Interview

Shujaat Bukhari and the journalist in Kashmir

By The Editors

17 July 2018

The changing landscape of Kashmiri press and politics.
Photo: Syed Shujaat Bukhari / Facebook

Photo: Syed Shujaat Bukhari / Facebook

On 14 June 2018, Kashmiri journalist and editor of Rising Kashmir Shujaat Bukhari was mowed down in a hail of bullets in Srinagar’s Press Enclave area. The execution-style killing of Bukhari in broad daylight, from which the killers seem to have escaped easily, has left a void in Kashmiri journalism and a lot of questions unanswered. It is difficult to know who was responsible, but clearer to assess who is taking advantage of the situation. The aftermath has left journalists fearful yet determined, but Kashmiris fear the grim event presages a period of increased violence and repression. Himal Southasian interviewed senior journalist and executive editor of Kashmir Times Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal on her recollections of Bukhari and her assessment of the situation.

Himal Southasian: Shujaat Bukhari was a fellow journalist of many years – what is your personal recollection of him as a colleague and a professional, his contribution to the profession and the larger causes he was espousing?

Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal: My professional association with Shujaat Bukhari goes back to early 1992 or 1993, when he was working with Kashmir Times, where he started his career. He was hard working, and for a couple of years we worked together as a team. He parted ways with Kashmir Times in the beginning of the next decade when he got a job with the Hindu but the association remained, primarily because of my father Ved Bhasin [founding editor of Kashmir Times] who remained our common professional guru. Even when he turned into a professional rival, when he started his own newspaper Rising Kashmir in 2008, the space for mutual respect and association, at both the personal and professional levels, remained intact.

As a young professional he was hard working and showed steely determination to deal with extreme pressures but at that juncture wasn’t too great at taking responsibilities. There were arguments and sometimes tiffs over trivial day to day issues in the newsroom. I usually operated from Jammu, (though some months from Srinagar), and Shujaat from the Srinagar bureau  but the 300 kilometre distance often kept the daily tensions and connections alive.

From the beginning of the 1990s to 2018, I saw him grow – professionally and in stature. I must say I did not completely agree with his style of working, but there was much that was admirable about Shujaat – his ability to maintain contacts and sources, his ability to quarry information and, above all, the remarkable efficiency he showed in building up an institution with three newspapers,  and maintaining a certain professional standard. Today, even as a professional rival and despite my differences with some of the policies of Rising Kashmir, I think it is extremely important to keep that institution alive.

Shujaat was ambitious and loved all that attention. But that was not the sole reason he was involved in several peace initiatives. He passionately believed that this was the right thing to do. Though he was involved in the Track II process, we were also associated through several civil- society initiatives and remained on the same page with respect to human rights, easing militarisation, and initiating simultaneous dialogues with Kashmiris and interlocutors from Pakistan.

In our association spanning over two decades we have shared many a common cause; and there have been many moments of agreements, also of differences and disagreements. There was warmth and sometimes a bit of bitterness, but by and large a relationship of mutual respect both professional and personal.

Quite recently, he had discovered we were of the same age, though I was senior in the profession. He joked, “And all this time, my extra respect was because I thought you were senior in age too.”

HSA: Over the decades of your professional life as a journalist you have seen many colleagues lose their lives in Kashmir. But the brutal murder of Bukhari seems to mark a new low. Do you think the situation for journalists in Kashmir has worsened significantly?

ABJ: Indeed, Shujaat’s death has been much more shocking. It is horrifying for a number of reasons. He was killed by three unidentified gunmen who came in broad daylight in a crowded area where incidents of arson since the 2000s have been virtually unknown. How did the killers manage to shoot him in a crowded area and escape with great ease? Normally, any gunshot in a conflict region like Kashmir would catch the attention of the huge security paraphernalia that is usually conspicuously present in the area and invite their prompt action. On any other day, multiple gun shots would have been followed by an immediate cordon and encounter. Patrols and deployment in the area are routine. But the assailants went unnoticed.

There is also the brutal manner in which he was killed. According to different versions, 25 to 40 bullets were pumped into his body and that he was lying face down in his car with no help for sometime is shocking. That a person of his stature could be left in that state enhances the fears and anxieties of many journalists and human rights activists.

Then there is the speculation as to why he was killed. Was he killed for his journalism or for his peace activism? In both spheres he was talking about peace and human rights and constantly speaking truth to power. There are some reports that he was under threat. The police has linked his death to the threats made to him after a Dubai Track II meeting last year, from the United Jehad Council and a blog which mentions some other names. This is all unverified. His work involved speaking out in the efforts for peace. We can so far only conclude with surety that his killing was aimed to silence voices and hamper any efforts for peace.

Journalism in Kashmir has been a walk on the razor’s edge for professionals in the last three decades. But the sense of fear and vulnerability is now far more pronounced. It is difficult to say at this juncture whether it will make a long lasting impact, but, as of now, it has restricted the movement of journalists who are now shirking from venturing out. These days, it is rare to find journalists at the usual cafes and restaurants along Residency Road or loitering about in Press Enclave where Shujaat was killed. They talk about excessive family pressures to quit their jobs. The coming weeks and months are crucial and will decide whether this phenomenon would be short-lived or not.

