Kashmir lost Shujaat Bukhari, one of its most prominent journalists to a brutal attack virtually on the eve of Eid. Masood Hussain who had a long association with the slain editor details the anecdotes that explain the rise of the scribe who was associated with the blood-soaked Srinagar dateline since the 1990s
“No, the question does not arise,” I decidedly told grieving Rising Kashmir staffer Danish bin Nabi, who was literally dragging me towards the mortal remains of Shujaat Bukhari in the room where it was placed for the one-last glimpse by relatives and friends. He was crying: Nahin Sir, Akhri Baar Tou Deakh Lou. “I have one image of Shujaat in mind and that is there for decades, please, I do not want to superimpose a new image. I cannot afford to see him.”
That is exactly what I had done the previous evening when Shujaat was assassinated. I was on the spot of the murder within five minutes. After the colleagues told me that two of three including Shujaat were already dead, I saw him in the final posture of his life but avoided seeing his face. The priority of all the journalists who were on the spot including Altaf Hussain, Jeelani Qadri and many others was that somehow the three persons, of whom one was still breathing, should be shifted to the hospital. Seeing Shujaat one last time was never on my mind.
I exactly do not remember when we met for the first time but I clearly know the first assignment I gave Shujaat was in the summer of 1990. That had an interesting background.
I started my career in Srinagar in a monthly Urdu magazine Takbeer-e-Nov in 1987, soon after I graduated. Despite being at the lowest position in the publication’s overall hierarchy, I soon found myself becoming its boss and continued with it for two years. Unlike economics, its readership was huge. I attempted joining the Aftaab but could barely work for one day because its journalism was unattractive. By late 1989, Mohammad Shaban Vakil launched his al-Safa and I was part of the two-editorial member team from day one. The situation helped this publication to become the most read newspaper in Kashmir at the peak of turmoil. One day, I requested my boss that I was unable to manage a living on Rs 1000, a month and sought Rs 100 raise. The next day, al-Safa carried a front-page news item: Masood Hussain al-Safa Say Subakdosh. It was the standard style of Kashmir’s old-school journalism to abandon and shame its staff.
This led me to revive the magazine in trying circumstances. With a friend Manzoor ul Haq, now a publisher, I revived it but the costs led to a lot of indebtedness. In that situation, the only idea that sounded appealing was to publish a special issue with better calligraphy and good printing in Delhi. It took more than a month to write this special publication. It was for this, I involved, among others Shujaat Bukhari.
I asked him to write a copy on the ongoing strike of the state employees. A marathon strike against the violations of human rights, it was supported by a section of the IAS as well. Its immediate trigger was the dismissal and arrest of employees in good numbers. It was an interesting piece of reportage to edit and was published under the heading: Mulazimeen: Naqaarkhanay Mein Toutay Kie Gutargoun.
The second assignment I gave him for the same issue was a joint story. He and Dr Khursheed-ul-Islam, now a professor, met the people who were arrested and released to tell their stories. It was a slightly longish copy that had interesting anecdotes of pain, loss and survival. It went to print with the interesting heading: Raastay Band Hain Sab, Kouchay-ie-Qatil Kay Siva.
The special publication that also included a good critique of the new situation was a smash hit. It was reprinted twice. I personally went to Delhi and printed it. That was the day when I met Iftikhar Gilani for the first time. But somehow, Takbeer, that actually belongs to my friend and mentor Jawhar Qadoosi, lacked a future as I could not manage its continuation for the lack of resources.
Again, I started discovering avenues that would help me survive in Srinagar. Soon, I was writing for Chataan and Features And News Alliance (FANA), a Deli-based news and features agency, that helped me pay for my shelter and part of the Hakh-Batta. It was around that time that Imtiaz Bazaz intended to start his magazine Mountain Valley Kashmir and I got the opportunity of launching it. I did a couple of serious issues but somehow I was sacked, again. But I continued working with a number of publications to supplement my meagre income.
Unlike me, both Shujaat and Khursheed applied for a major employment drive by the central government. Capable enough, both got clerical jobs: Khursheed in an insurance agency and Shujaat in AGs office. Unlike Khursheed, Shujaat joined. Those were the days when Khursheed forced me to go for post-graduation in Sociology.
