Killing the Messenger in Kashmir

Lately, he had also been active in international forums, talking about Kashmir and bringing “unwanted” attention on its myriad complexities, tragedies and everyday humiliations that his people suffered.
Killing the Messenger in Kashmir
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I never had the pleasure of meeting Shujaat Bukhari, the soft spoken editor of Rising Kashmir with a steely spine who was assassinated recently.  But we remained in touch over the years. He often shared his amazing articles and I told myself here was another reason I must visit my beloved Kashmir once again.  It never happened. Earlier this month, he had shared pictures of his participation in the 'Global Editors Network' meet in Lisbon, Portugal.  He looked dapper and young for a 50-year old!   

Before he launched 'Rising Kashmir' and soon carved a distinct niche for the paper, Shujaat had been known for his in-depth, fearless reporting from the troubled Himalayan state for The Hindu. And that is how I got to know him and his fantastic work.  

Beginning our journalistic careers around the same time, we also shared an enduring passion for poetry and literature.  He had been associated with a literary group in the state and often shared its activities on social media. However, people condemned to live in a war zone like Kashmir are not perhaps supposed to write poetry and sing of love and peace.  He did not just dream of peace with wide, open eyes, he had the audacity to speak truth to power even under the shadow of gun.   Shujaat did not shy away from shining the light on the tragic, everyday realities of Jammu and Kashmir even though his brother was a minister in the opportunistic coalition government of the PDP-BJP.  

His biggest crime was offering hope, reason and championing dialogue in a land where these words only evoke cynical derision. In the words of Prof Apoorvanand, "Shujaat Bukhari did not believe in striking a balance or following the middle path. He supported peace. He was against violence. That is why he was always criticising the state violence or the excesses by the army. But he never wanted to let go of the slightest possibility for peace. For him, people's lives were important. Bukhari never believed that any great objective can be fulfilled at the cost of human life."

That is perhaps why he had to be silenced.  It would be fair to argue that Shujaat had been sympathetic to the cause of a free Kashmir, as most Kashmiris today are.  Yet he was a passionate believer and champion of dialogue and a peaceful resolution of the issue with India – and Pakistan.  

Then who killed Shujaat and why? We may never know the answer to the question. Just as the assassinations of so many prominent Kashmiris including Mirwaiz Farooq and Hurriyat leader Abdul Ghani Lone and others remain permanent mysteries. As Manoj Joshi notes in The Wire, like Shujaat, these leaders did not support the Indian government but they had been in favour of peace and harmony and called for dialogue with separatists and militants.  

In Shujaat's own words, in a place like Kashmir everything ends up being a mystery.  Lately, he had also been active in international forums, talking about Kashmir and bringing "unwanted" attention on its myriad complexities, tragedies and everyday humiliations that his people suffered.  

Did Shujaat pay the ultimate price for speaking truth? After all, he had already escaped an assassination bid in 2006 and had been abducted both by militants and hired guns loyal to the government and intelligence agencies called 'Ikhwan'.   

So, as Joshi suggests, the role of the deep, invisible state in the killing cannot be ruled out. Just as had been the case with the murders of Dr Abdul Ahad Guru and Dr Farooq Ashai.

Shujaat was gunned down a day before Eid and minutes before Iftar on the last day of the holy month of Ramadan.   He was killed the day an extraordinary report by the United Nations was released, slamming the Indian government and security forces for massive human rights abuses in Kashmir. Shujaat's Rising Kashmir, among other dailies from the state, extensively reported the damning findings and observations.  "Indian security forces used excessive force that led to unlawful killings and a very high number of injuries," the first-ever human rights report on Kashmir said.  

"Impunity for human rights violations and lack of access to justice are key human rights challenges in the state of Jammu and Kashmir," the UN said, noting that the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act 1990 (AFSPA) and the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act 1978 (PSA) have "created structures that obstruct the normal course of law, impede accountability and jeopardize the right to remedy for victims of human rights violations."

"The AFSPA prohibits prosecution of security forces personnel unless the Indian Government grants prior permission to prosecute. This gives security forces virtual immunity against prosecution for any human rights violation. In the nearly 28 years that the law has been in force in Jammu and Kashmir there has not been a single prosecution of armed forces personnel granted by the central government".

Releasing the findings of the UN human rights report, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said: "The political dimensions of the dispute between India and Pakistan have long been centre-stage, but this is not a conflict frozen in time. It is a conflict that has robbed millions of their basic human rights, and continues to this day to inflict untold suffering. This is why any resolution of the political situation in Kashmir must entail a commitment to end the cycles of violence and ensure accountability for past and current violations and abuses by all parties, and provide redress for victims." 

Predictably, New Delhi has been quick to reject the UN report as an attempt to "legitimise terrorism."  "It should be a matter of deep concern for the (UN Human Rights) Council that this report undermines the UN-led consensus on terrorism and in fact, legitimises terrorism by referring to the UN designated terrorist entities as "armed groups" and calling terrorists "leaders", Rajiv K Chander, India's Permanent Representative in UN (Geneva) said. 

Clearly, the more things change in Kashmir, the more they remain the same.  

But with the killing of intellectuals like Shujaat Bukhari, the last few remaining voices of sanity and reason in Kashmir are falling silent.  Shujaat was not only a true friend and well-wisher of Kashmir and Kashmiris and a strong critic of killings and human rights abuses, he was also a votary of peace, dialogue and reconciliation.  

Who would benefit from his death? Your guess is as good as mine.  Clearly, this killing, as has been the case with thousands of others in the Valley, is only a part of the greater, never-ending complex tragedy that is Kashmir.   

And it takes immense courage and real guts to speak truth to power in a troubled, forever condemned land with so many stakeholders and competing special interests.  Which is what Shujaat did.  Day after day.   

The mission of Shujaat Bukhari and hundreds of fearless scribes like him who put their lives on the line every day to do their job and report truth will live on. 

You cannot kill the message by killing the messenger.

Those who believe in freedom and in Faiz's fiery anthem 'bol ke lab azad hain tere' will continue to speak and challenge the gathering darkness of tyranny and intolerance.  People like Shujaat Bukhari never die.  Wherever they are, they touch and transform lives to make the world a better place. Shujaat's legacy will live long after him.

(Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award-winning journalist and a former Khaleej Times Editor. Find him on Twitter.com/@aijazzakasyed)

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