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Killing a Journalist in Kashmir
By Dennis Bernstein
Large crowds gathered in Kreeri village in Kashmir last Monday to honor the life and journalistic work of Shujaat Bukhari, the slain editor of the Rising Kashmir. Bukhari, who lived under constant threat, was gunned down as he was leaving his office last Thursday. Three heavily armed assassins on motorcycles-opened fire on him with dozens of rounds, killing the 50-year old family man, along with two of his security guards. He was on his way home to break his Ramzan fast with his family.
Bukhari, who had already been kidnapped once and escaped, was murdered soon after he took up the case of a young man, Kaiser Bhat, who was tragically run over and killed by security forces, during one of many recent street protests in Indian-Administered Kashmir. Last tuesday, local and regional newspapers in Kashmir left large blank spaces where editorials would typically appear to honor the highly revered editor and journalist.
I spoke at length with writer and noted author Vijay Prashad about the life and times of Shujaat Bukhari. Prashad was a colleague of Bukhari — who was for many years the bureau chief of the Hindu newspaper where Prashad’s work also appears
Dennis Bernstein: Welcome Vijay Prashad, Good of you to do this.
Could you tell us about Shujaat Bukhari in the context of his working in that dangerous part of the world?
Vijay Prashad: Shujaat Bukhari was highly respected in Kashmir and well known in other parts of India. Shujaat was for many years the bureau chief of the Hindu newspaper, for which I write. Then he was the head of station for the magazine Frontline. These periodicals highly valued the reports Bukhari submitted from Kashmir. He was a very honest reporter, in an age when many journalists are simply stenographers who amplify the voices of the powerful. Then there are real journalists, who challenge the narrative about how the world operates. Bukhari reported in a heartfelt way on what the conflict in Kashmir meant from the standpoint of the people. Genuine journalists are an endangered species. When you set out to report about the world from the standpoint of the people, you cross the line of somebody powerful. I have seen so many friends — in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Turkey — killed by the state. A friend of mine who was working on the Bin Laden story was picked up by Pakistani intelligence in May of 2011 and his body was found mutilated north of Karachi.
DB: Could you explain exactly how he was murdered? I believe his murder followed his reporting of the killing of an activist, Kaiser Bhat, who was run down on the street at a protest.
VP: Let me give you some context. From the standpoint of the state and the stenographer/reporter, someone like Kaiser Bhat, who was run over by a jeep, was an aberration, a terrorist. But what Bukhari and others with great sensitivity demonstrated is that Kaiser Bhat is just an ordinary Kashmiri. He reverses the question of the burden of proof: We don’t have to wonder why Kaiser Bhat became a militant. What we should wonder about is why all the other young people don’t become militants. The context of Kashmir almost demands that the population rise up in revolt. The Indian state certainly didn’t appreciate the kind of reporting that Bukhari was doing on Kashmir. It was also reporting that the militants didn’t always appreciate. He was also critical of the way that some militant groups had inflamed the situation, working for their own advantage rather than the will of the people. He was killed by masked gunmen who came on a motorcycle. It is unlikely that they will be caught or that their handlers will be identified. But whether or not we are able to establish forensically who killed Bukhari, we know who killed him. It was people in power who were threatened by the honesty of this very brave journalist.
DB: This was not the first threat to this courageous journalist. He was kidnapped in the past.
VP: Those who have reported from areas of great conflict know the dangers very well. After he was abducted, he made a statement to the effect that he didn’t know who the enemies were. When someone points a gun at you, you don’t know whose gun it is. You’re not out there to have a debate with the person. If some militia group stops you at a checkpoint and puts a gun to your head, you’re not thinking about which side you are on. You’re thinking, this is the end of my life. Remember that this is not just about a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere. It is also the United States, which targeted the Al Jazeera office in the Palestine hotel in Baghdad during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This is a serious issue, this disregard for the person who is out there to get the story. We know that control of the story is a very important part of warfare. Going after reporters who are trying to tell different stories is very much a part of the agenda of war-making.
DB: For those listeners who don’t know a great deal about Kashmir, could you describe how dangerous it is there?
VP: The region is a vast and beautiful place. There are Muslims of all kinds of different traditions. There are Hindus, there are Buddhists. They also define themselves in terms of ethnicity and culture. It is a very complex place. Sadly, in 1947-1948 the new government of Pakistan couldn’t come to terms with what was happening in Kashmir. There was no appreciation of the self-determination of the Kashmiri people. Both the new states of India and Pakistan captured territory. Pakistan holds about a third of the Kashmiri region and India holds about two-thirds. China took a section of it in a war against India in 1962.
The people of Kashmir have felt alienated from the Indian state. Kashmir has erupted on several occasions, where people have protested against Indian state control. The framework is that Kashmir is a security problem and that Pakistan is infiltrating to create problems there. Some of this, of course, is true. But the core issue isn’t Pakistan’s involvement in Kashmir. The core issue is the alienation of the Kashmiri people. This exploded in a massive uprising in the 1980’s, which mirrored the First Palestinian Intifada. The Freedom Movement that began in 1989 was met with immense force. Right now there are between 700,000 and one million Indian troops in the Kashmir Valley. By the count of the Indian government, there are only 150 militants. That is an awfully strange ratio. This highly militarized region resembles an occupation. The people’s interface with the Indian state is not in the form of a postman or a social worker. It is a military officer. Until the Indian government comes to terms with the fact that you cannot allow a state’s primary interface with the population to be a soldier and allow security to be the main framework, until you come to terms with that and create an alternative framework, there is no solution to the Kashmir problem.