Freelancing with a number of publications, I was finally encouraged by Zafar Meraj and Merajuddin to join Kashmir Times. Though the honorarium was just not attractive, the platform was huge. Soon, I started suggesting to Shujaat that it will be untenable to be a journalist and a government employee at the same time. A consistent insistence actually succeeded him in convincing his parents and he finally resigned from the job.
Sometime later, Ahmad Ali Fayaz also felt convinced that leaving a government job was important to have a good career in media. He also joined Kashmir Times.
Under Ved Bhasin, so far the lone editor that Jammu and Kashmir has produced literally, Kashmir Times was the classroom where we all picked the niceties of reporting the conflict that tragically was our own. Under Zafar Meraj initially and Zahoor Malik later, it was the main news hub where we would break stories about tragedies and crises. There was no day or the night; it was news that was the lunch and the dinner.
Those days, death was so common that it would look like a neighbour if not a friend. One day, Shujaat came almost in a panic. “Last night, I barely survived,” he said. “Somebody advised me against taking a particular road to Jawahar Nagar because there was a landmine and then I got to know it was planted by a militant from the neighbourhood and I was the target.”
We had no means to investigate and nothing much to tell except: “from now on, move home early and do not use this track.”
I remember the happenings on July 8, 1996, when a group of 19 reporters were on way to attend the press conference of Azad Nabi, a renegade leader operation from Shehlipora near Achabal. It was perhaps his first news conference. As the groups reached Islamabad town, they were waylaid by another renegade group and taken to Khanabal as hostages. They were seeking Afzal Shah, the Kashmir Times photographed from Jammu and incidentally, he was also in the same group. Five of them were segregated and kept aside. They told them the five will have to die.
“We have been kidnapped and they want to kill us,” Shujaat rang up the office and almost whispered to me. He had taken the advantage of the phone that was in the room where they were being held.
I laughed and shouted at him: “Be there. There is good news for you. Your salary is hiked by Rs 500… Wait we will do something.” That morning we had an edit meeting and Bhasin Sahab had kindly agreed to a hike.
Shujaat was somebody who would not sit idle especially in this situation. Witty, as he was, he used the same telephone line to inform the US-based Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) about the whole incident. In Srinagar, as we were assembling the colleagues to put some pressure, the CPJ statement from the US had already done our job easy.
We finally barged into the room of the Director Information KB Jandial in TRC where Noor ul Qamrain shouted: “You will be personally held responsible for any harm to any of the reporters held by your gunmen.” Later, that evening a Major rank officer led an operation and got the entire group to Srinagar.
Shujaat had a great capability of remembering all the important telephone numbers and that was perhaps why we rarely required a telephone directory. His love for sophisticated phones that people would witness after the entry of cell phone was the outcome of his love for the technology.
Much later, when Shujaat was kidnapped from the Residency Road in an auto-rickshaw by some unknown gunmen and dumped near Eidgah, he had quickly used his phone to SMS Khurshid: “Kidnap, kill me’. Once home, Shujaat told us that they fired on him before fleeing but he survived. Either they missed the target or they simply wanted to scare him. Once, they fled, Shujaat ran up to Hawal Chowk where from he rang up his home. I presume it was on basis of this that security cover was extended to him.
Exhibiting the same wit in Magam on May 10, 2001, Sheikh Mushtaq of Reuters told me that day, Shujaat rang up SSP Budgam and detailed him how the renegade leader Mumma Kanna and his BSF men were beating a group of 42 reporters who had gone to report the killings from a landmine explosion. This was perhaps the only FIR that stands registered against Kanna, so far.
What would panic us sometimes in the newsroom was that he would react to situations so bravely that we could rarely think of. An army officer had taken the news of a kidnapping by one of his agents so personally that it evolved into a major crisis for me. Initially, we attempted many times by going to the entire chain of command and explain our role that there was no possibility of suppressing an incident, regardless of who is behind it.
But the officers took it too personally and it created a serious situation that finally my Shopian home was raided and whoever was there was picked up. As some of the fleeing members reached Srinagar with the news, it triggered a commotion in Press Enclave. Tariq of NDTV got so emotional that he started dragging colleagues to the car saying we must go to the concerned garrison right now. It pushed Shujaat out of control that he dialled a Major General and rudely sought his intervention. We all thought that the game was over. Though I had to pay a lot of costs in managing that crisis, it was his phone call that I will never forget in my life. The call was a counter-threat, actually.
