Eight months before Shujaat Bukhari was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in Srinagar last week, I met him at an event and we ended up talking for around half an hour. Noting that I had stopped writing for newspapers in Kashmir, he said while publishing in national and global news outlets was all good, it was important for a journalist to have a “local presence”. Coming from a fellow journalist whose prominence owed much to his years of work with the local daily Kashmir Times and later as the Kashmir correspondent for The Hindu, I latched on to his advice.
It was typical of Shujaat Sahab – as most journalists in Kashmir called him out of respect and admiration – always ready with encouragement and advice for the younger lot in the profession.
I first met him in early 2004. I had just joined Kashmir Times and was at my desk one evening when a strapping man entered the newsroom and exchanged greetings with the staff. Our bureau chief introduced us. It was Shujaat Sahab. Learning my name, he said he found a recent article I had written on Kashmir’s eminent editorial cartoonist, Bashir Ahmad Bashir, quite interesting. “Keep it up,” he added.
His commendation encouraged me no end and I soon found myself visiting his office whenever I wished. He was always welcoming and happy to have people around. I don’t remember going into his office and not finding him chatting and sipping tea with three or four persons. Ever a gracious host, he seldom let you leave without serving tea. His vast circle of friends came from myriad backgrounds; they were journalists, artists, doctors, lawyers, academics, activists, politicians, bureaucrats, foreign diplomats.
Shujaat Sahab held all fellow journalists in esteem regardless of whether they were senior to him or junior. At press conferences and other events, he would make it a point to speak with younger reporters. At his own newspaper, Rising Kashmir, he groomed several journalists who went on to work with prestigious global media companies such as Al Jazeera and the BBC. The grooming included having sessions with persons of great repute. Whenever a top journalist, public intellectual or academic visited Kashmir, Shujaat Sahab would invariably invite them to the Rising Kashmir newsroom to interact with his team of young journalists. I had the privilege of attending such sessions with the historians Ramachandra Guha and Ayesha Jalal. On the pages of his newspaper, he gave space to every shade of opinion.
Social worker at heart
If journalism was his profession, social work was where his heart lay. In the wake of the devastating flood of 2014, a picture that went around on social media showed Shujaat Sahab rowing a boat through the streets of Srinagar to help rescue stranded residents and provide food and medicine to those in need. Recently, when Maqbool Sahil, a journalist, author and poet who worked with the vernacular sister publications of Rising Kashmir, died, Shujaat Sahab continued to pay his colleague’s salary to his family.
He was a man of refined manners. In December 2015, he was admitted in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi, and I visited him. He was recovering from a stroke and found it difficult to speak. Yet, he insisted on introducing me to his attendant and his sister who was at his bedside reciting the Quran and praying for his recovery.
Shujaat Sahab, a keen observer of politics around the Kashmir dispute and India-Pakistan relations, was one of the most prominent advocates for peace in Jammu and Kashmir. Indeed, he was the moving spirit behind several of the conferences on Kashmir issue in recent years.
“In order to get Pakistan on board for a successful SAARC summit, it is imperative to cool down tempers in and on Kashmir,” he wrote in Rising Kashmir in the last week of May, referring to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. “In this backdrop, the next few months will be interesting to watch.”
Alas, he cannot witness these interesting times. It would be an injustice, though, to measure his life in months and years. He may have lived just a little over 50 years, but he touched numerous lives like few men can. That is his great legacy. Rest in peace, Shujaat Sahab!
Athar Parvaiz is a senior journalist in Kashmir.