I first met Shujaat Bukhari in a bookshop in New Delhi. This was characteristic, for he was that rara avis among newspaper editors, a serious reader of (serious) books. He introduced himself, and I knew the name, of course, from following his reportage for The Hindu from Kashmir. As we chatted he told me he had left The Hindu to start his own newspaper in Srinagar. He then asked whether I had visited the Valley. I shamefacedly confessed that although I had written many pages on the origins of the Kashmir dispute, these were based on research in the archives alone. “You must come, Sir”, said Shujaat, “and visit us in Kashmir.”
I returned to my home town, and he returned to his. We carried on a correspondence, and a few years later, I visited Srinagar at last, courtesy an invitation from Professor Gul Wani of the University of Kashmir. This was 2015, and Narendra Modi had just recently come to power in New Delhi. Although the new Prime Minister had a Hindutva background, older Kashmiris recalled that it was a Bharatiya Janata Party prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who had held out a hand of friendship and reconciliation. They now hoped that Modi would sanction proper relief to the victims of the severe flood that had recently ravaged the Valley. This would reassure Kashmiris that at last there was a government in New Delhi that cared for them.
On this visit, Shujaat Bukhari arranged for me to visit the offices of Rising Kashmir, where I met his younger colleagues. Afterwards, Shujaat took me and the writer Omair Ahmad for dinner at a restaurant on a hilltop overlooking the city. We had a long and (for me) most instructive conversation on Kashmir past and present. As the dinner ended and I prepared to return to the University Guest House, Shujaat gripped my hand and thanked me for honouring my promise and coming to Kashmir. When I said it was absurd for him to thank me, he dryly answered that Kashmiris had become used to the government of India disregarding the promises they had made to them.
A window slightly ajar
On my return to Bengaluru I wrote a column in The Telegraph, noting that “militancy is visibly down in Kashmir”, that “the army’s presence, at least in Srinagar and its surroundings, is far less obtrusive than it was some years ago”, that “parts of the town that were ‘no-go’ areas for outsiders now see men and women, Kashmirs and tourists, Indian and foreign (some even Israeli) visitors, walk about freely”. There was, I thought, “a window slightly ajar in Kashmir; it can be gently prised open by a government that thinks and cares. Or else it might swiftly shut again”.
It took less than a year for the window to be shut completely. Flood relief was both tardy and paltry, and then in July 2016 Burhan Wani was killed. The Valley was now rent by many months of strife and violence. In this awful period I followed what Shujaat said and wrote, but thought it improper to casually invade his Inbox. Sometime in the summer of 2017 I was visiting Delhi, and ran into him (naturally) at Bahrisons in Khan Market. He was, as ever, tall and upright; but his brow seemed tinged with sorrow. It was as if the bookshop, for so long a source of enlightenment and inspiration, was now a means of escape and consolation.
By the autumn, the violence in the Valley had ebbed, and talk of dialogue was once more in the air . Shujaat now telephoned me in Bengaluru, saying he wished to bring a group to speak with citizens in my city. For too long Kashmiris had conversed only with people in Delhi, whose positions were often over-determined by either proximity or hostility to the Government of the day. They needed to range beyond the capital, to speak with Indians in the South as well.
Aiding Shujaat Bukhari in this dialogue was Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak, a decorated war hero. In the first week of December 2017 they brought to Bengaluru a group that included two other residents of the Valley, as well as a representative each from Jammu and Ladakh. They all spoke at a public event in the Bangalore International Centre, which sadly (or perhaps shamefully, since this is allegedly a high-tech city) was not recorded for posterity. I remember the discussion as being rich, nuanced, and wideranging. One younger radical spoke feelingly of how India was interested only in the territory of Kashmir, not its people. The lady from Ladakh spoke of the importance of civil society organisations in building trust among different sections. The man from Jammu spoke of how the common ground of trade and livelihood could trump suspicion between the three regions of the State.
Shujaat Bukhari and Kapil Kak complemented one another well; serving journalist and retired officer, Muslim and Hindu, one young enough to have memories of the purging of the Pandits, the other old enough to have grown up in the high noon of Kashmiri syncreticism. Unlike some other writers from Kashmir, Shujaat was absolutely not in denial of the awful treament that had been meted out by the jihadis to his Hindu compatriots. He understood that, by standing apart when they were forced to flee, the Muslims of Kashmir had let down their Pandit brothers and sisters.
At the same time, Shujaat was clear that, for the Union government, the tragedy of the Pandits had become an excuse to do nothing to right the historic wrongs of the Kashmiris as a whole. Young boys who had not been born when the Pandits fled were set upon savagely by the paramilitary, with jingoistic TV channels cheering them on. That is why he sought to take the conversation beyond Delhi to other cities, where (he hoped) Kashmiris might meet with a more sympathetic, less prejudiced, hearing.
Within Kashmir, Shujaat Bukhari was a bridge between young and old, militants and moderates. His newspaper was alert to the divide between the regions of the state, reporting developments in Jammu and Ladakh even while inevitably focusing more attention on the Valley. His own gentle personality and self-effacing manner were invaluable aids in this process of dispelling doubts and misrecognition.
Journalists in New Delhi knew Shujaat Bukhari far better than I. My own meetings with him were few and episodic. Yet they left a deep impression; of a man of knowledge and empathy, resolution and character, speaking on behalf of a people cruelly treated by history and by the governments of India and of Pakistan.