But that was not the first time that Shujaat was involved in my rescue. The earlier crisis he handled was not so simple. Within days after Zafar Meraj was shot at by the Ikhwan gunmen in city outskirts on December 8, 1995, when he was returning from Hajin, a threatening letter was delivered at my office. It was a “warning” for being ready for death.
Then Outlook journalists Padmanand Jha had come to see Zafar Meraj, who was working for the magazine. When he decided to see Kukka Parray, Shujaat and Khursheed accompanied him to meet the counter-insurgent and discuss the threat to my life.
“We saw a huge cavalcade leaving when we reached Hajin outskirts,” an excited Shujaat said in the office later. “I saw Javed Shah and waved towards him and he stopped. I told him about you and he said – Pir has given the direction and I will be mounting an attack as soon as I reach Srinagar. I begged him to stop till I talk to him (Kukka Parray) and he agreed.”
With Parray they had a long talk on the situation and finally, they discussed my case. “It was after a lot of persuasions that he agreed to reconsider but insisted you must meet Mir Niyazi,” Shujaat said. In the subsequent days, he accompanied me and I presented myself to the Javed Shah – Mir Niyazi combine in Shivpora and the threat was averted. I had to apologise for things which, even now, I do not know. Shah was Kukka’s deputy and Niyazi his adviser.
It was the same sheer bravery of Shujaat in 2018 that despite knowing that he was on somebody’s hit list, he still would come to the office and avoided even shifting an iota of his routine.
We might have travelled to spots of violence and crisis countless times. In one visit to Shopian – where we had gone to offer our condolences to the family of a relative, the condition of the road was so bad that it burst two tyres of the German’s (a driver’s nickname) taxi and his two spare tyres. As we were literally on the road, somehow a truck gave us a lift and we reached Pulwama where the Deputy Commissioner S D Lone helped us to reach Srinagar. But two travels were very significant.
One was to Uri, the border belt only 101 km north of Srinagar. Thanks to Maqsood, now a broadcaster, Uri was perhaps the only border belt that was reported completely: the shelling, the migration, the abandoned homes, militancy and the human rights situation. It is a long story about how we reached Uri and what we saw. Those were the days when Brigadier Sreedhar was the lone master of Uri. He later died in a landmine attack.
The second visit was to Doda in 1995. It was important because the BJP had launched a countrywide campaign against the non-inclusion of Doda as Disturbed Areas and its activists were offering voluntary arrests. I was freelancing with a newspaper and they were so keen to get the ground report and somehow, I took Shujaat and photographer Amin War along with. We spent almost half a month in Doda, Kishtwar and Bhaderwah.
The biggest crisis for us in Doda was to hunt for shelter. We approached Deputy Commissioner and he was unhelpful. Then somehow a Kashmiri forest official gave us shelter in a forest hut. We had no food in dinner and it turned out to be a cesspool of mosquitoes. Somehow, a young boy from Ghat village, Asim Hashmi, now a leading lawyer, discovered us and took us home, two days later.
What we saw in the Chenab region was unreported because the region was unexplored. We did tons of stories about the governance deficit, militancy, the human rights crisis, communal tensions and loot of forest wealth. In Bhaderwah, we had a providential escape as BSF was about to open fire on us.
With Kashmir Times as the main newspaper, we would freelance with various newspapers in the mainland. We would work a lot but working for many newspapers was exhausting and not helping us economically. So in winter we would move to Delhi with our records as reporters and move from one newspaper office to another for a job, especially in the erstwhile INS building.
Shujaat had a style of his own. I was in Delhi and Shujaat was supposed to join me. I remember I was waiting for him near the RBI building when an auto stopped and a long man came out. In his three-piece suit and a red tie, I was shocked to see the “applicant” and a “job seeker”. I lost my cool: “Do you know most of the reporters are modestly dressed and I know some regional editors who are in Dhoti,” I shouted. “When they will see you in such a costly dress, they will never consider us.”
