I met Shujaat Bukhari, the editor of Rising Kashmir, at his Press Enclave office in April. It had been a dreary day, full of appointments that had fallen through. His voice on the phone, extending a ready invitation, was a welcome change. Since he was a regular writer for Scroll.in, we had messaged and corresponded frequently on email. His replies were always editor-like – prompt, crisp and to the point. Nothing prepared you for the warmth of the man in person.
In the wood-panelled quiet of his office, he patiently took my rookie questions on the situation in Kashmir (uncertain), the growing clamour in the national media about so-called radicalisation (maybe just one constituency, which was not growing but not shrinking either), the recent ejection of a senior minister (several theories). Then other visitors joined us and there were several rounds of chai with a side of Srinagar gossip, mostly in rapid Kashmiri, though Shujaat kept trying to switch to English for my benefit.
What had featured prominently in our conversation earlier was the prospect of a political dialogue on Kashmir. Like most Kashmir watchers, he was saddened by the mistrust and impasses that a decade of failed talks had left behind. Unlike most others, he seemed incurably optimistic. Only recently, he had written an opinion piece in a Pakistani weekly pointing out that both Indian and Pakistani army chiefs had spoken of the need for dialogue. While others despaired of a credible peace process, he saw hope in the fact that the two chiefs had spoken the same language. In spite of all the bloodshed in recent weeks, something was thawing between the two countries, he felt, there was some kind of consensus on a common script pressing for talks. It was, he wrote, “a moment of great opportunity”.
I knew he was involved in Track II peace processes so I pressed him further, but he only smiled noncommittally and moved on. In journalistic circles in Srinagar, some joked that he was a “Gandhian”. But it takes a rare person to stand for peace at a time when the idea has become so unfashionable, when each side demands proof of your loyalty through savage words.
You could not accuse Shujaat of being Delhi’s man or Islamabad’s.
He called out the Indian government for civilian killings and for the secret hanging of Jaish-e-Mohammad militant Afzal Guru, which unleashed a rash of attacks in his name. When the Centre appointed an interlocutor for Kashmir, he urged for talks with separatists without any pre-conditions. When a debate broke out over the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, he shrewdly identified it as an attempt to change the goalposts, to shift the conversation from azadi to autonomy. He also grieved over ceasefire violations at the Line of Control, he condemned militant violence, he seemed thrilled by every sign of warmth between Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims.
It must take some kind of innocence to imagine that after all the blood that has been shed, even after attempts on your own life, everyone can just sit across a table and talk it out. Or maybe it is courage. That day, after we had clucked and sighed over the recent spate of gunfights that had killed civilians, militants and security forces, Shujaat went back to his old hobby horse: “And that’s why I keep saying, political dialogue is the only way.”
A month and a half later, he would step out of that same office, get into a car and receive the bullets of his killers.