Shujaat Bukhari, one of Kashmir’s foremost journalists, was assassinated Thursday, the eve of Eid, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. For Indians, Bukhari’s death is a reminder of two things: The situation in terrorism-torn Kashmir is sliding into a black hole of possibly no return. And second, it is more dangerous to be a journalist in India today than ever before.
Last year, 11 Indian journalists were killed and 46 attacked. This year, India has slipped in World Press Freedom rankings to 138, just one place above Pakistan. Bukhari’s killing reminds us why we need to pay close attention to these horrific numbers.
His assassination (local reports say his head and abdomen were riddled with bullets) took place in Srinagar’s press enclave, right outside the office of the newspaper he edited. His personal security officers (since an attack on him in 2002, he was given police protection) were also shot dead. Ironically, the assault has taken place at a time when the Kashmir government had announced a temporary ceasefire by security personnel as a peace initiative for Ramadan.
As a longtime reporter on the Kashmir beat, I knew Bukhari for more than two decades — he was both a colleague and a friend. I believe he has been targeted for being a rare voice of moderation and reason in a public discourse bulldozed by ideological extremes. He refused to play to the jingoistic and hyper-nationalist gallery that currently dominates discussion about his home state. A couple of weeks ago, at a panel discussion in Delhi that I was moderating, he rose to bluntly say to the speakers: “Things are much worse in Kashmir than any of you care to admit. An entire generation is growing up hating India.” Equally, he did not pander blindly to the Azaadi (secessionist) brigade. He condemned militant violence and concerted bids to kill local policemen by terrorist groups. He publicly welcomed the cease-fire and remained an optimist about the power of dialogue and reconciliation. And he interacted regularly with affection and regard with several military generals. So, Kashmiri secessionists targeted him for not being anti-India, while hyper-nationalists targeted him for not being patriotic. On the day that he was killed, a video was shared by his critics on social media. In it, he was painted as an Islamist during a conference organized by a prominent think tank in Delhi, simply for refusing to support the publication of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Bukhari (who was not present when the remarks were made) responded calmly to the “diatribe” on Twitter, writing, “In Kashmir we have done journalism with pride and will continue to highlight what happens on the ground.”
By the end of the day he was dead.
His killing has been officially called an act of terrorism by the government. It occurred on the same day that Aurangzeb, a soldier on the way home for Eid, was killed in South Kashmir by militants. But if these developments signal the clear and present dangers in Kashmir, they also remind us that if we don’t engage with balanced Kashmiri voices like Shujaat Bukhari, soon there will be no one but the fundamentalists left to talk to.
His killing reinforces the fact that whether in Kashmir or the rest of India, the journalists who are the most vulnerable today are the ones who have rejected ideological labels and have held on to the importance of nuance and complexity. In today’s polarized times, those who dare to tell a story in textures of gray, instead of one-dimensional colors, are the first ones to be smeared, vilified and targeted. We are called anti-national and traitors and “presstitutes” every day on social media.
And here’s the biggest shame. While Bukhari’s death has been described by all major media bodies in India as an “assault on the freedom of the press,” a section of the TV news media must reflect on whether it has encouraged hatred against its colleagues. Two of India’s leading channels are fronted by men and women guilty of prime-time hate mongering. Their shows are devoted to maligning not just fellow journalists but all civil society voices that do not conform to their meta narrative of what nationalism is. Their so-called patriotism is a fig leaf for pettiness and prejudice. Bukhari’s death is proof that their verbal violence can actually be a cue to the mob.
Bukhari’s assassination may finally get India to admit that the threats to Indian journalists are very real. Press freedom as we have known it is distinctly diminishing. To have an opinion today — especially one that does not fit into the dominant political narrative — is to be in the line of danger. A study by Reporters Without Borders recognizes that in some countries, including India, “the line separating verbal violence from physical violence is dissolving.”
Threats in an environment of fear come in many insidious forms as well. Character assassination, fake news, informal professional blacklists, politically organized online slander campaigns — these are weapons of mass intimidation in play. Over the past year, several Indian journalists, and women reporters in particular, have gone public about the threats we receive on a daily basis for simply having an independent opinion. For this, we have been mocked and jeered, and our public assertions have been trivialized and dismissed. Last year I filed a police case against unidentified men who would keep calling me from multiple numbers and threaten to rape and kill me for my reporting. This week, the police informed me that I would need to appear in court and accept that my case was being shut as the men could not be traced down.
A democracy where journalists are endangered is a democracy in peril.