Hours before Eid festivities, killers snuffed the life out of prominent Kashmiri journalist Shujaat Bukhari in Srinagar. On two occasions in the past, Shujaat and I had seen death missing us narrowly. Even though he had cultivated a maze of sources, he had the knack of reporting incidents from the ground. His writings were a rare mix of source and ground-based reporting. In the early nineties, after a major incident of killings somewhere in Kupwara district, he invited me to join him to visit the spot. The entire Valley was under strict curfew. Having just learnt driving, he hired a Maruti 800 from a friend and arranged curfew passes.
Almost 60 kms from Srinagar, on the outskirts of Sopore town, near the Agriculture College, an Army contingent led by an officer of the rank of Lt Colonel stopped us. The officer was livid because some hours ago the area had witnessed an encounter, resulting in casualties of his men. He ripped our curfew passes and threw away the identity cards. Next, his men pointed guns and asked us to bend by squatting beneath the one-tonne, low-floored Army vehicle.
Since Shujaat was tall, he could not bend his knees properly under the vehicle. In this situation, where death was staring at us, he continued entertaining me with his wit and sarcasm. He joked about how political parties, government and militant groups would react and issue condemnation and blame each other when our bodies would be discovered in the rice fields.
Just before sunset, we were told to come out from beneath the vehicle. I remember, the officer yelling at us to run for our lives. “This is the deal. We will start firing after 10 minutes. Run and get out of our range,” he had thundered.
We ran through rice fields towards a house at a distance. The door was shut and there was no other option but to climb the wall. This time, Shujaat took advantage of his height, and easily jumped across the wall. I had to try several times before managing to get on the other side. As I landed on the ground, a volley of bullets hit the brick wall, exactly the point I had crossed over. The house owners were scared, thinking that we were militants dodging the Army. Shujaat asked them to show us the way to the village headman’s house. The headman, after much cajoling, took us in.
The next day, we set off for Sopore, crisscrossing through orchards and fields on foot. It took us three days to return to Srinagar. Thanks to the then General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 15th Corps, General Sundararajan Padmanabhan, we could recover the car after a fortnight. Again, death passed us by, two years ago in Delhi. After having dinner at a restaurant in the Nizamuddin area, I was driving to drop him. It was raining, with high-velocity winds pummelling Delhi. Just near India Habitat Centre on Lodhi road, a huge tree fell on the bonnet, which was crushed to a pulp. The windscreen was smashed. We couldn’t believe that we were still alive. After few minutes, a police van arrived and pulled us out of the car.
Many analysts have attributed Shujaat’s tragic end to a track-II conference held in Dubai last year in July. Besides being a journalist, Shujaat was also a peace activist. He had carved a niche in Track-II activities to enable politicians, journalists and civil society representatives across the Line of Control (LoC) to meet and deliberate on issues. I also attended the conference as an observer, which had representation from all political parties from both sides of the LoC. This was no ordinary feat. But it did cause heartburn to a few people in London and Islamabad because they had not been invited to enjoy Dubai. They started a vicious campaign. A screaming headline in a Pakistani newspaper was: ‘Kashmiri blood was sold in an air-conditioned hotel in Dubai’.
The conference didn’t issue any joint statement. At the end of the two-day deliberations, it issued a summary of the proceedings. The common points included, support for a dialogue, silencing the guns along the LoC, taking interim measures, promoting connectivity and garnering support for resumption and sustainability of the peace process between India and Pakistan. There was nothing in the proceedings that called for such a dastardly murder. After a hue and cry, engineered by vested interests, Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahudin, in an interview, termed all who had participated in the conference as ‘paid agents’.
His diatribe was echoed by United Jihad Council and later by the LeT. The leader of the hard-line faction of Hurriyat, former MLA, GN Sumji, said his organisation would probe all those who attended the conference. When we presented ourselves for the probe, he denied having issued any such statement, and blamed the newspapers for distorting facts. When we asked him to issue denial, he switched off his phone. Some people, who had business rivalry with the Rising Kashmir daily, also found an opportune moment to join in.
This campaign, which had stopped after a while last year, resurfaced a month ago, leaving Shujaat scared. Minutes before his death, he called me from Srinagar and advised me to take care as the campaign against us from fake social media accounts was getting shriller. His voice was wobbly, so I asked him to call later in the night to discuss in detail. Barely 20 minutes later, news of his cold-blooded murder started flashing.
Those who had engineered the campaign may not have executed his assassination, but their hands are equally soaked in his blood. There is a case to look into all those IP addresses and their sources and identify people who were a part of this malicious campaign. Looking back at the years we spent together and how we dodged death together, it is heart-rending that Shujaat ultimately left alone. The sun of journalism in Kashmir was forced to set minutes before the rise of the Eid crescent.