Shujaat Bhukhari’s death carries with it the burden of all the human tragedies and ugly brutalities of a conflict
The sight of Shujaat Bukhari’s metal coffin carried by a posse of men, amid the streaming rows of people walking in a procession on the narrow lanes of Kreeri, from his ancestral house to the graveyard brought tears to my eyes. I walked on to find myself crying inconsolably. The news that he had been shot dead the previous evening had left me numb to the core.
My professional association with Shujaat Bukhari goes back to the early 90s when he was working with Kashmir Times. We worked together as a team and gradually turned professional rivals when he started the Rising Kashmir. There’s also been a long association in several of our peace initiatives. Over the past two decades, we have shared many a common causes; and there have been many moments of agreements, differences, disagreements, arguments, expressing solidarity and even taking potshots at each other – warmth and bitterness alternatively punctuating this relationship of mutual respect at both professional and personal level. But why should the passing away of a man, my relationship with whom was marked by many ambiguities and ambivalence, have impacted me in a manner that I felt something inside my heart die or at least irreparably break?
The grief went beyond personal shock and a sense of personal loss, loss for journalistic fraternity and a huge void in the lives of his family. It came with an overwhelming sense of all that his brutal and cold blooded murder signified. The sense of loss was magnified by the way his life ended and the reason it ended for. The unbearable weight of his death is also because it carries with it the burden of all the human tragedies and ugly brutalities of a conflict.
Shujaat Bukhari was killed by three unidentified gunmen who came in broad daylight in a crowded area where incidents of arson since the 2000s have been virtually unknown. He was sitting in his car after leaving his office in the crowded Press Enclave in Residency Road area just before iftaar when they came, pumped a volley of bullets in his body and also shot at his two guards, who also tragically died in the incident. How did the killers manage to shoot him in a crowded area and escape with great ease? Normally any gun shots in a conflict region like Kashmir would catch the attention of the huge security paraphernalia that is usually conspicuously present in the area and invite their prompt action. On any other day, multiple gun shots would have been followed by an immediate cordon and encounter. Patrols and deployment in the area are routine. But the assailants went unnoticed. Some reports reveal that there was delay in shifting Shujaat and his two guards, after they were shot at, to the hospital. All these aspects of the case deserve to be thoroughly investigated. Kashmir has a history of cases of violence and murders that remain mired in mystery and open to multiple theories but no concrete evidence and no way to learn the truth.
After the initial shock, the natural question that comes to the mind is who killed him and why. To answer the first, it is important to answer the latter. It is difficult at this juncture to precisely pinpoint the exact motive of his assassins. There are two plausible reasons for killing him. One is to silence him for the kind of work he was doing. The other is to deflect attention or create an impact enough to sabotage any move for peace initiative even before it began.
Shujaat Bukhari was an important voice from Kashmir because of his journalistic capabilities, his huge body of work on the conflict in Kashmir and his peace initiatives. Much of his comment in his journalistic work also advocated peace and suggested out-of-the-box thinking. He could have been an irritant for hawks. If so, his death is both an attempt to scuttle the freedom of expression and independence of press as well as to oppose his peace efforts.
The import of the second plausible explanation for his killing is even more chilling. Was he a mere pawn in the larger ugly and brutal warfare between the state apparatus and the non-state actors, not to forget the involvement of the neighbouring state across the border? An immanent part of any violent conflict region is that people are just reduced to numbers and mere objects for the warring sides. For a person of Shujaat’s stature to have been reduced to that state of objectification is a thought that is freezing. The timing of his killing was ripe enough for such an eventuality. The heinous murder came at a time when the Non Initiation of Combat Operations unilaterally announced by the central government as part of Ramazan goodwill is running its expiry date and the likelihood of its extension and some peace initiatives were under discussion. The murder also came on a day that the United Nation Human Rights Council released its first ever report on the violence and patterns of impunity in Kashmir, the findings of which are damning and put both India and Pakistan in the dock. There is very little time gap between the release of the report and Shujaat’s murder, which appears to have been well planned and executed with exact precision. Experts, however, opine, that normally such reports are forwarded to concerned governments few days ahead of the release.
The ugly cult of violence is a thriving industry for many. Conflict is a well-oiled machinery for vested interests both among the state and non-state players who go an extra mile to scuttle any feeble signs of initiatives for peace. Both sides are known for their brutal ways of executing their plans.
Who killed him? It is difficult to answer that question but he was definitely killed by enemies of peace and enemies of courageous voices, sane voices and those who think and speak rationally. He has been killed by those who fear the rise of independent and professional media, already caught between immense physical, psychological and financial pressures from all sides in a militarised conflict zone, where a vicious and endless cult of violence is consuming lives like an unstoppable giant.
Who killed him? The answer is not just the three men who pressed the triggers of their guns. There were brains behind the plan. Also culpable of abetment to this killing and many other killings taking place on a daily basis are the people who glamourise and glorify the cult of violence in their foolish bids to bat for military valour or the bravado of the militants and stone pelters. They act as agents of perpetuation of this cycle of violence.
Shujaat is a victim of this cult of violence. How many more people would continue to be sacrificed at its altar? If the aim behind his killing was to sabotage peace, would the government not be playing into the hands of the saboteurs in deciding to back off from a likely peace initiative and an extension of the ongoing ceasefire? These questions will remain unanswered and in most likelihood, going by the history of human rights violations in Kashmir, the truth about Shujaat’s killing may never emerge. We’ll just be left with theories — official theories, conspiracy theories and millions of others.
The other thing that will survive is the ugly ground reality of Kashmir.
On Thursday morning, when the UNHRC report was released, it brought an overwhelming sense of optimism about the possibility of a start of meaningful peace initiatives for resolving Kashmir dispute. By the evening, with newsflash of Shujaat being shot dead, it just seemed like Kashmir had reached the end of a precipice. But that’s Kashmir, for you. This is a conflict zone. People live one moment and die another. They die a million deaths before they enter their graves.