Since the fateful evening when I heard that Shujaat Bukhari, my friend and colleague for the past 26 years, had been assassinated in Srinagar while going home to break his Ramzan fast with his family, I have often wondered who his assassins could have been, and what could have been going through their minds as they sat on their motorcycle waiting for him to emerge from his office. Were they simply semi-educated youth with no future in civilian life, brainwashed into believing that Shujaat was a traitor to Kashmir who was taking money from the state and Central governments to undermine the fight for freedom? Or were they mercenaries who were lining their pockets and soothing their consciences by pretending that they were doing Allah’s work?
Till today, more than a month after his death, there is no answer. Speculation still is rife. The majority view is that Shujaat’s murder was the outcome of the radicalisation and Islamisation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has unleashed upon the Valley. Writing in Firstpost, Khalid Shah concluded that “the situation in the state has slipped from contemporary timelines and is back to the 1990s now”. In the Washington Post, Barkha Dutt echoed this: “Kashmir is sliding into a black hole of possibly no return.”
But Shujaat’s assassination was not a by-product of the tidal wave of anger created by the Modi government’s relentless use of brute force to crush Kashmiri separatism. It was the most cold-blooded and meticulously planned assassination in recent years, on par with those of Mirwaiz Maulvi Farouq in 1990 and Abdul Ghani Lone in 2002.
And it was, beyond a shadow of doubt, instigated by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Four video cameras caught the assassins riding on their motorbike before and after the assassination. But not one caught them loitering for 45 minutes as they waited for Shujaat to emerge from his office because they had chosen the only ten-metre stretch of road that was not covered by any of the CCTV cameras scanning this high security area. Only inside information, possibly from within the police, could have made them choose that precise spot.
Weapon of choice
For the ISI, assassination has been a weapon of choice not only in Kashmir, but much more so in Pakistan itself. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, nearly 10,000 people have gone missing in the country since 2001, with nearly 3,000 still unaccounted for. In 2016 alone, there were 728 disappearances.
Journalists have figured prominently on the ISI’s hit list, two of the most celebrated being Hamid Mir, the host of Geo TV’s ‘Capital Talk’, and Shahzad Saleem, the former bureau chief of Asia Times (online). Mir miraculously survived six bullets in his stomach because, knowing that an ISI car was following him, he drove straight to a hospital to seek shelter there, and was shot at its doorstep. Saleem was tortured and killed ten days after the publication of his book detailing links between the ISI, various rogue officers of the Pakistan army and terrorist organisations like the Tehrik-e-Taliban-i-Pakistan (TTP). In the same year, 12 other Pakistani journalists met a similar fate, though perhaps not all at the hands of the ISI.
In Kashmir, the ISI has a 28-year record of killing any leader who has shown willingness to negotiate peace with the Indian government. The list of its victims begins with Mirwaiz Maulvi Farouq, the father of Mirwaiz Umar Farouq, on May 21, 1990, and the elimination of all the six other Kashmiri leaders with whom George Fernandes had held secret talks in the first few months of that year. It stretches through Qazi Nissar, the leader of the Muslim United Front, in 1993; professor Abdul Ghani Butt’s brother in 1996; Abdul Majid Dar, the area commander of the Lashkar-e-Tayabba, who declared a unilateral ceasefire, in July 2,000; Abdul Ghani Lone, who had decided to take the Hurriyat into the 2002 elections, on May 21, 2002; Mir Mushtaq, the uncle of Mirwaiz Umar Farouq, in 2006; and the failed assassination of Fazal Qureshi, the senior most member of the Hurriyat (M)’s executive council in 2007 only weeks after he formally announced its acceptance of the Manmohan Singh-Pervez Musharraf four-point formula for settling the Kashmir dispute.
ISI’s ambition to wrest Kashmir from India had dwindled during the years of peace and reconciliation that had followed Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s historic 2004 meeting with Musharraf. They dwindled further when, in 2012, the Pakistan army command officially revised its threat perception and stated that this lay mainly to its west and not its east .
Its ambitions were revived when the surreptitious hanging of Afzal Guru by Delhi in February 2013 caused a spike in the number of young men joining the armed militancy, just as the hanging of Maqbool Butt had done in 1986.
