Before the sundown of 14 June, when some regulars in Srinagar’s Press Enclave spotted three men prowling around the building, none had the faintest idea that they were waiting to kill Syed Shujaat Bukhari, one of the biggest names in Kashmiri journalism.
When Bukhari, the editor-in-chief of Rising Kashmir walked out of his office along with his two personal security guards (PSOs), they didn't immediately flash their AK47s but waited till the three of them were inside the vehicle. Once they were seated, the small armed group of assassins lunged towards Bukhari's SUV and let loose a barrage of bullets.
With Eid right around the corner, the City Centre Lal Chowk, which is close to the Press Enclave where the incident took place, was crowded with shoppers. They initially mistook the bullet sounds for firecrackers. But the moment, they spotted the assassins around the vehicle, they started screaming and running for cover.
Minutes later, the unknown gunmen mounted their bikes and rode off, leaving behind their bodies in a pool of blood. Who were they? Nobody knows. The Jammu and Kashmir Police has so far released two blurred pictures of three bike-borne young men.
Given the precision and accuracy of their target, many believe they were some kind of a hit squad tasked to eliminate the journalist, who was part of the peace talks on Kashmir between India and Pakistan. They shot the senior scribe, the main target, in execution style.
For some 10 odd minutes, none could muster the courage to go near the targeted vehicle, as many believed that the assassins were still hiding around. But as soon as an uneasy calm returned, the shoppers and journalists thronged the Enclave square to glimpse the bloodbath inside.
Bukhari was shot multiple times on his head and abdomen and had sunk to his right side. He was already dead.
"Shujaat was lying face down on the seat, blood all around him. A young journalist checked for a pulse, but couldn't locate it," recalls Nisar A Dharma, a journalist working with Kashmir Monitor.
“The jaw of the dead PSO sitting next to the driver was literally dangling. He had exit wounds on his neck. He died on the spot. The driver, however, was still breathing, whispering something. His eyes were about to shut,” he added.
The police from the nearby Police Station Kothi Bagh took some time to show up at the crime scene. By then, the enraged people had already removed the driver from the vehicle and taken him to a nearby hospital in a critical stage.
Amid the sobs and shock, the journalists who had gathered at the scene were unable to understand just how did the gunmen manage to reach the trade heartland and run away despite the presence of high-security around it. Nobody had an answer for that.
Shortly afterward, a cop drove the damaged SUV to the hospital where Shujaat was declared brought dead.
The attack happened so fast and sudden that it sent the entire Kashmir region — on the cusp of breaking their fast — into instant mourning.
It was the first time since 2008 that any journalist was executed in Kashmir. And given the stature, seniority, and sway that Bukhari used to hold, his murder could become a watershed event for Kashmir media.
His killing has shocked everyone. Both separatists and mainstream politicians have condemned the killing.
When reporters quizzed Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, she couldn't speak because of a lump in her throat. She fleetingly mentioned her recent meeting with the departed editor and walked away from the cameras.
But for the day when who’s who in town were competing with each other in offering condolences to the fallen editor, his protégés and former workforce were condemning his killing at the forefront. Much of that raged reaction had to do with the editor’s ability to "always lead from the front".
"His passing is painful," said Showkat Nanda, internationally famous Kashmiri photojournalist who worked with Bukhari, adding, "He was my boss for three years! I am sure his death has made everyone numb except the ones who celebrated Gauri Lankesh's killing!"
But before becoming a cult in Srinagar media circles and a literal globetrotter, Bukhari had walked as a young reporter in Srinagar Press Conclave. The lanky young man came from Kreeri village in Baramulla. Being a studious and articulate son of a respected school teacher, it didn’t take Bukhari much time to create a niche for himself.
Bukhari started his journalism career with late editor Ved Bhasin’s daily Kashmir Times way back in the mid-90s.
"Right from the day he joined the field of journalism, he became a balanced voice," said his former colleague, adding, "But he soon cut a shadowy image for himself, as times were such that even journalists were supposed to take a stand. But Bukhari upheld his journalistic ethics and tried to be objective.”
Perhaps this was the reason why in his last tweet, Bukhari said, "In Kashmir, we have done journalism with pride and will continue to highlight what happens on (the) ground."
But the man suffered for upholding his conviction.
In the past, he had escaped three assassination bids on his life. Those threats escalated after he joined The Hindu in the late 90s as Jammu and Kashmir bureau chief and wrote some hard-hitting stories.
In 2006, Bukhari was abducted by a gunman and was nearly killed. To his good luck, the assassin’s handgun got locked, and he ran for his life.
All these experiences would often make him state in his write-ups that the life of a journalist in Kashmir is a perilous endeavour.
In 2008, he came up with his own newspaper Rising Kashmir. The publication is being credited for creating a sense of professionalism in Kashmir media. Many journalists who were part of Bukhari’s newsroom are today serving in many International publications, eg, Baba Umar, who is now working as an online journalist for TRT World.
"Our fraternity is feeling orphaned today," said Baba of his late mentor. "What coward would kill a journalist? Rest in peace, my friend."
Bukhari’s killing has added another name in the long list of journalists killed in Kashmir. In a somewhat similar manner, Al-Safa editor-in-chief Mohammad Shaban Wakil was murdered by unknown gunmen inside his Press Colony office on 23 April, 1991.
On 10 September, 1995, Agence France-Presse photographer, Mushtaq Ali was killed when he opened a package at his office in Srinagar’s Press Enclave. It was the parcel bomb, which exploded, wounding him critically. He succumbed to his injuries three days later.
Before Bukhari, journalist Javed Mir was shot dead while covering a demonstration near Bagh-e-Mehtab in Srinagar on 13 August, 2008. As Kashmir Editors Guild said, Bukhari’s killing is a 'new low in deteriorating environment’ for Jammu and Kashmir media persons.
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Updated Date: Jun 15, 2018 12:53:22 IST