HSA: It is perhaps impossible to identify those behind Bukhari’s murder with any degree of certainty at this point in time. But it seems clear that the assassination is a setback to peace efforts. How would you assess the impact – both the intended consequence and the unintended consequences?

ABJ: The intended consequence was definitely sabotaging peace. There is a history of cases in Kashmir which remained mired in mystery since 1990 because there have been no proper investigations. Shujaat’s killing has been a huge setback to peace efforts. He was one of the few civil-society activists at the forefront of efforts to create the space for dialogue. Also, his death has been wrongly used as a pretext to hurriedly end the Ramazan ceasefire that the Centre [the Government of India] launched in mid-May. This is an irony. If his killing was aimed at sabotaging peace efforts, has the Indian government not played into the hands of these very saboteurs?

HSA:  As India heads towards the 2019 general elections, do you think polarisation over Kashmir will play a role in the electoral calculations?

ABJ: A more belligerent stand on Kashmir and the hot-pursuit military policy, which is senseless and counterproductive, is aimed at yielding political dividends. The Bharatiya Janata party(BJP) hopes to consolidate its Hindutva vote bank by vilifying Kashmiris and celebrating military bravado. This has been a consistent campaign since BJP came to power in 2014. Gradually, the subtlety of such methods has been shed and the moves have become more jarring. A pliable electronic media is being used, and most of the news channels are reserving some space in prime time for negative projection of Kashmiris on a daily basis and manufacturing consent (as Chomsky said) against them and for justification of more repressive actions against them.

HSA: Many pointed to the fact that Bukhari’s last social media interaction was about the UN’s first report on human rights in Kashmir.  What is your assessment of the report and the Indian government’s response to it?

ABJ: The report is very much in sync with the everyday reality of Kashmir. It is significant because it is for the first time that the UN has come out with an open acknowledgement of the existence and deepening scale of human-rights abuse in Kashmir, even though the UN is a toothless body. The report is marred by the inability of the UN to have direct access to the Kashmir Valley, and so it relies on existing human-rights reports, media reports and official documents already in the public domain. But the more vital question is who stopped the UN from visiting Kashmir? For years, the Indian government stalled UN moves to send their own teams to the Valley.

The Indian government’s response to the report was knee-jerk and hinged on emphatic denial. Within hours of its release, the Indian government tried to debunk the report and described it as “fallacious, tendentious and motivated”. It described the findings as biased. The strong reaction is misplaced because the excesses and human-rights violations mentioned in the UN report are already well documented and have so far only invited the Indian government’s snub or abject silence. The Indian reaction to the new report may have carried some weight had it coupled its dismissal with a clear acknowledgement of the wrongs perpetrated by its security agencies operating in Kashmir, and by implementing its own mechanisms of justice by fairly investigating all alleged violations by the security forces. Had it shown the nerve and steel to prosecute the soldiers found responsible for human-rights abuse instead of rewarding abusive soldiers, its rejection of the UN report may have not sounded so unreasonable. But given the ground situation, where human rights excesses in the last two years, particularly the blatant use of pellet guns that have maimed, blinded, even killed, civilians, have pushed the Kashmiris to the wall, inspiring an entire generation to fight a mighty security apparatus of the country with guns and stones in hands, this dismissal of the UN report  amounts to shooting the messenger.

HSA: How do you see the emergence and growth of social media and new media platforms in the region?

ABJ: Kashmir’s conflict has produced, on the one hand, a generation of tormented youngsters and on the other, immense talent. Youngsters in Kashmir are coming out with innovative social-media platforms and using it to showcase the multiple ways in which they can articulate their views about the conflict. Singers, poets, writers, intellectuals and artists are using social media in a big way to reach out to an audience inside and outside Kashmir. Some very good journalism is also being produced. There are brilliant web mags like Kashmir Walla and Wande. But there is always another side to the story. Like elsewhere in the world, social media is also being used to spread fake news, rumours, etc.

Another aspect of social media is that people are under excessive surveillance. A number of arrests have taken place in the Valley and are justified in the name of what police terms  “Facebook terror”. Internet is banned on the slightest of pretexts. If the negative use of social media is the reason for banning it frequently, then why not anywhere else in the country? Recent reports have revealed that fake news of child-lifters on WhatsApp was responsible for 27 deaths by lynch mobs in the last one year.

HSA: Violence and censorship are not the only means of muzzling the Kashmiri press. Financial means have been used regularly – for example the use of lucrative government advertising which is denied to critical papers such as Kashmir Times. Can you talk about these challenges and how the press has survived them?

