, our contact was resumed in Pakistan in early 2011 when we both attended a Kashmir conference in Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Pakistani part of Jammu and Kashmir. Later, we would meet again at a dinner at the University of Lahore in 2015. Hosted by a very close friend and the 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 a 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.
Bukhari’s murder in the heart of the city and in broad daylight is a crude reminder, yet again, that fortifying locations and involving the 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 affords a valuable lesson that security cannot be entirely predicated on the deployment of the security personnel. Such a lazy countenance has long been discredited in Kashmir, a prospect trashed by none other than the 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 ruling PDP-BJP alliance government moves fast to unmask the murderers and unearth their motivations. That would bring some consolation to the Kashmiri journalists and those who dream about peace in a place that is blighted by the wanton violence from all sides!