Shujaat Bukhari and the price of peace in Kashmir

Shujaat Bukhari and the price of peace in Kashmir

The murder of Shujaat Bukhari reinforces that journalists in the Valley aren’t just reporting the conflict, they’re living it.

By Nidhi Suresh

Published on :

Thursday had been a particularly hot day in Srinagar. The same evening by 7.15 pm, within a matter of seconds, a festive and bustling Residency Road in Srinagar had turned into a bloody crime scene. The next day, Srinagar woke up to a cold and overcast sky. As I made my way to Kreeri in North Kashmir’s Baramulla district, for senior journalist Shujaat Bukhari’s funeral, I recalled a common Kashmiri saying, “Kashmir ke mausum aur halaat ka koi bharosa nahi (The weather and situation in Kashmir cannot be trusted)”.

On Thursday, with two days to go for Eid, Residency Road was bustling with shoppers and roadside stalls. Being the holy month of Ramazan, by 6.45 pm, most shoppers on the road started to clear up and head home to break their fast.

In the midst of the shops, opposite the iconic Pratap Park, is the Kashmir Press Enclave, popularly known as Press Colony. It is Press Colony that houses some of the legacy media publications in Kashmir—Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir, Kashmir Life, Associated Press, Associated French Press, and more. If one passes by Press Colony in the evening, it’s common to see journalists standing around, talking, laughing and smoking, some with their cameras slung across their shoulders. There had been nothing unusual about this Thursday evening either.

By around 7.15 pm, Residency Road had come to a standstill. Three men on a motorcycle had stopped at Press Colony, pulled out their guns, and riddled the bodies of senior journalist and editor of Rising Kashmir Shujaat Bukhari and his two personal security officers (PSOs). They then fled. All of this took place in broad daylight, in a crowded street, two days before one the most looked forward to festivals of the year.

Director General of Kashmir, Shesh Paul Vaid, told Newslaundry that “militants had chosen a weak moment”. Bukhari was in the back seat of his car, one PSO in the front and the other driving the car out of the colony when the attack happened.

Bullets not fireworks

A few metres from the Rising Kashmir office is the Kashmir Life office. This is where senior correspondent Shams Irfan works. Irfan told Newslaundry that on that Thursday evening, he had been in one of the shops next to Press Colony, shopping for Eid with two other colleagues. Just as they stepped out, Irfan said he heard what his heart told him were gunshots. “It was such intense firing,” he said. “They (the accused) must have finished at least two or three magazines (rounds of bullet cartridges). Everybody began running until someone in the crowd tried to calm everyone down, claiming it was only festive firecrackers.”

Irfan was only 30 seconds away from Press Colony. “I remembered my vehicle was parked there so I quickly headed there. As soon as I reached, I just knew something was wrong. I saw Shujaat sir’s car, windows broken, people screaming, but nobody dared to go near the car.”

Irfan said that for the next 10-15 minutes “nobody came to their rescue but everyone was screaming to save them. I wonder if we could have saved someone had we moved faster. I kept thinking why no one was taking them to the hospital. That’s when a friend reminded me that I too had a vehicle.”

By the time Irfan got his vehicle, the police had arrived and the three were taken to the nearest hospital. “The police station is just two minutes away but they didn’t show up until 20 minutes after. Why? What took them so long?” asked Irfan.

Newslaundry reached the spot just as the police arrived at Press Colony. The shattered window glass of Shujaat Bukhari’s car lay scattered on the bloodstained ground. On the brick wall by the road, next to a “Free Kamran Yusuf” poster, the bullets had left small craters. The shops nearby had all shut down and street vendors had disappeared.

Journalists stood around, shaken.

Within half hour, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti tweeted her condolences, confirming the death of the journalist. One of his PSOs had been killed on the spot, while the other was hospitalised. In an hour, he succumbed to his injuries.

“We’ve only seen killing”

A former correspondent with The Hindu, Shujaat Bukhari had founded Rising Kashmir, a leading daily in Kashmir. Following a previous attack by militants to murder him in 2002, Bukhari had been assigned bodyguards.