“Roub Meh Kar,” he reasoned. “Tell me what is to be done?” Within the next 10 minutes, he was on auto again and then he rejoined in a simple T-shirt and then we started our job hunt. Editors and heads of regional publications took our CVs and in certain cases, they reacted harshly because of the situation. It did not help much but Shujaat had managed to write for The Bombay Daily and later to the Urdu daily Inquilab.
Shujaat got a reporter’s position in Hitavada, one of the major central Indian newspapers, but well before he could start working there, he got a job in The Hindu. I reported for Hitavada for many years and discontinued it after I formally joined The Economic Times.
But the new jobs did not take us away from Kashmir Times. It was there where we celebrated Shujaat’s new laptop that The Hindu gave him and later his first visit to a Central Asian country. The newsroom was so cohesive that one day when a serious blast in one of the official quarters in Partap Park led to the literal collapse of the Press Enclave, the destruction of power and telephone lines led to a situation that we could not report. The entire bureau including Shujaat, AA Fayaz and Rashid Ahmad were sacked. I took the blame for everything and wrote a detailed letter to the editor. He eventually retained Shujaat.
It was in Kashmir Times that Shujaat applied for a brief Defence Course with the army. It is a routine yearly affair during which the army imparts various basics of reporting the conflict. The selected candidates are flown to various bases and acquainted with various operations. Back home, Shujaat said he had a serious embarrassment. In one of the capsules, the candidates were supposed to use guns and hit the target. “I fired all the 20 bullets on the target and it was 100 per cent,” he said. “They started looking at me and at each other and thought had I been trained by militants?”
Not many people know that Shujaat’s uncle Abdul Majid Bukhari’s two sons were killed. Syed Ishtiyaq Bukhari, the elder of his sons was a JKLF militant who was killed in an encounter on December 7, 1993. Qaisar, his younger brother, was an eleventh-standard student when unidentified gunmen kidnapped him on August 3, 1993, and his body was located and retrieved from an apple orchard on November 7, 1995. Shujaat’s other close relative worked for the police.
Finally, Shujaat rented some office space in Polo View and it reduced the interactions. But the distance would not matter especially if any of us was in any sort of tension. He had an impressive quality of befriending people regardless of everything. We would usually get shocked in the newsroom when he would reveal his friend list. Almost everybody on the power list was his friend and many times have I sought his help in managing appointments with the VVIPs.
“He was a class apart,” Khursheed hums every time we meet. “His marriage (2000) was a convention, the Rising Kashmir launch (2008) was a convention and his funeral (2018) was a convention.” Police said more than 30,000 people attended his funeral.
Iftikhar predicated his take-off when he made a protesting speech at the welcome event of the visiting SAFMA delegation in the Royal Springs Golf Course in 2004. His point was simply that if journalists from Pakistan were coming to see their counterparts, why the hosts did not know? A year later, he was part of the SAFMA proceedings and later in October 2010, he was formally taken as a member. Then, there was no looking back. Shujaat must be the only Kashmiri resident who might have seen most of the world. He had leadership qualities that were on full display in the Adbi Markaz Kamraz that he headed initially as Secretary-General and later as President.
Almost a year after Shujaat launched Rising Kashmir, the Kashmir Life started printing from the very second issue from his facility. It would get us frequently see each other. Almost three years later, however, some managerial issues crept in forcing us to move to Kashmir Times. But Shujaat would routinely write for Kashmir Life whenever he found a subject that suited our magazine.
Since 2016, we would routinely work together – first in getting the ban on Kashmir Reader lifted and then in the Kashmir Editors Guild of which he was a founding member. In late 2017, he left the Guild thus reducing the interactions further. Now he is not around but his legacy will make him immortal.
Shujaat was always well-dressed and smart. But not many people knew he was highly unwell. Living with half a dozen diseases, he would take almost 20 tablets a day plus insulin. It was much earlier during his Kashmir Times days when he suffered a mild heart attack during Ramzan and had to stay in the hospital for a few days.
On December 10, 2015, Shujaat miraculously survived a major brain haemorrhage stroke and took almost a year in becoming normal. He was the rarest case of sorts who returned from the borders of death only to die a martyr just outside his office, hungry, thirsty and barely minutes before the Ramzan breakfast, the Iftaar.