But it was Modi’s policies, of humiliating the Hurriyat, spurning Nawaz Sharif’s overtures for peace, destroying the Peoples Democratic Party by entering into an alliance with it that it had no intention of respecting, ignoring and trivialising the remaining mainstream parties in the Valley, putting ever moderate nationalist leader in Kashmir – from Mirwaiz Umar Farouq, Yasin Malik and Ali Shah Geelani, to Shabbir Shah, Naeem Khan and Shahid-ul-slam – into jail or under house arrest, and adopting a “ten for one” policy of retaliation for firing across the Line of Control that claimed the better part of 832 civilian lives in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir that sent the ISI and the Pakistan army onto a full offensive in Kashmir.
The ISI concluded that its chance had finally come when his government began to gun down Kashmiri youth, branding them all as “terrorists”, often without giving them a chance to surrender and then boasting about its ‘kills’ to the national press. This had the opposite of the desired effect because from a mere 16 in 2013, the number of young men who joined the militancy in south Kashmir rose to 126 in 2017. More disturbing still, data collected by the Kashmir police showed that most of new recruits are coming from the villages where “encounters” had taken place, and that the maximum recruitment was taking place after the funerals of slain ‘terrorists’.
From the ISI’s point of view, therefore, the Modi government was a gift from heaven. The very last thing it wanted was for anything to impede India’s accelerating descent into self-destruction in Kashmir. Asad Durrani, a former director general of the ISI and convinced “peacenik”, summed this up at a recent book launch in Delhi. When asked what the ISI would do next, he said, “Nothing. You have done everything it wanted.”
The one obstacle that remained was the ordinary Kashmiris’ aversion to Pakistan and the overwhelming desire for peace. A Chatham House survey carried out as recently as in 2009 had shown that even in the four most estranged districts of Kashmir valley, only 2.5 to 7.5% of the respondents had said that they wished to be a part of Pakistan. This was changing thanks to Modi, but the last thing the ISI wanted was the sudden emergence of a civil society movement in Kashmir that would give a voice and direction to this inchoate desire for peace.
That emergence took place in 2015 and Shujaat was one of its principal architects. That year, he and Ershad Masood, an academic and journalist based in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, set up a Kashmir Initiative Group, whose stated purpose was to take the now stalled dialogue on peace to civil society. The group started working in a small way by organising a tour of PoK by ten journalists from Jammu and Kashmir, and held meetings in the two parts of Kashmir. It gained strength when it obtained the financial backing of Conciliation Resources, an international NGO with impeccable credentials.
The group’s work gained importance, however, when even after Burhan Wani’s death had shut down the Valley for four months, Delhi refused to change its one track policy of repression by even a jot. But it became a threat to the ISI’s plans only after it organised a large conference in Dubai on July 31 last year. The two-day meeting was attended by 28 people belonging to political parties in both parts of Kashmir and national parties in India and Pakistan, including the BJP, and a number of eminent observers who included two former director generals of the ISI – Durrani and Ehsan-ul Haq – and Air Vice-Marshal Kapil Kak.
The Dubai meeting turned out to be a roaring success. Despite disagreements on many issues, the conference arrived at a strong consensus on several key points. These were: the need for both the Indian and Pakistani governments to make human security their paramount concern and therefore declare an immediate and complete ceasefire on the LoC and take strong measures against extremism in all its forms in both parts of Kashmir; to encourage their respective governments to re-engage in a political dialogue, in consultation with Kashmiri groups; and for these groups to keep talking to each other despite their differences, to explore creative proposals that did not involve an immediate shift in their stated positions. Lastly, the conference was unanimous that civil society in Kashmir, as well as in India and Pakistan, had an important role to play in creating an atmosphere conducive to dialogue.
Had this conference taken place during former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s rule, both governments might have welcomed the initiative. But in August 2017, the quality and eminence of the participants, and the sheer breadth of consensus, came as a rude shock to the Pakistan army and the ISI because it threatened not only to derail its plans in Kashmir but perhaps more importantly its use of the threat from Modi’s India to restore a creeping military rule within Pakistan.
