The barbaric murder of veteran journalist Shujaat Bukhari (25 February 1968-14 June 2018) outside his office in Srinagar’s Press Enclave has numbed entire Kashmir to an extent that all roads leading to his hometown Kreeri Baramulla were jammed as all wanted to bid him a final adieu. His killing has once again exposed the razor-edge path which Kashmiri journalists tread to report the overwhelming situation on the ground.
When I joined the Rising Kashmir way back in 2016, it instantly struck me that I’m not a newbie around. There was always a reassuring voice of Shujaat Bukhari around me. Being a cult himself, the gentleman editor was always approachable and never failed his reporters.
When his friend and colleague Sahil Maqbool fell to a massive heart attack early this year, Bukhari was among the few men standing like a rock behind Sahil’s crestfallen family.
“Welcome home,” the ever smiling and welcoming Shujaat Bukhari greeted me in Rising Kashmir office, after I left a well-paying journalistic job in the Middle East and came home to work with a local newspaper. “Everything is going to change Basit Sahab. Be prepared to face applause and allegations at the same time.”
Given his dominant physical features, one got an impression that the person would be imposing, a boss. But as soon as he came forward for greetings, one saw a completely gentle and a docile human being.
“You won’t earn money the way you used to in Delhi or abroad but you’ll earn big in other spheres,” he told me. “It’s going to be exciting, adventurous, at times scary and troublesome. You’ll feel the heat and face the music. At the end you’ll see that it was all for good.”
For a while these words reverberated when the news of his assassination came at the twilight of June 14. He was heading for an Iftiyar Party when attacked and showered with bullets by the three bike-borne assassins, waiting for him.
As scribes and Eid shoppers inside the City Centre Lal Chowk rushed towards the crime scene, they found him dead on the back seat of his bullet-holed SUV.
His crying colleagues, like his wailing widow could only plead with Heavens, “Usne kisi ka kya bigaada tha?”
The hit squad sent to bump him off at the final hour of the penultimate fasting day in Kashmir apparently delivered a message that shadowy gunners are still lurking around and have an ability to silence anyone.
If they could kill somebody like Al-Safa editor-in-chief Mohammad Shaban Wakil inside his Press Colony office on April, 23, 1991, then 27 years later, they can repeat the act by killing somebody like Bukhari, the gentleman of the tribe.
But the manner he was killed has numbed all.
During his prolonged post-mortem session, the medicos reportedly removed 40 odd bullets from his body. Perhaps he paid a huge price for being a voice of moderation and somebody who always believed in balanced and objective journalism.
“Just remember one thing,” I remember his advice to me, “you’re a journalist, not an activist. Always carry both sides. There is no story in this world which is one sided only.”
Perhaps upholding that textbook journalistic rule amid the noise now peddled as news, did come at a huge cost for him.
He was always at the forefront, clearing confusion on Kashmir.
To strike some sense to the nonsensical TV debates on Kashmir, Bukhari would often participate in the prime time debates. Mindful of the spewed cum sponsored venom, the late editor would objectively plead the case of Kashmir. While countering fringe panellists and anchors during the debate, Bukhari would never call a spade a shovel. This made him one of the reasonable voices from Kashmir.
But as my editor, I always knew him as someone who tried to plead the case of Kashmiris in a very rational and humanitarian manner. Even when the Indian military was coming down heavily on insurgents and in the process created rage, Bukhari would bat for peaceful resolution of the protracted conflict.
Inside the newsroom, he was always an affable person, hardly wearing a usual halo of an editor. But given the nature of our job, missing a deadline is one of the worst things which can happen to a reporter and end up annoying the editor.
It so happened one day that I was assigned a story about how National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party had dumped the idea of Autonomy and Self Rule respectively.
I was not able to file the story as a certain politician was not responding to my calls. The story was slated for publishing the very next day.
I went to the departed editor’s chamber with a prepared mind that I would’ve to take in whatever he says. My worst fear was that he was in a meeting with much younger scribes and it would be humiliating for a ‘senior’ to miss a deadline.
The opposite happened.
As soon as I told him that just because of one quote, I wasn’t able to file the story, he picked his phone and called that very politician.
“Jenab, Yi Moyoen Reporter Chu Tohey Phone Karaan, Magar Response Chu ni Kaheen. Khaatah Cha Kehn Gomut (Sir, my reporter has been calling you but there has been no response from your side. Have I done something to annoy you),” he told him and handed me the phone.
I didn’t miss my deadline that day — and never did, as long as I was a part of his newsroom.
Today as people from different walks of life and ideology are competing with each other in offering condolences to his bereaved family, it’s very important to state how the fallen often found himself walking on a razor-edge while discharging his professional duty in the politically-sensitive Kashmir valley.
He first walked in the square of the Press Enclave—where he was brutally killed years later—as a cub reporter during those harrowing days of the nineties. That lanky rookie with a husky voice had come from Baramulla’s Kreeri. Many were amazed to learn how the son of the erudite father had decided to be a journalist at the cost of a government job he was doing.
As late editor Ved Bhasin’s Kashmir Times became his launching pad in journalism, Bukhari shortly created his own space. But doing journalism when antagonistic forces would regularly ring the Press Enclave and threaten journalists for not carrying their versions of the story was indeed a tall order for the tall journalist.
But as he chose to report happenings in a very dispassionate manner, he didn’t fare well on certain quarters. He was among the 19 newsmen abducted by renegades aka Ikhwanis—who were a law unto themselves during mid-nineties—in Anantnag on July 8, 1996.
Despite the backlash and brickbats, Bukhari always stood his ground.
By late nineties, as his joined The Hindu newspaper as its J&K bureau chief, his objective reporting often put him in trouble. Even as he was put under the security cover, he kept facing threats and survived three assassination bids on his life.
In 2006, when he was abducted by two unknown gunmen, he had a miraculous—rather, a sensational—escape from the jaws of near death. As the pistol of one of his abductors got locked, he ran for his life. The incident became a dark humour on the uncertain life of a journalist in Kashmir.
“It is virtually impossible to know who are our enemies,” Bukhari would later tell Reporters Without Borders after his escape, “and who are our friends.”
But that hardly stopped him from lobbying for a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir conflict. He was a part of the Track II process and would get invitations for many global conferences on Kashmir.
In 2008, he came up with his own publication, Rising Kashmir. For journalism students, his newsroom was a grooming center.
On the eighth anniversary of Rising Kashmir, Bukhari had said that he was proud of the fact that he and his team has managed to create an institution.
“RK won’t need a Shujaat in order to run,” he said, prophetically. “It’s not just a newspaper, but an institution.”
His institution did prove him right in his passage.
Despite a crushing loss, they hit the market the very next day with befitting tribute to their gentleman editor.
But as people from different shades of opinion turned out to bid him a final adieu in his hometown, many failed to make sense of the vortex of the violence unleashed in Kashmir. Among them was an IAS officer, Shah Faesal.
“At Syed Shujaat Bukhari’s funeral today,” he wrote on his Facebook profile, “I realised that life has come to a dead end in Kashmir. We are now nothing but a large crowd of numb mourners going from house to house and graveyard to graveyard, each one of us waiting for our turn to die.”