In my early days as a reporter with a Srinagar newspaper 15 years ago, I used to be a regular visitor at the office of fellow professional Shujaat Bukhari. Only rarely were they one-on-ones, for the vibrant scribe would be mostly seen in the midst of people: other colleagues from our profession as well as refined minds from several spheres of socio-cultural activities. Shujaat’s friends circle was vast and varied, so resourceful that its members kept enriching the journalist’s intellect much beyond the world of news.
The man, more of a listener than a talker, was keen to see that his native Kashmir—troubled for long—resonated with ideas of universal brotherhood and practical ways of being peaceful. So, whenever an intellectual of repute visited the state capital, Shujaat would make sure that he or she would deliver lecture to us mediapersons and like-minded friends. Innumerable were his calls to me, wanting to make sure that I didn’t miss any such get-togethers. It’s in such sessions that we heard Ayesha Jalal, Sugata Bose, Ramachandra Guha, Justice Bilal Nazki and several other tall thinkers.
Shujaat had a particular affinity for journalists—and had increasingly been keen in providing them a helping hand. It was particularly evident when he would reach out in more ways than one to families of journalists who were killed or who died while reporting Kashmir. In January 2003, for instance, Parvaz Mohammed Sultan, editor of the News and Feature Alliance, was shot dead by an unidentified gunman at his office. Not only did Shujaat ensure that the tragedy was channelled to kindle a sense of bond among Kashmir’s journalistic fraternity; he would remember Sultan—and his likes—whenever he would speak in public about the press freedom.
In fact, Shujaat used to give a special place in his heart for journalists who were killed in Kashmir ever since the Valley slipped into turbulence from 1990. After all, he had himself bids to eliminate him. Twelve years ago, Shujaat was abducted by two gunmen while he was a correspondent with The Hindu, the national daily headquartered in Chennai down-country. That episode climaxed with the near-death of the kidnapped—and if the journalist got a fresh lease of life it was simply because the gun that had aimed at shooting him met with an unexpected jam.
Much recently, in March this year, well-known journalist Maqbool Sahil died of a heart attack. Shujaat, true to his character, reached out to the family of the senior editor with a local Urdu daily, by providing financial assistance and at the same time pledging to continue to provide salary to the bereaved members. It was a benign act for the family of Sahil, also a poet and author, who was working with two sister publications of Rising Kashmir which had Shujaat as the editor.
For all the genteelness and altruism, Shujaat was silently angry with what he thought was thorough injustice being faced by fellow journalists on a daily basis. He knew in every detail how much pressure the media in the Valley underwent constantly, prompting him to raise his voice loudly against such threats. His nascent newspaper was denied advertisements from the likes of the government’s DAVP time and time again, yet the editor ensured that his colleagues should get their salary in time. Scores of reporters who started their career from early-days Rising Kashmir are now working in different top news organisations across the world.
Shujaat’s love was seldom restricted just to those within the media. He was definitely a philanthropist. In 2013, when floods inundated several parts of the Valley, Shujaat hired a boat and rescued people—many among them were Kashmiri Pandits. At times during that voluntary service, the editor risked his own life to rescue people by going into areas that the civic authorities had effectively left abandoned amid the natural calamity.
That way Shujaat, though only in his early 50s, was venerated figure for many outside the world of journalism as much within it. So, on Thursday evening, his colleagues at Rising Kashmir plunged into utter grief when they saw the body of their editor-in-chief lying motionless at the Sheri Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences. Barely a couple of hours ago had they seen the boss around, conducting himself with the poise Shujaat always had as a watchful soul. Back in office after paying tribute to their boss, they readied the Friday edition of the newspaper with a fitting tribute to the fearless journalist who eventually paid a price for upholding truth.
Unknown gunmen fired at the editor and his two personal security officers outside the newspaper building at 7 pm on June 14 when he stepped out of his office and boarded his vehicle to head for home amid the holy Eid month. Shujaat and two of his PSOs, Hamid Chaudhary and Mumtaz Awan, received multiple injuries in the firing. Shujaat and Hamid died on the spot, while Mumtaz succumbed to injuries in a hospital later.
Shujaat was known for his pro-Kashmir views and was a great believer in India-Pakistan rapprochement, thus a spokesperson for a peaceful resolution to the vexed Kashmir issue. He would never shy away from expressing his opinion about matters irrespective of their complications and far-reaching ramifications, thus often got trolled within the Valley and outside of it by opponents who had ideological differences as well as personal dislike with the man.
When a leading social activist alleged that his newspaper had received “funding from agencies” and was playing to the “ISI script” by “spitting venom against India”, a painted Shujaat sought criminal proceedings for defamation. Of late, a hate article in a little-known portal portrayed Shujaat as someone who was “betraying Kashmir struggle” and is “a close aide of Indian agencies”, he felt all the more indignant. Indeed, way back in 2006, Shujaat had told Reporters Without Borders: “It is virtually impossible to know who are our enemies and who are our friends.”
Typically, though, Shujaat used to take every criticism positively, however bitter it was when expressed on social media. He would, without losing much of his cool, also respond to the flak. Yet, a few days ago, an exasperated Shujaat took to Facebook, saying he was planning to leave social media for good sooner than later. It was a platform he was otherwise so fond of, having been regularly posting links of reports, columns and edits of his paper, besides pictures of his visits to different places. Recently, Shujaat’s FB wall carried a slew of his pictures in Lisbon, where he had gone to attend a Global Editors Conference.
After leaving The Hindu, which he served as the J&K bureau chief for 15 years till 2012, Shujaat founded Rising Kashmir. The English paper later he came up with Urdu daily Buland Kashmir and a Kashmir counterpart called Sangarmal, which are run by Kashmir Media House that Shujaat owned. He was also president of Adbi Markaz Kamraz, which is a Kashmiri literary organisation that promotes the state’s language and poetry. In fact, Shujaat was instrumental in convincing the government to make a study of Kashmiri language as compulsory in the school education to popularise one of the ancient country’s oldest languages.
(The writer is Outlook's Srinagar correspondent.)