ABJ: Blocking the flow of information and finances are methods often used for arm twisting  media organisations. There are systemic ways in which bureaucrats and officials are stopped from speaking to certain media organisations. Government advertising is a tool in the hands of the government to whimsically decide to punish or reward the newspapers which are judged on basis of their loyalty to the government of the day. Advertisements are the main source of revenue in Jammu &Kashmir (J&K.) Corporate companies do not operate from here in a big way and hence the reliance on government advertisements, which in this country were started with the explicit purpose of supporting independent media. The J&K state government advertisements are not very paying and there is no rationalised rate fixation system as yet on the basis of circulation. etc. The central government’s DAVP (Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity) advertisements are the main source of revenue and these have been consistently denied from time to time to J&K newspapers. The policy was hardened in 2010 when for nearly two years advertisements of major newspapers in the Valley (including Kashmir Times’ Jammu edition, its Dogri and Hindi publications) were denied advertisements following a letter from the Union Home Ministry to the DAVP (by-passing the Information and Broadcasting Ministry). Ever since, it has been resumed, stopped, restarted and stopped several times. The advertisements have not been coming for the last one year at all. The case of Kashmir Times was peculiar since all its publications (even the Jammu-based) were denied advertisements and the organisation has not got a single DAVP advertisement since 2010, resulting in massive losses.

HSA: How can media in general and journalists in particular be supported in Kashmir?

ABJ: In a democratic country, it is the obligation of the government to encourage a free media. The Indian Constitution mandates that, as per Article 19A on freedom of expression. Government advertising was a good way to ensure free press, but the government uses that as a tool to manipulate the press. This is a matter of public importance because the public is being denied information through gagging of media and also because taxpayers money goes into maintaining the DAVP. Why should the public pay so that the government of the day can reward its stooges?

But there are few expectations from the government. The powerful press and media organisations in India must also fulfill the obligation of speaking for the far weaker regional press, especially in conflict areas.

Also, there is need for greater solidarity and unity among professional journalists within Kashmir and also a need for strengthening the link between journalists inside the Valley and outside.

HSA: What prospects do you see for the situation in the state?

ABJ: At the moment, under the given circumstances, a very bleak future – one fraught with multiple dangers and perhaps bloodshed. As long as a Hindu rightwing government is in power, there are expectations of things worsening, but that any other govt in 2019 enhances the prospects of any improvement is also wishful. Let us not forget that the mess in Kashmir’s politics has existed for 70 years. The present downslide began in 2008 under the Congress-led United Progessive Alliance (UPA) regime.

HSA: The situation is complex, but are there some obvious steps that you think could be taken to resolve the issues?

ABJ: Clearly, India can use all its military might to suppress the people of Kashmir, but can they kill their aspirations, can they kill the idea that inspires the rebellion in various forms? That can at best be suppressed for a while until it re-emerges in a new form. The history of the last three decades demonstrates this amply. At present, the military strategy is proving counter-productive, besides being flawed. The high casualty figures of security personnel in encounters are an indication and that deflates the theory of successful military operations, which are being measured purely in terms of the number of militants being killed. One militant is killed, and there are four young boys ready to pick up a gun. The number of militants is increasing in multiple progression.

So, the military offensive needs to be coupled with a political outreach. India needs to start with efforts to create conditions conducive for dialogue. This dialogue needs to be at multiple levels. One level is between India and Pakistan. Another between the Indian government and Kashmiris. (Likewise Pakistan should also initiate a similar dialogue in the territory of Kashmir administered by it, including Gilgit and Baltistan). In Kashmir they will have to begin to talk to the Hurriyat, which, despite all its weaknesses and flaws, is the largest political organisation representing the aspirations of alienated Kashmiris. The third level has to be an intra-J & K dialogue, involving peoples from both sides of the Line of Control (LoC). Gradually, the scope of dialogue with Kashmiris has to be widened to include representation beyond Hurriyat and from other regions of the state as well. Very often, we hear the government trying to wriggle out of a dialogue by stating that they have tried enough and that it doesn’t work. The normal tendency is to vilify Pakistan and Kashmiris. But any peaceful conflict resolution around the world will tell you that it takes years to build peace and that it is a continuing process. Look at Northern Ireland, the peace process started more than two decades ago and is still ongoing. It isn’t fully resolved, but efforts have been made from all sides.

What is important at this juncture in Kashmir is to focus on immediate CBMs (confidence building measures). The most important is addressing the human-rights situation, ensuring that all violations are accounted for and setting an example with fair investigations in a few cases and an assurance to follow up others. It is doable.

Then there are other small doables. The government must make efforts to restore spaces of free expression and allow peaceful protests and programmes to be conducted by civil-society groups, students etc. The students need to be engaged with by providing them space to express themselves. We have heard some civil-society groups talk about their small initiatives with the student community that helped some students understand that they need to focus on creative and peaceful means of resistance rather than violent ones. This needs to be facilitated by the government. Teachers in educational institutions should be trained to conduct regular workshops with teenagers and youth where the latter are allowed to freely express themselves. This, again, is a doable and can make a huge difference.

The thing is that despite a very distressing situation in the Valley today, a feeble hope that this can turn around with consistent efforts and sincere planning still exists.

~Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal is the executive editor of Kashmir Times.

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