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Shujaat Bhukari was worried about his life. Ten minutes before he was shot dead , Shujaat had been on the phone with Iftikhar Gilani, a journalist working in Delhi who was also on the hit-list. Ever since Shujaat and Iftikhar, along with Pervez Khurram, the programme co-ordinator of Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, had attended a conference in Dubai in August last year, Shujaat had found himself enmeshed in a campaign of calumny from which he couldn’t extricate himself however much he tried.
When Shujaat called on WhatsApp just after 7.20 p.m., Iftikhar had been in office. He was in the middle of breaking his fast. Shujaat had another 20 minutes to go before he could break his fast; in Srinagar, the time to do that was 7.40. Shujaat told Iftikhar, who had been planning to travel to Kashmir, not to come. Iftikhar responded that after Eid, Shujaat should come to Delhi, “phir Home Minister ke pas jaate hai, Pakistan ke paas jaate hain” (we will meet the Home Minister when you come, meet the Pakistanis, try to do something to take the pressure off the death threats). The line hadn’t been clear; Iftekar signed off saying, “Das baje baad phone karna” (call after ten tonight). Shujaat then left his office to go home and break his fast. Fifteen minutes later a friend was calling Iftikhar to say that Shujaat had been shot dead outside his office, barely 25 metres away from a CRPF bunker.
Shujaat’s troubles began soon after the Dubai conference, convened by Conciliation Resources, a U.K.-based NGO which dabbles in conflict areas. Word had gone around that at the conference, azadi (independence) had not been advocated; instead, they had plumped for ceasefire along the Line of Control and wanted violence to be shunned in favour of dialogue. Cavilling had begun both from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir as well as from Jammu and Kashmir. Shujaat was being painted in the colours of a collaborator. The first salvo was fired in London, saying that the Dubai conference had delegitimised the Kashmiri’s struggle and had not even broached the Kashmiri’s “right to self-determination.”
Then the chorus rose in Urdu from PoK, reaching a crescendo when Syed Salahuddin, the head of the United Jehad Council, a conglomerate of jehadi outfits, excoriated the Dubai conference and those who participated, saying: “Kashmiris are not sacrificing their lives for the trade of onions and potatoes, nor for the permanent division of Kashmir. Those who participated in the Dubai Conference are working on payrolls….When this conference was happening, funerals were being held in Kashmir and they [participants] were backstabbing the tehreek [movement].” In the Urdu press, articles began doing the rounds with headlines such as ‘Dubai ke air conditioned hotelon mein Kashmir ke khoon ka sauda kiya gaya’ (The blood of Kashmiris has been sold in air conditioned hotel rooms in Dubai).
This was picked up by the Jehad Council, the Lashkars, and then by Gulam Nabi Sumji, the secretary general of the Hurriyat (G), the most hardline faction of the Hurriyat, led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani.
Sumji called for an investigation. This was seriously worrying, as Kashmir was sliding into a cycle of unremitting violence, and Shujaat, Iftikhar, and Khurram could become easy targets. More than anyone, Shujaat was keenly aware he was on a precipitous slope. Shujaat and Khurram presented themselves before the Hurriyat. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, known locally as Amir-e-Jehad, privately dissociated himself from Sumji’s statement and said Sumji might have issued it in his private capacity. Iftikhar was of the opinion that the Hurriyat should complete the investigation and declare the result. If the Hurriyat couldn’t read the summary of the Dubai deliberations in English, they would translate it into Urdu. When pressed, Sumji said he hadn’t issued a statement. But, according to Iftikhar, when asked to issue a statement to this effect, Sumji stopped responding to calls and went incommunicado. This went on from August to October. With no response from the Hurriyat, Shujaat had begun having second thoughts. In a concall, Shujaat said, Jyada mat karo, yeh maslah Kashmir mein hota rahta hai (We should let matters rest here).
Shujaat had also managed to reach Salahuddin through Ershad Mahmud, Shujaat’s counterpart in Pakistan from the Kashmir Initiative Group. KIG, consisting of journalists, academics, and others from both countries, seeks to bring together civil society voices to highlight “local narratives and ground realities” on both sides of the Line of Control as distinct from the official narrative. The UJC chief, who is termed a terrorist by the U.S., denied that there was a threat to the three. But when asked to clear the air, he couldn’t bring himself to clarify his position publicly. The campaign in Pakistan, which was mainly through social media, died down mysteriously after October, but began again in April this year in Srinagar under fake names. By then Shujaat had been travelling extensively -- to Istanbul, to America, to Pakistan. Last month, when he was in Delhi for the release of the book The Spy Chronicles by Aditya Sinha, he told Iftikhar that he was very apprehensive. (Incidentally, a co-author of the book, Asad Durrani, a former head of the ISI, had also been in the Dubai conference; that Durrani is now in some trouble over collaborating on the book is another story.) Iftikhar reminded him that he didn’t allow him to put further pressure on the Hurriyat. Shujaat went back to Srinagar saying he didn’t know what to do.