The attempt to do so began with the leaking of an open quarrel at a national security meeting in October 2016 between Nawaz Sharif and key members of his cabinet and the army chief, over the latter’s refusal to reign in the Lashkar-e-Tayabba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, and the Haqqani network, to Pakistan’s premier newspaper Dawn. Since then, with the help of a quiescent judiciary, the army has succeeded in ousting, charging and now jailing Nawaz Sharif and members of his family, placing an exit ban on the journalist who wrote the story for Dawn, and now placing a similar ban on General Asad Durrani for having taken part in the book launch in Delhi. Modi’s continuing his policy of killing Kashmiri militants has therefore become a necessity for the Pakistan army’s continued seizure of power in the country.
This is what turned the Kashmir Initiative Group into a target for the ISI. Shujaat Bukhari had always been an outspoken champion of peace. His entire career in journalism had been built on the conviction that negotiations based upon misconceptions were doomed to fail. Only truth and honesty in reporting what was happening on the ground could create the essential bedrock upon which the edifice of peace could be constructed. When the Modi government abruptly closed all doors to dialogue with Hurriyat in Kashmir, by force of circumstance, he and his newspaper became the ISI’s targets.
The ISI might even then have done nothing if it had believed that Modi would return to power in 2019. But the growing unity of the opposition, the succession of bye-election defeats suffered by the BJP, and the coming together of the Congress and JD(s) in Karnataka have made its return less and less likely. This may have been the final straw that made it take the decision to crush any possible revival of dialogue in Kashmir, by killing its current principal icon of peace.
Shujaat is not, however, the only ‘peacenik’ that the ISI might attack in coming months. In the months after the Dubai conference, two Kashmiris who head NGOs that had not been invited to the conference – Nazir Gilani and Athar Masood Wani, a former adviser to the prime minister of PoK – condemned the conference as a “sell out” for not insisting on the right to self-determination on the basis of UN resolutions. Pakistan based Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin also described the participants in the conference as being on the payroll of India. In Pakistan, the attack upon it became so shrill that one paper headlined it as “Kashmir Blood Was Sold in the Air Conditioned Halls of Dubai”.
In Srinagar, this theme was picked up by the Kashmir Reader, and Hurriyat (Gilani) general secretary general Ghulam Nabi Sumji, but later rejected by Gilani. Shujaat began to receive warnings that he and two other participants in the conference were on the hit list of the ISI.
The campaign ended abruptly in October after Ershad Masood and a colleague met Salahuddin in Islamabad. Salahuddin denied playing any part in the campaign against the conference, said that he had initially been misinformed about its proceedings, and assured Masood that he was not so mean as to order the killing of a journalist.
However it revived again, abruptly in April, two months before his assassination, with virulent attacks on the participants in the conference and specific threats to the lives of Shujaat and two or three others who attended it. Shujaat took these threats very seriously, went to the Kashmir police and gave them the names of the principal attackers. For the record, they were Nazir Gilani in London, Sheikh Tajamul Islam, Abdullah Geelani, Raees Mir, Aslam Mir, and Athar Masood Wani in Islamabad and Muzaffarabad, and Iftikhar Rajput in Brussels.
It is difficult not to link this revival of threats to the declining fortune of the BJP in India. Suffice it so say that Shujaat took the attack on the internet very seriously and lived in fear of his life. Two days before he was killed he had confided to a friend in his office, “I have young children, I don’t want to die”.
Hours after Shujaat died, one of his young reporters told me in a voice choked with grief, “Sir, we have lost everything, everything!”
But he and his colleagues had not lost everything. On the contrary, they had kept the one thing Shujaat had given them – raw courage. So, after accompanying Shujaat’s body to the hospital and giving their accounts to the police, his staff came back to the office not only to bring out the paper, but fill the front page with his picture and words that will be graven on every Kashmiri heart: “We won’t be cowed down by the cowards who snatched you from us. We will uphold your principle of telling the truth howsoever unpleasant it may be…” And in a magnificent act of defiance, they carried links on the editorial page to every recent article Shujaat had written.
The message they sent was unambiguous: terrorists, and their puppet masters, could kill a man but not the ideals he embodied. The next day, between 60,000 and 200,000 mourners who attended his funeral at Kreeri, his home village 23 km from Srinagar, drove the same message home to their fellow Kashmiris, to Pakistan, and the world. Burhan Wani and Sabzar Bhatt were not the only people who could make lakhs of Kashmiris grieve for them. Those who fought and gave their lives for peace, for a future in which ordinary Kashmiris could plan and dream without fear, could do so too.
Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and author of several books.