Ah! Shuja’at: A Brave Journalist

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Let me start with the “unfortunate for us”, no words for condolence also.  It was not a simple murder or killing but the murder of humanity. The murder of senior journalist and editor-in-chief Rising Kashmir Syed Shujat Bukhari, on Thursday 14th June 2108 evening, outside his office at press colony Srinagar, is a great loss that we can’t be compensated easily. His murder can only be viewed as yet another attempt to muzzle the media and the freedom of the press in the valley. 

Shujaat prided himself on his independence and justifiably so. His integrity and commitment to journalism shone through, and as soft-spoken, amiable and friendly as he was, he had a huge circle of friends. Who on earth would want this brave, reasonable and level-headed senior journalist in Kashmir dead? Which demented force could hope to win any sympathy whatsoever for this cowardly criminal act? As the former J&K bureaucrat Wajahat Habibullah said, his assassination is a message to the media and to journalists: don’t try to be too independent, don’t speak too much, or else we’ll shut your voice forever. Shujaat was such a passionate believer in a brighter future for Kashmir, an eternal optimist. Every time he wanted to create dialogue, open up new spaces for civil society interaction, push the boundaries of talks, make a break from victimhood on the Kashmiri side, create a new positive reach out from the side of the Indian establishment. How many thoughtful ideas he had, how urgently he wanted to explore the scope for peace, how restless he was to see the end of violence. Shujaat trod the fine line between reflecting the aspirations of the Kashmiri people while rejecting those who saw the gun as the only solution. In this age of name-calling, some might have called him a “soft separatist” but Shujaat was only doing what any good journalist does, painstakingly reflecting and observing the many shades of grey in a blood-stained Valley. His last tweet on UN atrocities in the Valley was put out without comment revealing what he always tried to do: bring a fact-driven narrative to a polarized environment. Shujaat spoke up strongly against right-wing Hindutva forces, he spoke up equally strongly against jihadist terrorists.

 Alas Shujaat, you fell prey to the very violence you sought so hard to end. Alas, like Gauri and other true journalists, your mighty powerful pen was considered so threatening, and so intimidating that somebody wanted to silence your voice forever. We are living in a society where violence against journalists is being legitimized. Journalists are daily subject to threats, abuse and vilification on social media, receiving death threats, being called “anti-national” and “traitors”. Those with free minds and powerful pens are threatened by those with fearful minds; those insecure cowards who have no argument, no counter ideas, reveal the emptiness, shallowness and sheer degraded evil of their so-called cause when they pull the gun on unarmed journalists. Let’s face it, fulminating in an air-conditioned TV studio or venting about social media threats is hardly bravery. Bravery is what Shujaat was doing; bravery is about doing daily journalism on the ground in Kashmir, doing an editor’s job with integrity, in the looming shadow of the gun. And what of your beloved Kashmir, Shujaat? What about the land you loved so dearly, and for which you were so hopeful? It is being pushed into the most dreadful spiral of hate and polarization, even the rape and murder of a flower-like 8-year-old plunges the state into ugly politics and communalism. Youth in the Valley are being drawn inexorably towards the gun, in Jammu a Hindutva cauldron bubbles over, shrieking for perpetual imagined vengeance.

A floundering government is slowly drowning under a deeply contradictory ruling alliance. Valley and Jammu are poised in eyeball-to-eyeball implacable mistrust, no Shujaat, this is not the Kashmir of your dreams. But then you always refused to give up hope. You would send messages to your journalist friends, “thanks for this report,”, “good that you wrote what you did.” You kept searching for solutions, for the way forward.

Just as Gauri Lakshmi, Santanu Bhowmick, Ram Chander Chhatrapti, Tarun Mishra fought for their beliefs, Shujaat did too.  Gauri Lankesh was murdered by three unknown assailants who shot her dead right at the gates of her house in Bangaluru on September 5, 2017. Gauri was well known for her stand against Hindu Right-wing violence against minorities in India, Bhowmick, a political journalist from Din Raat news channel, was beaten to death while covering the road blockade by the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) that had turned violent, Chhatrapati was murdered for exposing Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in the rape case levelled against the self-proclaimed god. Chhatrapati was the publisher of a local Hindi newspaper, Poora Sach (Complete Truth), Tarun Mishra was killed in broad daylight. Mishra was travelling in his car when he was assailed by two gunmen on a motorcycle. Standing rock-like with the underdog, raw courage oozing from their every pore. They paid for their beliefs with their life, as did Shujaat.

When will these attacks against journalists end? Now telling the truth means risking all: risking one’s life and the safety of one’s family. Journalism is the very infrastructure of democracy. Without enlightened and empowered citizens, governments cannot be held accountable. And it is the journalist who provides citizens with the news and views by which they can be empowered and freely question the government. When governments cannot be questioned, then the very basis of democracy melts away. Journalists speak for the citizen; ask questions for the citizen, the journalist is the agent of the citizen. Citizens must understand that today if you want journalists to shut up, soon there will come a time when you will have to shut up and there will be no one to speak out for you. We journalists are unarmed, we only have our pens or our microphones; those who wage war against journalists have begun an armed insurrection against democracy itself. How badly we will all miss you, Shujaat, you were in Srinagar doing the work we were all so proud of. We feel helpless, enraged, we want to cry out against those who have taken your life.

At last being a writer I can feel the pain but instead you are gone and we have to cling to the lamp you lit, to guard it with our lives and make sure it is never extinguished however hard the stormy winds blow, however many assassins they send to cut us down, however many guns they train at our computer screens. We will keep tapping out those words, those mere words, but yet those words with apparently so much potency and power that they scare our enemies so much more than our enemies can ever scare us.

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