“We thought it was crackers,” said Waseem Ahmad, a reporter who goes to work every day at the Press Enclave in Srinagar. On June 14, he was in his office when gunshots rang through the enclave, killing Rising Kashmir editor Shujaat Bukhari and his two personal security officers. Since this is the month of Ramzan and the attack happened around 7 pm, most people were rushing home to break their fast. “Who would have thought there would be an attack at the time of iftaar,” said Ahmed.
According to journalists present in the vicinity, the gunfire was intense and continued for about 30 seconds. Ten minutes after it stopped, Ahmad reached the spot to find panicked policemen and onlookers with camera phones swarming around Bukhari’s vehicle. As the crowd did not budge despite repeated instructions, police personnel on the spot resorted to aerial firing to disperse them. Over the next half an hour, all roadside vendors in the area shut shop.
That night, the police put out screen grabs from CCTV footage, showing three men on a motorbike, suspects in the murder. On the evening of June 16, the Jammu and Kashmir Police announced it had constituted a special investigation team headed by the deputy inspector general of central Kashmir range to investigate what it called a “terror attack”.
A fourth suspect was arrested on June 16, after videos taken at the spot showed him picking up a pistol allotted to one of Bukhari’s police guards. According to the inspector general of police for Kashmir, SP Pani, he was identified with the help of the public. In a press release, the police said the pistol was recovered from Zubair Qayoom, resident of Saderabal, apart from the clothes he was wearing at that time.
There is no clarity yet on the identity of the killers. Militant groups such as Hizbul Mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Taiba were quick to issue statements condemning the murder. The Lashkar called it a “conspiracy” to “suppress the voice of indigenous freedom struggle”.
A senior journalist and a friend of Bukhari’s, however, said a campaign against the Rising Kashmir editor had picked up pace two weeks before his death. This was a campaign run in certain minor “Pakistan-based papers”, alleging that Bukhari was “working for India”, he said. Last year, Bukhari had been part of Track II talks with Pakistan, held in Dubai. Militant groups had slammed the talks at the time.
“I had told him to be cautious,” the journalist said. “But he was confident that nothing would happen to him.”
‘Worrying about safety’
On most days Press Enclave, better known as press colony, resonates with the sound of clicking cameras and the slogans of various demonstrators. On June 16, it bore a deserted look, and few journalists could be spotted in the heavy rain.
Nisar Dharma, a reporter at The Kashmir Monitor, said that the enclave was his “second home”. But it is no longer safe. “If this could happen in broad daylight, especially with someone like Shujaat Bukhari, we will have apprehensions,” he said. “The next few months everyone would be worrying about their safety.”
Ahmad said his parents had started to worry as well. “I have been asked to leave my job, as if I am the only journalist here,” he said, laughing. “But there is fear. All of us are panicked after [Bukhari’s] ruthless killing.”
Dharma pointed out that Bukhari was killed at the spot where journalists usually gathered in the enclave. Many a time, Dharma had run into Bukhari at that very same spot. Just around the corner is a memorial plaque dedicated to Mushtaq Ali, who was killed in a parcel bomb explosion in the enclave in 1995. “This [Bukhari’s killing] changed everything,” Dharma said. “At least for the last decade, it [Press Enclave] was considered the most safe part of the city.”
Press Enclave is where most of the Valley’s newspapers have their offices. It is located on Residency Road, a bustling part of Srinagar, close to Lal Chowk and the clock tower, which is a city centre of sorts. One side is skirted by the Jhelum waterfront, known locally as the “bund”. The Pratap Singh Park stretches out in front of the enclave.
This is a regular destination for demonstrators of various kinds: the parents of the victims of enforced disappearances, government employees agitating for pay hikes, civil society organisations protesting against killings by both militants and security forces. The commercial hub of Lal Chowk has spread its tentacles into Residency Road so the area is filled with shops and cafes.
Given that the clock tower, or “ghanta ghar”, is the symbolic centre of Srinagar, there is a heavy security presence in this area. Walk down the road towards Lal Chowk and you will hit the armoured vehicle posted round the clock right next to the clock tower. The chowk, or town square, itself has two mobile bunkers of the Central Reserve Police Force stationed at either end, one in front of an abandoned cinema hall and the other in front of the old Lala Rukh Hotel, just metres away from the Press Enclave.
At the other end of Residency Road lie the offices of the crime branch and other paramilitary installations. The larger vicinity houses offices of important government departments and political parties and is scattered with security forces’ stations.
On most days, there is a police picket on the road close to the Press Enclave. In recent years, this had turned into a bastion of security, a place for the city’s chatterati to meet, exchange news and launch into endless political discussions. This bastion was breached on Thursday.