Shujaat Bukhari was among the most informed and least exultant Kashmiri journalists I have met. He let his incorrigible smile and straight reporting do the talking. He was shot dead on Thursday evening outside the Srinagar office of the Rising Kashmir newspaper, of which he was editor.
There is predictable confusion about who may have killed him together with his two security guards. As is known to happen in the tense and fractious city that Srinagar has become, there will be more whispers than clear pointers to the crime. We can only surmise from his work, among other circumstantial factors, as to who may have been so annoyed with the much-admired media man so as to callously snuff out his life.
There was a time not too long ago when journalists from Delhi would visit Srinagar and put their arms around their brave and courageous Kashmiri colleagues. The last four years have seen an equaliser of sorts. The shooting of Gauri Lankesh by suspected Hindutva killers underscored an atmosphere of terror and insecurity that the more upright Indian journalists in particular have been feeling quite palpably.
The once invincible Barkha Dutt has been speaking of efforts to silence her by stopping TV entrepreneurs from hiring her. Several of the best journalists are now working on news portals because the supposedly mainstream newspapers and TV channels are not allowed to hire them. The best women journalists are threatened on social media with rape and the men receive daily death threats.
Teesta Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand, who exposed perhaps the worst crimes of the Gujarat pogroms, are facing legal cases and jail threats. Rana Ayyub, a courageous young woman, very reluctantly shares the mental torture she suffers from unspeakable palpable threats for her work in exposing the high and mighty in the field of communal violence. Anchor Ravish Kumar has worries about his family, but refuses to stand down as perhaps the boldest anchor in India today.
The threats extend to student activists like Umar Khalid and Kanhaiya Kumar and their teachers too are not spared.
What is happening with the Pakistani media is so identical that it is tempting to believe that tormentors on both sides perhaps exchange notes. All these fine journalists standing their ground on both sides are people who can be considered the most self-assured holders of free opinions and sharers of information and knowledge. But, like Shujaat Bukhari and Gauri Lankesh, they are all extremely vulnerable to galloping intolerance.
The main players in the troubled strife-torn Kashmir Valley are India and Pakistan. Both have vehemently condemned Bukhari’s murder. Which reminds me of some of the better-known mysteries of our times. There was a film called No One Killed Jessica about a lovely girl who was shot dead at a party in Delhi. It was probably based on the storyline from Ayodhya: ‘no one demolished the Babri mosque’! The Pakistani equivalent would be: ‘no one killed Benazir Bhutto’.
Two or three images come to my mind as it scans the canvas of memories and possibilities for clues. The murder took place on the day the UN Human Rights commission brought out its first-ever report on the abuses in Kashmir on both sides of the border. The murder thus became the story rather than the damning rights report, which incidentally was strongly rejected by India.
There are factors that point to one direction and then to the other. Bukhari’s brother is a minister in the Mehbooba Mufti government of which the Bharatiya Janata Party is an ally. This fact can create one kind of narrative.
But Bukhari’s newspaper was highlighting reports that pointed to an opposite reality. Take the story of the rape and murder of an eight-year-old tribal Muslim tribal girl in Jammu in January this year. Right-wing Hindus have actively rallied in support of the accused. A report in Bukhari’s paper on April 4 nailed the lie that she was killed by someone in a land feud.
“Strands of hair found in a temple where eight-year-old Asifa Bano was held captive before being strangulated after rape have matched with the victim’s (Asifa) hair on DNA analysis,” Rising Kashmir reported in the first week of April. “Official sources said that the crime branch, probing the rape-and-murder, had found hair strands from Devistan temple in Hiranagar after one of the accused revealed during interrogation that Asifa was held captive inside the temple. The crime site was searched and the hair strands were found and sent to Forensic Laboratory (FSL), New Delhi. The report confirmed that they were that of Asifa, the sources said.”
Whose side was Shujaat Bukhari on, according to his report?
Let’s also read a report Bukhari wrote on May 25. Veteran journalist and peace activist Om Thanvi shared it as the last one from the Kashmiri journalist in his email account. The report raises the prospect of the stalled SAARC summit being revived in Islamabad with India’s participation. Everyone knows who would oppose the move. Bukhari began the report by critiquing Prime Minister Narendra Modi for not addressing the Kashmir issue politically during his May 20 visit to Srinagar.
He then says that Modi was facing domestic pressure on many counts ahead of the 2019 elections. “He is preparing the ground to see that the SAARC summit takes place and instead of rhetoric, he might prefer ‘peace’ to be sold to the electorate. Relations with Nepal and Maldives are also indicating towards this thread. In order to get Pakistan on board for a successful SAARC, it is imperative to cool down tempers in and on Kashmir. In this backdrop next few months will be interesting to watch.”
Sadly, Shujaat Bukhari will not be around with his notebook to jot down his astute reading of a complex and forbidding reality.