Kasauli: Thursday, June 14, 2018 evening time. My wife and I, after my local lecture engagement, were sitting in a gazebo at the Club relishing the ambience when a friend called to convey some devastating and benumbing news. My dear friend, Shujaat Bukhari, had just then been shot dead, along with his two personal security officials, by unknown assailants outside his Rising Kashmir office in Srinagar. Dumbfounded, all I could feel was the Shimla Hills swirling around dervish style and the scenery collapsing.
The day after, I stood in silent prayer at Shujaat’s quiet final resting place under a berry tree in his ancestral village, Kreeri (40 km from Srinagar), and buried a piece of my heart there.
The whole country mourned Shujaat’s passing, and paid tributes to his rare voice of sanity and reason from conflict-ridden Jammu and Kashmir, articulated through the balanced and objective Rising Kashmir, of which he was the founder and editor-in-chief. Kashmir had indeed been tragically robbed of a rare jewel.
Shujaat had a many-splendoured persona: an independent-minded, warm-hearted and iconic journalist deeply immersed in Kashmir’s cultural ethos, who passionately espoused an end to violence and ushering in of peace for its long-suffering people. A gifted speaker, he made an impression at public events given his command over English, Urdu and Kashmiri—a big advantage for a journalist and prominent civil society leader.
The story goes that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg asked Satya Nadella (of Microsoft) on the most critical attribute for success in business. The latter replied, “Empathy”. Shujaat was empathetic to the core; friends recall plentiful instances where he went out of his way to reach out to the needy, invariably without being asked. During the 2014 devastating deluge in the Valley, he rowed hired inflatable boats himself to rescue the stranded and provide succour to the needy. This was nobility at its best.
Oodles of journalistic brilliance
Shujaat had oodles of journalistic brilliance, imagination and creativity. Perhaps his initial professional internship with Ved Bhasin, the doyen of fearless journalism at Kashmir Times, followed by a 15-year long tenure as a reporter and later special correspondent at the liberal national daily The Hindu helped hone his sensibilities centred on inclusive, secular and humanist meta-narratives. For both newspaper groups, Shujaat would always be family.
In Kashmir’s conflict terrain of ‘with us’ or ‘against us’ binary, Shujaat faced a tough dilemma. Leveraging his unbeatable networking skills, he would be equally at ease with a multitude of actors whether the army, police, civil service, academia, NGOs as also political leadership of all hues. He would soak in their perspectives to reduce gaps in understanding and go on to write the most objective and lucid editorials.
What was Shujaat’s inner calling? For one, he was painfully concerned at the overwhelming sense of the suffering of Kashmiris, especially the youth, during three decades of conflict, determined to pursue ideas and processes to end violence and help bring in peace to end their ‘nihilistic despair.’ As a consequence, he readily embraced Track II processes for peace-building within J&K as also across LoC, and most of all the New Delhi-Islamabad and New Delhi-Srinagar tracks.
He was rightly convinced that improved India-Pakistan relations as during 2003-2008 would provide the needed energy for a peaceful resolution of the J&K issue. We were together in most civil society conversations and I can state with justifiable pride that Shujaat always served as a truthful and unbiased voice of Kashmir. Fearless and imbued with rare courage to live up to his Arabic-origin name, he could never be intimidated by pressures and nudges to toe the official line. His stock response rings loud, ‘’in Kashmir, we have done journalism with pride and will continue to highlight what happens on ground.”
Unarguably, Shujaat saw the power of dialogue as a panacea for resolving the Kashmir issue—a compulsion the ruling dispensations have refused to clasp for over a decade. He fervently backed the 2018 May-June Ramzan ceasefire (during which period there was only one civilian death and things substantially cooled down) and wanted it extended. But the Centre had alternative plans of melting down the elected coalition government and imposing Governor’s/President’s rule indefinitely. The series of stab-in-the-soul Central provisions on August 5, 2019, followed by the introduction of a new domicile law would have shaken even a compulsive optimist like Shujaat who’d ever hope for a Black Swan transformational moment. The current denuded political identity of J&K gives a hollow ring to Mahjoor’s spring-poem line Atal Bihari Vajpayee so evocatively recited in 2003:
Walo ha bagwano’ navi Baharuk shaan paeda kar
(Come ye gardener, let us create the magnificence of a new spring)
Shujaat had an abiding conviction on building bridges between Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh and remained engaged with a multitude of people across ethno-geographies to seek the common cause of peace. Relatedly, every instance of warmth between the Valley’s majority community and the Pandits brought immense joy to him. Shujaat is one of only three public figures—the other two being Omar Abdullah and the journalist Gowhar Geelani—who did an unambiguous mea culpa and squarely blamed their community for not doing enough to prevent the epochal exodus of Kashmiri Pandits in the 1990s. It needs to be underscored that a common heritage, folklore, cuisine, music, language and myriad impulses bond the two communities together even as religious extremism of all denominations continues to be their common enemy.
To conclude, over the last two years Shujaat’s family and thousands of his friends within and outside India have shed many a tear and yet equally celebrated his young life lived so beautifully with faith, hope and love. I was singularly privileged to have been bestowed with his deep affection, special consideration and generosity of spirit. Mine is one of the lives like thousands more he touched, and he will live in our hearts and minds forever. The 2,500 years old words of the Greek statesman, Pericles resonate so much with Shujaat Bukhari:
What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments
But what is woven into the lives of others you touched…
Air Vice Marshal (Retd) Kapil Kak is part of the Track II process in Jammu and Kashmir.