By Sarwar Kashani
“We shall meet when you come here,” Shujaat Bukhari told me over phone some months ago. I did, only to encounter his bullet-perforated body as I returned home for Eid. "He is dead. We will all be killed,” a journalist friend shouted over phone, crying bitterly in a hoarse voice when I called to confirm if it was true that Bukhari, an iconic editor in Kashmir, was killed by an “unknown gunman” – a mysteriously faceless assassin who goes around executing the death warrants of his monstrous masters.
However, I wished it were not true, the story of one of the best news storytellers in the Kashmir Valley had come to an abrupt end like this. It was like a dagger had pierced my heart – the man who helped me and many other struggling scribes through their formative years and troubled times will never be able to help any new entrant in the difficult world of journalism, more so in Kashmir.
I had planned to call him after Eid to meet him. But two days before the festival, I saw pictures of his inert, blood-splattered body. It was collapsed on one side of the seat of his car, his shirt and his torso pierced with multiple gun shots. Some newspapers lay by his side, blood splashed across them.
Bukhari lived for journalism and its values and he indeed died in the line of duty. He gave his blood to the profession – literally.
The editor of “Rising Kashmir” – a Srinagar-based English daily he found about a decade ago – defended his journalistic integrity and that of other Kashmiri scribes after which he was tagged in a video and accused of “biased” reportage on Kashmir.
Bukhari's tweet came in response to an earlier tweet from a Delhi-based TV scribe who had posted a video in which author of “Land of the Wilted Rose”, Anand Ranganathan, “rips apart biased media reportage from the Kashmir Valley with one sample case of an editor who does not practice what he preaches”.
Ranganathan, during an Observer Research Foundation (ORF) panel discussion, accused Bukhari of confessing “openly” how he was “proud to be intolerant” when it came to Prophet Mohammed in the wake of Charile Hebdo attack and that there was no absolute freedom of speech when it comes to faith.
Ranganathan, speaking the seminar on “Fourth Estate at the Frontlines – Tackling Insurgent Ideologies”, referred to a tweet from Bukhari, posting a snapshot of a paramilitary vehicle running over a Kashmiri youth during a stone-pelting protest in Srinagar. The editor had posted “very disturbing” pictures, asking the government and the CRPF to explain if it “is the new Standard Operating Procedure?”
The author, who is a consulting editor with the rightwing “Swarajya” magazine, argued that “when an editor of the publication... has taken this side, quasi-religious side, you are absolutley sure as to (his) coverage” of Kashmir.
Bukhari retweeted the video some seven hours before his killing, saying he was proud for doing what he has done and that there was nothing that would stop him from reporting whatever happens on the ground in the troubled-valley.
“It is unfortunate that a credible think tank like ORF should allow this diatribe in absence of the person referred to. In Kashmir, we have done journalism with pride and will continue to highlight what happens on ground,” Bukhari tweeted.
He was unbiased, fearless and true to his credentials. When he would not agree with your opinion, he would gift you a broad smile, encouraging you to speak your mind without bothering when he would agree or not.
An ever news-hungry person, he would always greet you with a question – “kya haz khabar chha?” – a contemporary Kashmiri colloquial for “how are you” which is literal translation for “what is the news”?
Bukhari was the state correspondent with The Hindu before he set up his own publication in Srinagar. During one of my earlier meetings with him when I had just completed my journalism major form Kashmir University, he recommended me for quite a few jobs with Delhi-based media outfits, personally spoke with some TV editors in Delhi.
A deeply engaging, kind, professional and a decent human being, Bukhari, a recipient of World Press Institute (WPI) USA fellowship and Asian Centre for Journalism Singapore fellowship, would always discuss my last story with him whenever I would meet him.
“You should be careful,” he once advised me. “No story is worth the life of a journalist.”
I laughed away the advice from a veteran had braved many attempts on his life. He was in 1996 abducted by government-backed militant group “Ikhwan ul Muslimeem” along with 18 other local journalists. They were later set free.
He was kidnapped and driven out of Srinagar on June 10, 2006 after he was threatened in the past for his coverage of the insurgency in Kashmir.
That day as he left his The Hindu office, two Kashmiri-speaking men forced him to board an auto-rickshaw at gunpoint and took him several kilometres out of the city before they pushed him out.
One of them then tried to shoot him but the gun jammed and Bukhari managed to flee. Bukhari told global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders that the instigators and perpetrators of such attacks are rarely caught in Kashmir.
"It is virtually impossible to know who are our enemies and who are our friends," he said 12 years ago.
Today as he lay inside the bowels of the earth in his north Kashmir ancestral graveyard, his killers remain unknown and nobody knows why he was killed. And maybe we will never. There will be narratives, counter-narratives, claims and counter-claims. The truth lies in between, buried along with the countless dead, killed by the “unknown gunmen”.
Rest in Peace, Shujaat. You could have taken your own advice to me seriously. “Nothing is worth a human life.”
(Sarwar Kashani is IANS bureau chief in New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)