After entering Syed Shujaat Bukhari’s office in Press Colony, just off Residency Road, I was invited to sit on the bench that ran perpendicular to his desk at the rear of the room. First impressions told me this was a place for conversation. I’d flown into curfewed Kashmir after reading of Afzal Guru’s death in New Delhi’s Tihar Jail. It was February 2013.
I sat down and introduced myself as a freelancer, adding that I was following up the subsequent ban on newspapers and needed a place to file. Internet cafes were useless to me, as the internet had been snapped. He listened patiently, probably painfully aware of how little I knew then about one of the world’s longest and most intractable disputes.
“You like Kashmiri tea?”, he boomed, his voice echoing around his office, which seemed dwarfed by his presence
“Yes”, I offered meekly, informing him that I’d already been drinking noon chai along with eating Kashmiri bread I’d been offered while waiting to see him.
“Ok then go there”, he said, finishing my sentence before it had begun, signaling our conversation was over with a gently dismissive wave of his hand, gesturing me towards the newsroom, through the flap of fabric masquerading as the office door. Editors were the same everywhere, I smiled to myself. I was over the moon – the editor of one of Kashmir’s most well-respected English newspapers had just agreed to let me use his offices during my stay in Srinagar. It was a humbling display of hospitality, and he allowed me to share the same space with his reporters’ each time I returned to the Valley. Shujaat’s generosity was typical of his countrymen.
On the morning of 14 June, Shujaat tweeted his newspaper’s story on the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights very first report into human rights abuses in Kashmir. The revelations were damning and sparked a fevered reaction from New Delhi, which denied UN investigators access to Indian-administered Kashmir (for completeness, Pakistan refused access to AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan unless India reciprocated). Hours later that same day, Rising Kashmir’s Editor-in-Chief lay dead. He was assassinated alongside his two police protection officers as his car was leaving Press Colony. It was the eve of Eid ul-Fitr, and for many, the festival began in mourning, not celebration.
Shujaat’s friend and fellow journalist Andrew Whitehead wrote a moving tribute to the man he’d known for more than 20 years in reporting from Kashmir. The former BBC World Service Editor described him as ‘a proud Kashmiri, a champion of its language and culture, and someone who sought dialogue over slogans and violence. His independence of mind has cost him his life.’
It is a cruel irony indeed that someone involved in efforts to secure a peace that has eluded Kashmiris for decades was killed during a ceasefire. In one of the last pieces he wrote as the uneasy Ramzan truce began, Shujaat said the move by the Indian authorities offered ‘a glimmer of hope to the common people’ against the backdrop of the failing coalition between the BJP and the PDP. ‘The mounting toll of local militants and civilians has become unbearable’, he added.
He sought hope as keenly as documenting despair with the absence of progress in the Agenda of Alliance, the contract between the state’s ruling parties. The coalition’s disintegration merely days after his death, following the withdrawal of the BJP, seemed a final confirmation of its futility.
Indeed, Shujaat was universal in his condemnation of any group or organisation worthy of criticism. Following the death of Burhan Wani in summer 2016, which sparked Kashmir’s latest bloody conflagration, he noted that the Government of India’s heavy-handed approach was causing a ‘heavy civilian toll’. The senior journalist, who was previously The Hindu’s Jammu & Kashmir Bureau Chief, was also unsparing towards the Joint Resistance Leadership’s (JRL). He wrote, “[JRL] has a responsibility towards its people and their aspirations and it needs to handle that with care.”
I knew very little of Shujaat’s deeper involvement with backchannel peace efforts aimed at finding a political solution in Kashmir. Whether or not his appearance at peace talks in Dubai earlier this year played a part in his death remains unclear, and it would be an injustice to his memory to speculate on such matters in the absence of evidence. One firm conclusion that can be drawn from his participation is his desire to seek an end to the horrible cycle of violence in Kashmir, which sadly continues as I write.
Syed Shujaat Bukhari, who died aged 50, is survived by his wife and two children. A serious, concerted effort at pursuing peace, including all parties to the Kashmir dispute, would be one way of providing a fitting legacy. Another would be to ensure his commitment to quality journalism in Kashmir lives on. Journalists at his newspaper reportedly refused to break the Ramzan fast until they had delivered a paper befitting of their editor the very same evening of his death. Long may that sense of dedication to a free and fearless press in Kashmir continue.