Shujaat Bukhari and the Unflinching Effort to Reason

It is difficult to think of a Srinagar without him.

The news about Shujaat Bukhari is tearing into the hearts of those who knew him, as one of his friends put it on Facebook. There is so much to say about him. First, his tall, vivid presence, always elegantly turned out with a ready smile and a constant willingness to chat. For at least a quarter century, he indulged scores of visitors to Srinagar – journalists, diplomats, academics, students and civil society figures who sought out his views on conflict in Kashmir. In meetings, he would fidget a bit, be distracted with calls, juggle two phones but one could always rely on hearing a measured, incisive assessment of Jammu & Kashmir’s politics, Pakistan’s motivations and Delhi’s outlook towards the valley.

Shujaat had an understated drive and kept himself busy. After a long stint as a highly-regarded reporter covering Kashmir since the early 1990s, he started an English newspaper alongside Urdu and Kashmiri publications and was actively working to extend the use of the Kashmiri language across J&K. He was a public speaker, a regular on TV debates and keenly engaged on social media, although the latter was an unpleasant experience for him in recent years. He had a yearning to learn, he loved to travel and would constantly pick up books when in Delhi – and avidly review many of them. He admired A.G Noorani (constitutional expert and political commentator) deeply and once mentioned that he was impressed that author Salman Rushdie got the names of villages and other details of Kashmir more accurately in his novel Shalimar the Clown – than many contemporary journalists would manage to, in his view.

Shujaat had a great capacity for relationships and glided through social settings with ease. He adored his young son (as one witnessed in the couple of meetings that the latter joined in for), occasionally posted affectionate notes about his parents on social media and maintained a range of friendships in the valley, in Delhi, other parts of India and several countries abroad.

Apart from personable qualities, his body of work is formidable. Starting out with Kashmir Times, where he was influenced by the great editor Ved Bhasin, Shujaat went on to be the Srinagar correspondent for The Hindu in the heyday of the insurgency and was to write extensively for Frontline magazine, contributing longer pieces of reporting and analysis. Taken together, his reports are an archive of conflict alongside the work of a few brilliant peers. This is important as the reporting of contemporary Kashmir is beset with a variety of problems, in part because both militants and the state are both active participants in the shaping of narrative. It is difficult to get a reliable account of the chain of events amid the world of claims, counter-claims, fake encounters, and leaked confessions of militants. Shujaat’s work in the period will, by contrast, serve as a crucial resource for a credible reconstruction and understanding of the conflict as it evolved.

It is perhaps because of working in these publications of record that Shujaat’s writing exercised what Prem Shankar Jha terms as “emotional control”, a deference to the idiom of orderly representation even when the subject matter is wearisome. Shujaat wrote regularly and all his columns are marked by a careful attention to current events and an explication of their meanings. He was, to be sure, indignant about Delhi’s policies and moved by Kashmir’s suffering – in recent times, the Centre’s apathy towards flood victims, the numerous young victims of pellet guns, the rape and murder of an eight year-old child in Kathua and the organised mass defence of the accused and the contested the unpleasant, contrived majoritarianism that has come to mark Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stint in power.

As strongly as Shujaat felt about these, his response to the environment was different from some of his peers. Many Kashmiris are justifiably enraged by what they see in Kashmir. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s policy in the valley has degenerated into a doctrinaire use of violence against civilians that merely serves the purposes of polarising India rather pacify Kashmiris or alleviate their distress . Shujaat was anguished by what he saw but did not let anger slide into cynicism, the sort that provokes a raging silence among some writers, generates a form of analytical purism that hardens their politics or alters their style of expression – all of which foreclose the consideration of forward movement. That form of anger is, to be sure, a legitimate response to repressive measures and Delhi’s policies, but Shujaat chose to keep writing and conversing with a civility that left the space for a contrary point of view. There was no name-calling even when he was subject to hate speech. It is this unflinching effort to reason and the criticism that he directed towards all sides (Delhi and Islamabad) in the search of common ground that left Shujaat vulnerable to criticism by militant leaders, younger radicals in the valley and right-wing charlatans on Twitter who have never really followed or read his work.

We do not, sadly, comprehend the meaning of a presence unless confronted with tragedy. In life, Shujaat was a prominent public figure and one of several bright peers in the world of journalism. Looking back, he was so much more. He was trying to be an institution-builder while conflict raged around him – starting newspapers, reviving Kashmiri language, mentoring the young and so on. Shujaat’s temperament, training and the social world of Baramulla notables that he hailed from seems to have endowed him with the will to resist pessimism and find purpose in a difficult environment. He was, importantly, also trying to interpret two worlds to each other; writing and speaking forcefully for Kashmir in Delhi and making the unpopular case for dialogue in the valley. This wasn’t easy; he was under pressure from all sides – the BJP government in Delhi deprived his papers of advertisements to tame their news coverage while militants made three attempts on his life earlier. He could have retreated to a life of secure conformity, but did not.

It is now apparent that no one can take Shujaat’s place in Kashmir’s public life. Who else is able to navigate different social worlds of print, policy, academia and civil society to speak as he did? His relevance stands in higher relief in the current climate when Delhi’s policies undermine democratic processes and strive to delegitimate a range of interlocutors in Kashmir. For instance, mainstream party politicians who seek restoration of autonomy are overruled and undermined by the Union government in different ways. Separatists are subject to constant vilification and prevented from taking out public protests. Stone-pelting youth are represented as terrorists, even if the dynamics of protests are more complex than analysts let on. As democratic politics gets snuffed out by the militarisation of policy, journalists remain as the figures capable of getting politics back in to Kashmir. In other words, as other institutions fall by the wayside, journalists end up having more power to shape the narrative than they would ordinarily have. And that’s a position and enterprise fraught with risk, it’s prone to be misunderstood and exploited by interests and militants keen on disrupting scope for peace. Those who decided to silence Shujaat may have understood his significance more than others did.

The political implications of his passing will be clear in times ahead. The descent into more acrimony in Kashmir is assured. Policymakers in Delhi must ask themselves that if they do not listen to sensible, clear-headed voices like Shujaat’s, who for  long called for a humane approach that is sensitive to Kashmir’s history and its political aspirations, then who would they rather end up dealing with? If the politics of polarisation endangers analysts searching for common ground, what future, then, of public discourse except fracturing into discrete, radicalised echo chambers?

Shujaat practiced a journalism of hope, he turned a measure of privilege into purpose, retained his sensitivity, worked with the opportunities at hand and showed us that moral courage comes in many forms. It is difficult to think of a Srinagar without him.

Sushil Aaron is a journalist. Twitter: @SushilAaron