“We shall meet when you come here”, Shujaat Bukhari told me over phone some months ago. We could not. I only encountered his bullet-perforated body as I returned home for Eid. “He is dead. We will all be killed”, a journalist friend shouted over the phone, crying bitterly when I called to confirm that Bukhari, an iconic editor in Kashmir, was killed by “unknown gunmen” — mysteriously faceless assassins who go around executing the death warrants of their 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. 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 in Kashmir. I had planned to call and meet him after Eid. But two days before the festival, I saw pictures of his inert, blood-splattered body. It was collapsed on one side on the seat of his car, his shirt and his torso pierced by multiple gunshots. Some newspapers lay by his side, blood splattered 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.
Even on the morning of the day he was killed, the editor of “Rising Kashmir” — the Srinagar-based English daily Bukhari founded about a decade ago — defended his journalistic integrity and that of other Kashmiri scribes after he was tagged in a video and accused of “biased” reportage on Kashmir. Bukhari’s tweet came in response to one from a Delhi-based TV scribe who had posted a video in which the 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 the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris and that there was no absolute freedom of speech when it comes to faith. Ranganathan, speaking at a 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”.
A consulting editor with “Swarajya” magazine, Ranganathan argued that “when an editor of the publication…has taken this side, quasi-religious side, you are absolutely sure as to (his) coverage” of Kashmir. Bukhari retweeted the video some seven hours before his killing, saying he was proud to be doing what he does 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 the 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 did not agree with your opinion, he would gift you a broad smile, encouraging you to speak your mind. Ever a news-hungry person, he would always greet you with a question — “Kya haz khabar chaa?” — colloquial Kashmiri for “how are you” or, literally, “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 from Kashmir University, he recommended me for quite a few jobs with Delhi-based media outfits and personally spoke with some TV editors in Delhi. A deeply engaging, empathetic professional and a decent human being, Bukhari, a recipient of fellowships from the World Press Institute (WPI) in the US and the Asian Centre for Journalism in Singapore, would always discuss my last story whenever we met. “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 who had braved many attempts on his life. He was, in 1996, abducted by the government-backed militant group Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen 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 had been threatened several times over 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. He 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 lies in his ancestral graveyard in north Kashmir, 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 “unknown gunmen”. Rest in peace, Shujaat. You could have taken your own advice to me seriously: “No story is worth the life of a journalist”.
Sarwar Kashani is IANS bureau chief in New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.