To borrow from Rahul Pandita’s book title, the Eid moon in the Valley came with blood clots. 24 hours before it was sighted, senior journalist Shujaat Bukhari was shot dead within minutes after he came out of his office. His chilling photograph face down inside his car, his lifeless frame draped in a dark purple shirt is a moment that will continue to haunt.
More than 60 bullets were fired by three unidentified gunmen who came on a motorbike unnoticed and slipped away amidst the crowd with equal ease. 16 to 40 bullets, according to different versions, were found inside Shujaat’s body. It took only one to snuff life out of him. But that very bullet also changed the way his surviving colleagues would think and perhaps also the way they operate.
He is not the first journalist to be killed and it is wishful thinking he would be the last. 18 others have met a violent end since 1990 and many more were shot at, tortured, jailed or persecuted in various other ways. In a conflict zone like Kashmir, his horrifying murder has a far greater significance than the convenience of reducing him to a footnote in the chapter on perils faced by media in Kashmir.
Shujaat’s case stands a little apart from the previous cases for many reasons. During the span of the two and half decades of his professional career, Shujaat had been involved in several peace initiatives and of late had graduated to the higher level of active participation in Track II processes. Much of his writings, balanced and essentially in keeping with professional ethics, advocated peace and dialogue while opposing violent resistance as well as brutal military repression to crush the violent rebellion.
By virtue of his huge body of work in his capacity as both a journalist and peace activist, he was more vulnerable than his peers. Vilification campaign against him on the social media after his involvement in several Track II processes had increased the threat he faced. The tall stature he had achieved in a short span of time adds to the shock value of his murder.
As a professional journalist and peace activist, how does one respond to his death? There is an endless stream of thoughts, all pushing one into a sucking zone of despair. The immediate reaction was horror and shock punctuated with denial, followed by a sense of loss at the departing of an unforgettable colleague and more stinging was the thought of his distraught wife, Tehmeena and his two lovely children, his parents and other family members.
The death of a senior journalist and Editor Rising Kashmir, after he was shot dead on June 14 last, is much more than all of that. His death killed that tiny spark of optimism that held us together amid a distressing situation of conflict. In its place the journey of unraveling the ugly and terrifying reality around us begins in the mind.
His death signifies many things that invoke both dismay and dread. There is dismay over the setback to efforts for dialogue and peace and independence of professional media. It makes one wonder, at least for a moment, whether our own efforts in a similar direction are worth anything at all. But more than that, it evokes an unknown sense of panic, dread and fear.
His home is a site of collective mourning where visitors console not just his family members but also each other. Their hugs, tears and words mirror and echo each other’s despair and sense of panic. Amidst a situation that is getting hopeless by the day, this sense invokes the vital question: should the rest of us be cowed down or wait for our turn to die or be persecuted in other ways. As a lawyer friend wrote on her facebook wall, “Kashmir has turned into a slaughter house where the sacrificial lambs await their turn.”
One cannot say with certainty who these killers were. All that is known is that they were three young men on motorbikes who shot at him and that it was very well-planned. But the motive was clear. They were enemies of peace and enemies of courageous voices.
And that brings us face to face with another chilling reality. The assassins must have drawn up a mental list of probables before they chose Shujaat’s name. How did they make the eventual choice? And, how many of us figured in the preliminary list?
The incident exposes once again the vulnerability of both the peaceniks and journalist fraternity in a conflict region like Kashmir where a vicious and endless cult of violence is consuming lives like an unstoppable giant. The complex Kashmir dispute throws up immense challenges for journalists and peaceniks across the board in innumerable ways. For the professional media, caught between the pressures and intimidations from both the government and the non-state actors, it has been a walk on razor’s edge.
During the turbulent 1990s, killings, attacks on offices and residential premises of journalists, repeated bans by militant groups on one side and constant harassment by security agencies, incidents of detention and beating up of journalists and raiding their homes by men in uniform became common, transforming the complexion of Kashmiri media beyond recognition in a very short span of time. Apart from this, Kashmiri press have been facing the brunt of censorship, use of arm twisting methods and squeezing of financial resources, used by various vested interests to control journalists and pressurise them into toeing a certain line.
The incident is reminiscent of several other cases in the last three decades. The first major killing of a media person was that of Lassa Koul, station director, Doordarshan Kendra, Srinagar in 1990. News telecast from Kendra was stopped for a few years and was resumed in the summer of 1993. Editor of Alsafa, Mohammad Shaban Wakil was also gunned down in 1991. Another editor Ghulam Rasool, Doordarshan correspondent Saiyyadain was also killed around the same time. In 2003, editor of a local news agency NAFA was killed in his office-cum-residence in Press Enclave Srinagar. In the same area, ANI photographer Mushtaq Ali was killed when a parcel bomb reached senior BBC correspondent Yusuf Jameel. Mushtaq Ali was sitting in his office and began fiddling with the packet which had landed in Jameel’s office when the bomb went off. Jameel, who had faced innumerable threats from both sides, was also injured and spent a year outside the Valley before he could return. A year later, senior journalist Zafar Meraj, was picked up by unidentified gunmen and shot; and critically injured. He survived the attack.
In all these cases, investigations never reached a logical conclusion. In all probability the question of who killed Shujaat and why, may forever remain mired in mystery.
More crucially, Shujaat’s murder signals the changing times. In the last two decades after the 90s, the press in Kashmir has not faced as much physical intimidation and threat of elimination than other kinds of pressures including censorship by government and non-government actors, choking of financial resources, particularly government advertisements. Last year, a young photographer, Kamran Yousuf was arrested by National Investigating Agency for alleged involvement in terror funding without a shred of evidence. The charge against him was that he did not cover government functions and was always the first one to reach at the sites of encounters and violent protests. These are bizarre claims.
In 2002, Delhi based senior Kashmiri journalist Iftikhar Gilani, then bureau chief of Kashmir Times, was arrested in a concocted case and imprisoned for nine months before he was acquitted. That a high profile journalist could be shot dead in a crowded market place in broad daylight so brutally and with such great ease manifests the vulnerability of many other journalists and those who are actively working on issues of human rights and peace.
Are we back in the era of 90s where intimidations, imprisonment and threat to life was the norm? Amidst an un-ebbing cycle of violence, this is the chilling reality Kashmir is faced with.