The gunning down on June 14 of Shujaat Bukhari, editor of Rising Kashmir, by unidentified gunmen as he got into his car outside his office in Srinagar’s Press Enclave is a grim reminder of the dangers faced by journalists who report out of the Kashmir Valley. They have to perforce walk the thin line if they are not to invite ire from one quarter or the other and it is often difficult to see who one is displeasing. It is a fragile balance to maintain. A journalist or a newspaper seen as too government friendly comes in the cross hairs of militants. On the other hand, the security forces stationed in the Valley are known not to take kindly to those it labels as sympathetic towards separatists.
Shujaat (he was rarely referred to by his surname) was one of those journalists who was bold and independent. He was no government stooge. But neither was he someone patronised by extremist groups as right wingers have alleged even after his death. If he was, he wouldn’t have been at the receiving end of their death threats from 2000. The truth is that Bukhari vehemently shunned violence and did not see the gun as a solution to Kashmir’s problems. But he was also not blind to the gross rights violations perpetrated by the state and was sharply critical of them, invoking displeasure from the security establishment and the government.
I knew Shujaat and regularly ran into him when I was working with Outlook magazine and was a frequent flyer between Delhi-Srinagar. My first reporting assignment in January 1996 was a little over a month after our correspondent in the Valley, Zafar Meraj, was rendered out of action. He was abducted on December 8 by unidentified gunmen who shot him in the abdomen and shoulder and left him to die. Zafar miraculously survived the attack, but the incident sent shock waves among journalists in Srinagar.
It was at the Press Enclave that I was first introduced to Shujaat by a common friend. At that point, he was filing reports for The Hindu and would formally join the organisation in 1997. I found him to be soft-spoken, unassuming and affable. I recall him enquiring about Zafar’s health—he had been shifted to AIIMS Delhi for treatment. I told him that it would take months for him to recover. Shujaat was quick to assure me that it was a stray incident and that Kashmir was going through troubled times but was not as dangerous as people in Delhi think it is. He possibly saw that I was nervous and wanted to put me at ease.
We frequently met after that and exchanged notes. I found him very helpful and his perspectives on Kashmir useful. He was also willing to share information and did not hold back anything. “In a place like this nothing is exclusive, news is there to be shared,” he would say in his trademark deep voice as he read out from his notes.
I met Shujaat during my first reporting assignment in Kashmir for Outlook in January of 1996. It was a little over a month after our correspondent in the Valley, Zafar Meraj, was shot in the abdomen and shoulder by unidentified gunmen. Zafar miraculously survived the attack
He was among the first to share with me the problems faced by local journalists and about how they ran the risk of getting caught in the crossfire between the security agencies and militants. He felt that many reporters who came on assignments from Delhi and other parts of India failed to appreciate the constraints under which local journalists had to operate. They had to be careful and ensure not to step on too many toes.
Like other journalists in Srinagar, Shujaat was curious about what Delhi thought about the Kashmir problem and would often seek my views on the subject. I would answer to the best of my knowledge but would remind him that I was no expert. He would occasionally call me in Delhi to get feedback.
We lost touch after I stopped reporting from Kashmir after the Kargil War. But I kept pace with his despatches in The Hindu. When I heard the news of his death and that of his two personal security officers I was shocked beyond belief. Like many others, I wondered who would have wanted him bumped off. Was he so important? Or was his killing a message being sent out to journalists in the Valley?
Former bureaucrat and Kashmir expert Wajahat Habibullah, feels that was indeed the intention. He told a TV channel: “Whoever killed him wanted to send out a message to the media and journalists: don’t be too independent and don’t cross the line.” The Editor of Rising Kashmir was obviously a soft target.