Rashid Maqbool, executive editor of Parcham, a sister outlet of Rising Kashmir, told Newslaundry he had met Bukhari half an hour before his assassination. Ironically, Maqbool said they had ended their conversation on the note of killings in the Valley. “It started with us talking about the ceasefire,” he said.

On May 16, the Union government had declared a conditional unilateral ceasefire in J&K. Maqbool told Bukhari that “he was having a strange feeling that things were not going to be good after Eid”. In response, Bukhari had asked him if he felt there would be more killings. “I told him ‘yes, we’ve only seen killing, what else have we seen?’. With this, I decided to take leave and told him I would see him tomorrow,” said Maqbool. He recalled that Bukhari had been in a particularly jovial mood on Thursday.

One thing that sticks in his mind, as a friend and colleague, was Shujaat telling him, “When death is going to come, it will come. Nothing can stop it.”

The crime of having an opinion

At about 10.30 am on Friday morning, Kreeri village was dotted with security personnel on the roads and roofs. Hundreds of men—journalists, friends, family—quietly made their way to the burial ground. By 11.00 am, Shujaat Bukhari’s grief-stricken father was helped out of his car to bury his son.

In the last 48 hours, the haunting question in the Valley has been, “Who did it and why him?”.  While people in the Valley and media fraternity fight to find their space in his life, the veteran has been owned by no one in death.

“In the last 30 years, we’ve seen so much violence. Shujaat sir and I would often joke about constantly having to report about deaths caused by ‘unknown gunmen’. I never thought I’d say that with regard to his death. Kashmir is so complex. ‘Who’ and ‘why’ are the most tricky questions here,” said Maqbool.

Irfan calls reporting in Kashmir an exercise of walking on a “razor’s edge”. “We are targeted from all sides,” he said.

Nazir Masoodi, senior journalist and NDTV correspondent said that Bukhari was a “victim of perception”. “He was killed because of the vicious campaign launched against him,” Masoodi said. He also added that when a journalist is killed, it isn’t just a death, it is a message for everyone. “Why a journalist? Was having an opinion his crime?”

Late night on Thursday, June 14, the J&K Police released images of three suspects who might have been involved in Bukhari’s murder. The three images, obtained from a CCTV footage, show three men on a motorbike. The rider’s face is obscured by a helmet and one of the two pillion riders is wearing a mask covering the lower half of his face. The police have sought the public’s help to identify these men. In a press briefing held on June 16, the Inspector General of Police for Kashmir SP Pani announced that a fourth suspect had been identified with the public’s help. An eyewitness had released a video taken right after the shooting. In the video, a man in a white kurta and skull cap can be seen looking into the car where the three men lay. As another citizen pulls one person out of the car, the man in white, the suspect, is seen picking up a pistol from the ground and vanishing from the crime scene. The IGP said this fourth suspect has been taken into custody and the pistol has been recovered. He also added that a Special Investigation Team has been constituted for further investigation.

Fear among journalists

Reporting deaths and covering funerals is an everyday affair for journalists in conflict-ridden Kashmir. Multiple reports suggest how journalists in the Valley are currently suffering from fatigue, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Today, a day after the assassination, an eerie silence haunts the press colony in Srinagar.

Qazi Zaid, founder of one of the latest news portals in Kashmir, Free Press Kashmir, told Newslundry that what most people fail to understand outside Kashmir is that journalists here are not just reporting a conflict, they are also living it. “Yes, we’re fatigued from counting the number of deaths every day but as journalists, we tend to feel that we’re immune to attack. An incident like this is a reality check for us.” Nevertheless, he clarified that such an incident doesn’t scare him; instead, it makes him “want to go all guns blazing” and do better work.

A day after the death of their founder, the Rising Kashmir daily continued to be on the stands. “It was a tough call for us to take but we decided that it was important for us to not take a day off. We have to tell the perpetrators of this violence that they are not successful,” said Rashid Maqbool.

Tomorrow, the festival of Eid will mark the end to the controversial ceasefire.

Interlocutor Dineshwar Sharma told Newslaundry that the last 3-4 days have “not been good in Kashmir”. “I will be there next week and will reassess the situation,” he said.

Meanwhile, one thing has become clear in Kashmir. Nobody is safe.