Too many close calls
He had reasons to be worried. A government intercept had mentioned three names that had been identified for elimination -- Iftikhar, Khurram, and Shujaat. Twice before, he had come within a whisker of being killed. The dates are unclear but Iftikhar recalls that the first time it happened was before the advent of mobile phones. Azad Nabi, a counter-insurgent, the counterpart of Kukka Parrey (the Ikhwan ul Musselmoon that specialised in neutralising pro-Pakistan terrorists) in south Kashmir, had organised a press conference and 29 journalists were being taken for the event. Shujaat had been among them. At Anantnag, another counter-insurgent group waylaid them and took them into their custody. They soon released 20 of them, keeping nine whom they singled out for execution. Shujaat had been one of them. They were taken to a room and locked in there. By happenstance, there had been a phone in the room. It was in working condition, and what’s more, it had an ISD line as well. Shujaat could remember phone numbers more than most people. He picked up the phone and made a call to Kashmir Times and told them what was going on. Next, he called up the Committee for Protection of Journalists, based in New York. Within minutes they issued a statement that was picked up by agencies and within the hour the news was everywhere. Meanwhile the Kashmir Times had mobilised journalists in Srinagar who marched to the Corps Commander. That evening a rescue operation freed the nine of them.
More recently, about 12 years ago, Shujaat had been kidnapped at gunpoint in Srinagar and pushed into an autorickshaw. There are two versions of this story. Some remember it this way: that somewhere near Dal Lake the kidnappers pushed him out of the autorickshaw and tried to shoot him with a pistol. The pistol jammed, Shujaat ran. The other version has Shujaat quickly messaging a friend, tersely, “Kidnapped. May be killed,” before the kidnappers had thrown a cloth over Shujaat’s head. The friend informed the police who set up check posts all over Srinagar. As the vehicle approached Dal Lake where the kidnappers could see check posts ahead, they pushed Shujaat out and sped smartly away. It was after this that Shujaat was provided with a couple of personal security guards.
The third time proved unlucky.
The 16 bullets that killed Shujaat Bukhaari had four specific targets: First, Shujaat himself. Second, a pointed message to others like him who might be tempted to tease out a line independent of the other party to Kashmir – Pakistan. Third, to tell Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti that politically her situation is even more untenable than she might like to think it is, as subsequent events have proven. Fourth, and most important, a point to New Delhi that to attempt something like this in Kashmir requires Islamabad’s say so. And that New Delhi cannot go on pretending that the opposite is the case.
Going in unprepared
Those running the Jammu and Kashmir policy know that converting a ceasefire into a larger opportunity for peace is far easier said than done. Which is why it is probably time to ask the question: what exactly has the preparatory work been for the ceasefire and the steps that ought to have followed? We are given to understand that the National Security Advisers met on and off, and the Ministry of External Affairs spokesman is on record this January as saying that the focus of “operational level talks” is cross-border terror and ways to end/contain terrorism in the region. The bullets that felled Shujaat are surely testimony that the behind-the-scenes talks we claim to be having with the Pakistanis are largely contrapuntal. The extent and choreography of the peace process is usually an indication of how much the government intends to make it work. There were other indications too that the ceasefire would be a one-sided and very transient affair: the Hurriyat, the political proxies of Pakistan in Kashmir, did not think much of what had been on offer. Indeed, it is not at all clear what was exactly on offer and what the point was of the exercise. Usually, preparatory work on the call-and-response makes sure that the horse not only goes to the water but also drinks. In this case the horse refused to even be dragged to the water. Without a political agenda, all the government managed to convey is that for a few days there would be no blanket ‘maro-peeto’ policy, a carte blanche to the security forces.
Look at what has been going on in Jammu and Kashmir for the last two years at least. Unrest, curfews, communication blockades, protests, pellet injuries, discontent sweeping up young, middle-class, educated Kashmiris, including women. Schools have not been able to function regularly. Many, many people died from bullet wounds. This is more or less there in the 49-page UN report on human rights, of which as many as 39 pages are devoted to Jammu and Kashmir -- a portion that we have dismissed as being almost fiction. Incidentally, Khurram is said to have done the leg work and the drudge work for the report. He has now left Kashmir, waiting for better days that by any reckoning are far, far away. We may pooh pooh the report but we do have to expend considerable diplomatic energies countering it, preventing it from gathering steam. As Kashmir goes into free fall, without even the fig leaf of an elected government, this might prove to be easier said than done. In the 90s, we could blame Pakistan for the mess. This time we have managed it on our own. We don’t seem to have an exit policy either. Never before has such a situation been handed on a platter to Pakistan.
All Pakistan has to do is to sit back and watch things spiral ever downwards. And it is not sitting idle either. You will soon read reports about how the Pakistanis have kept the line of control under continuous artillery fire, disrupting life in the border areas, pushing more terrorists into the Valley for the dirty work. But this time the volunteers are going to be mostly from our side, the willing and disillusioned young, the women, the children, the middle classes in those areas. Those sitting out the holidays, watching from windows, as they wait for schools to re-open after the endless curfew, those whose near and dear ones die because hospitals are inaccessible….
In the end, it is a bitter irony that the Hurriyat and Syed Salahuddin should call for an international probe into Shujaat’s murder.