By Iftikhar Gilani
It’s been almost a year since one of Kashmir’s most prominent journalists, Shujaat Bukhari, was assassinated minutes before the rise of the Eid crescent in the heart of Srinagar city. It was expected that, unlike past cases involving high-profile shootings, the police would this time conduct a credible and transparent investigation. After all, his killing not only shocked the state and country but eventually led to the fall of the PDP-BJP government headed by Mehbooba Mufti.
On June 19, 2018, when the BJP withdrew its crutches from the Mehbooba government, party general secretary Ram Madhav cited Shujaat’s killing as one of the reasons for the imposition of governor’s rule. However, a year later, the motives behind the murder are still unclear.
At the funeral last year, even though Shujaat and his family were well connected within the establishment, hardly anybody was confident that law enforcement agencies would be able to conduct a credible investigation. In a familiar sequence of events, a Special Investigation Team (SIT) was assembled by the police, which established that the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) was responsible for Bukhari’s killing.
The militant group, however, denied involvement. Later in November 2018, the police and army killed one of the primary suspects, Naveed Jhat, in a shootout. Now for the police, the case seems to have been closed.
After showing so much concern to the extent of withdrawing support from the PDP, it was expected that the investigation would be taken to some logical conclusion given that the Modi government at the Centre was now directly running the state through the governor. But the big question still remains –whose motives did Shujaat’s killing serve?
The police investigation has created the impression that there is no energy or motivation to unearth the planners and the murderers. There has hardly been any effort to unmask those who engineered a malicious campaign against Shujaat in the run up to his assassination. Some of these individuals are still sitting cosy in world capitals, continuing to write columns and social media posts.
They may not have carried out Bukhari’s assassination, but their hands are equally soaked with his blood. There was cause to look into all those IP addresses and their sources and identify the people who were a part of the malicious campaign. There was a case to involve the country’s Central agencies and even take the help of Interpol to find the culprits.
Naveed Jhat may be dead but there are a number of unanswered questions: How did three militants armed with assault rifles manage to go undetected in the busy Lal Chowk area, which was bubbling with Eid festivities? Who owned the motorcycle? How is it that police security cameras and CCTVs had either been moved or were not functional? The police itself arrived at the scene after more than 20 minutes. Who was the person seen in footage recorded by onlookers stealing the pistol of Shujaat’s bodyguard? We never heard anything about the man – despite watching him on TV channels and being told at the time that he had been declared a suspect.
It seems that investigations into Shujaat’s assassination are going the same way as the other cases of killings of journalists in J&K over the past three decades. Even in cases where the police were sure about the involvement of militants, they showed little spine to probe or to unveil a full conspiracy. Like the 1991 murder of Al-Safa editor Mohammad Shaban Vakil, there is a long list of such killings and attacks, which have remained a mystery.
Zafar Iqbal, now with NDTV, survived an attack a decade ago. It is a miracle that he is now leading a normal life. Bullets went through his nose but missed the nervous system. Parvaz Sultan, editor of a local news agency, was gunned down in his office in 2003.
Yusuf Jameel, one of the pillars of Kashmir journalism, survived an attack, but his photographer Mushtaq Ali died. A burqa-clad woman dropped a parcelled ‘gift’ for him in his office. Mushtaq Ali opened the parcel, which exploded and killed him on the spot. All these cases have been buried deep in the files. In the case of Jameel, it is believed that the police had identified the alleged killer, but never interrogated him. In fact, he was kicked up the political ladder and eventually occupied a seat in the Legislative Council.
Minutes before his death, Shujaat had called to advise me not to visit Srinagar on Eid, as the campaign against us from fake social media accounts was getting shriller. He had advised me not to celebrate Eid in Kashmir. But against his advice, I had no choice but to take an early morning flight to Srinagar the day before Eid – not to celebrate, but to attend the Sham-i-Ghariban, to join thousands who had turned out in the pouring rain at his funeral at his ancestral village of Kreeri just 40 kilometres from Srinagar.
Social media can and does take on a threatening dimension everywhere, but in conflict zones it can be deadly. It can be used to build a narrative against you. Character assassination, fake news, politically organised online slander campaigns — these are weapons of intimidation in play and can actually be a cue to assassins. A Delhi-based social media activist had alleged that Shujaat’s newspaper was playing to the “ISI script”. Another hate article portrayed him as working for Indian agencies. This kind of slander was a clear invitation for unscrupulous elements on either side to fix him, either as an end in itself or to pin the blame and thus discredit the other side.
Looking back at the years we spent together and how we dodged death together, Shujaat had a knack of keeping cool and generating humour even in the most difficult of circumstances. In the early ’90s, after a major incident of killings somewhere in Kupwara district, he had invited me to join him to visit the spot. The entire Valley was under a 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 our 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. 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 at 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 to avoid the security forces and militants. It took us three days to return to Srinagar.
It took a fortnight but thanks to the then General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 15th Corps, General Sundararajan Padmanabhan, we were able to recover the car.
In another instance, Shujaat along with another group of journalists was taken hostage in South Kashmir by a pro-government militant outfit called Ikhwan. They segregated and locked five of them including Shujaat in a room. The self-styled commander issued directions in their presence that he wanted five lives to be converted into lifeless bodies by tomorrow.
Shujaat’s presence of mind led him to the discovery of a landline telephone in an almirah. He informed the Kashmir Times bureau office in Srinagar and also the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) office in New York, who issued an immediate alert. By evening the army had raided the place and rescued them.
It is heart-rending that Shujaat’s time eventually came. The sun of journalism in Kashmir was forced to set minutes before the rise of the Eid crescent.
The article was first published on The Wire.