Killing conversation


The death of Shujaat Bukhari

Mukul Kesavan


The deaths of Shujaat Bukhari and Gauri Lankesh have different local histories and a few all-India similarities. Lankesh and Bukhari were both journalists who had worked for what passes as the national English press before committing themselves to publications principally aimed at readerships in their states. After a career working for The Times of India and later Sunday, Lankesh took over her father’s magazine, Lankesh Patrike, and then went on to edit the Gauri Lankesh Patrike, while Bukhari moved from being a Correspondent with The Hindu to founding Rising Kashmir, an English newspaper based in Srinagar.
It isn’t clear who Gauri Lankesh’s killers were. Recent newspaper reports suggest that the police have closed in on a suspect affiliated to a vigilante organization notorious for communal goonery, the Sri Ram Sene, but there has been no trial or conclusive verdict. Similarly, no one has taken responsibility for Bukhari’s assassination, though online suspicion ranges from jihadi separatists to the deep state. They were both shot by murderers on motorcycles, seemingly the preferred modus operandi for Indian assassins looking to silence dissenting journalists, intellectuals and rationalists. Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, Malleshappa Kalburgi, Gauri Lankesh are now joined in their violent deaths by Shujaat Bukhari.
These killings show that the journalists most at risk in India are those who report from a ground zero that is also their home. Bukhari, like Lankesh, was a journalist who had gone out into the world and then chosen to return, to produce a Kashmiri newspaper that wasn’t a partisan mouthpiece, one that produced news about Kashmir which couldn’t be dismissed either as jihadi press releases or inspired leaks from a sarkari stool pigeon. This didn’t mean that he was a neutral; it would have taken inhuman detachment for a Kashmiri Muslim from the Valley to be even-handed about the violence visited upon his people by the State. What it did mean was that he was committed to keep the news flowing, to keep dialogue going, to supporting any process that would mitigate the violence that had engulfed the place he called home.
To stand up for his principles as a journalist in a conflict zone took courage of an order that few of us possess. To continue to do this despite having a young family, despite having been kidnapped before, living under armed guard, suspected of being a traitor both by fanatical militants and the increasingly communalized agencies of the State, was everyday heroism of an order that we’re either too cynical or too embarrassed to acknowledge. For the social media choruses of the security State and think tank hawks, Bukhari was a ‘soft-separatist’ or a ‘quasi-Islamist’. These hyphenated terms belong to a class of conspiratorial neologisms coined to demonize positions that right-wing Hindu supremacists dislike. ‘Pseudo-secularist’ is the most famous of these. In the same way as Bukhari was classified as a soft-separatist, Gauri Lankesh was tagged as an ‘urban-Naxal’ in the unhinged echo-chambers of the Hindu Right, hours after she was murdered.
In an article he wrote for the BBC in July 2016, immediately after the killing of Burhan Wani, Bukhari bore witness to the dangers of being an independent journalist in Kashmir.
“Thirteen journalists have been killed during the conflict since 1990. Threats to life, intimidation, assault, arrest and censorship have been part of the life of a typical local journalist. Journalists have been targeted by security forces and militants alike. Publications have been denied federal government adverts – a key source of revenue for smaller newspapers. If a local journalist reports an atrocity by the security forces, he risks being dubbed ‘anti-national’. Highlighting any wrong doing by the militants or separatists could easily mean that he is ‘anti-tehreek’ (anti-movement) or a ‘collaborator’.”
For metropolitan journalists, one of the great advantages of working in a subcontinental polity is that they report on an Elsewhere that they don’t have to live in. But this is a luxury available to a select few. For the most part journalists live in the places they report from without the connections or visibility that insulate Delhi or Calcutta or Mumbai-based journalists from the brute violence that the State or local notables are capable of inflicting.
Santanu Bhowmik was bludgeoned and stabbed to death in Agartala while covering an agitation by the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura. Malini Subramaniam had to leave Bastar, Chhattisgarh, because local vigilantes backed up by the Inspector General of Police thought that her reporting on the Maoist insurgency was inconvenient. A journalist reporting on the Vyapam scandal in Madhya Pradesh died under mysterious circumstances in 2015. So apart from its specifically Kashmiri context, Bukhari’s murder is important because like Lankesh’s, it represents the tip of an iceberg. Not an iceberg made up of dead journalists, but an iceberg of intimidation and censorship, where murder is the visible tip, a way of flagging a cautionary tale.
Even as we acknowledge the threat to independent journalism in the deaths of Bukhari and Lankesh, it is important to remind ourselves that these are not simply forms of violent censorship. The killing of Shujaat Bukhari as he left work was not just a way of suppressing inconvenient news or opinion. Bukhari, and Lankesh, Kalburgi, Pansare and Dabholkar before him, were made examples of, not only on account of what they produced but for what they were: sceptical, independent, courageous individuals who refused to be assimilated to their tribe.
Bukhari was a Kashmiri Muslim who took his faith seriously. He was outraged by the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and in the aftermath of the violent killing of its staff writers and cartoonists, he tweeted: “While no one can condone a highly condemnable act of killing journos, to draw a line is must when it comes to Faith.” Ironically, for the battalions of the majoritarian right, committed to Hindu supremacy and its attendant lynchings, this betokened extremism. Liberals can and should vigorously contest Bukhari’s position on Charlie Hebdo, but the more relevant yardstick with which to measure his commitment to a pluralist society in Kashmir was his willingness to publicly criticize the purge of Pandits from the Valley. As recently as May this year, Bukhari was tweeting articles on the plight of the community and its neglect by successive Governments.
Gauri Lankesh died because someone thought that she wasn’t Lingayat enough or Hindu enough and decided that her hatred of overlapping orthodoxies made her anti-national. The current focus on the Sri Ram Sene seems to bear this out. In the same way, Shujaat Bukhari died because bigots and supremacists of one variety or another decided that he either wasn’t Indian enough or Muslim enough. Radically different though they were, Lankesh and Bukhari died trying to clear a space for conversation where individuals, not identities, could talk to each other. Their deaths diminish us. (Courtesy: TT)