The news of Shujaat Bukhari’s untimely demise was received with moist eyes, much regret and worry about the future of Kashmir. In my family, everyone knew that he was my friend and that I cared much for his opinion and advice. They also knew that we had huge differences in outlook on the handling of the complexities of Kashmir, but these actually helped in understanding the situation better.
Although we knew each other for over 20 years, it was my tenure as commander of the Srinagar-based Chinar Corps that brought us closer together with more frequent interaction. In 2010, I had returned to the iconic Indian Army formation, the prize command and the most challenging one. Kashmir was burning and I had the experience of handling turbulence in Kashmir’s violence-prone landscape many times. Knowing well that anything routine never works there, I immediately turned to taking advice, lots of it. Among the plethora of wonderful intellectuals that Kashmir possesses and many others with earthy knowledge, with whom I interacted over a month, I found Shujaat the most affable and the most acceptable. He told me on my face that anything I would try would fail unless it touched the core of the heart of the Kashmiris. He said upfront that Kashmiris do not trust Indians, so the first thing is all about establishing that trust. I was not looking at any solutions, just the cooling and calming of the environment. Once that was achieved, people would be able to speak with clearer minds. Shujaat strictly guarded the Kashmiri turf and always spoke of Kashmiri interests, but within an Indian system. He advised me to undertake those measures by which trust could be established.
Through 2011, the Hearts Doctrine, partially drawn up on some of the advisories from Shujaat and many other well-meaning Kashmiris, played itself out. The Kashmir Premier League, change in convoy timings to allow free flow of civil vehicular traffic and the much appreciated ‘awami sunwaii’ programmes, along with skill development, career counseling and youth interaction all formed part of the doctrine to restore in Kashmiris the required confidence about India.
What was important about people like Shujaat was the frankness and complete belief in their line of thinking which was never radical. Although a much accomplished journalist, he represented and in fact epitomised the plight of the journalist community in Kashmir. Many in the rest of India are unaware of the very large number of newspapers which hit Srinagar’s streets every morning. Besides the inevitable stringers, there are many outstanding columnists. And then, you have the television correspondents of mainstream channels who are at trouble spots all the time, placing their lives at risk. Who knows which opinion will meet with a negative response? I marvel at their courage just as I appreciated Shujaat’s ability to hold an independent line at all times, not swayed by sentiments except the most genuine ones.
When I was leaving Kashmir in 2012, we organised a huge seminar. I was sceptical about opening it to the media, and to overcome that guilt, invited Shujaat as the only representative of the media. He made a stirring speech at the end, and also wrote an entire piece as a farewell to me; something I shared on social media now.
Obviously, Shujaat’s willingness to engage with us was not to the liking of many, not realising that what he was doing was for the interest of every Kashmiri. Lately, there were allegations that he took a huge sum of money to run my public relations programme which earned him the pleasure of dining with me at an iftaar, the photograph of which is doing the rounds on social media. In 2013, in one of my pieces that I wrote, I appreciated the work of many Kashmiri friends and thanked them for their advice. Shujaat was obviously one of them. He was quick to call me and chide me for putting him and others in danger by mentioning positives about our interactions. I never wrote about him again. We traveled together to Dubai in 2015 for a Track 2 conference on Pakistan and later attended many seminars in Delhi and one in Mumbai. He had now taken to being critical of my opinion that without commensurate military domination, no outreach to the population could be achieved; this was immediately after Burhan Wani’s killing. It took some convincing to get him to understand that parallel soft power campaigns to restore the dignity of the people are rarely possible unless the army was first fully in control. We agreed that simultaneity was perhaps the answer.
Shujaat’s death was an assassination and behind it were people who did not appreciate his middle path approach which favoured talks with all. Perhaps they found him the ideal target to convey the message that measures such as suspension of operations may not work in the context of Jammu and Kashmir. However, Kashmir’s appreciation for a man who was a true representative of the people’s interests will be best exhibited if a thumbs down is shown to those who believe in the path of violence.
Rest in peace Shujaat; you did your bit wonderfully and are going to be hugely missed by your large following of friends and admirers.
The author is a retired lieutenant general and former general officer commanding 15 and 21 Corps
Updated Date: Jun 15, 2018 17:30 PM