Chai Khana The Lead

Notes from my last journey with Shujaat Bukhari

Zafar Choudhary and Shujaat Bukhari in Cyprus, 2013
Traveling together, it is said, reveals you to each other in truer form. For over a decade Shujaat and I took many journeys together and each revealed him to me as a man of great character and strength.  Our every travel to just another district in Jammu and Kashmir, another city in India, or to a faraway continent offers a great story to tell. Such stories will come in due time. Here I am recalling the last journey we took together and the last evening we spent together. This memorialisation of the last time we spent together is a tribute to my friend.

By the time I joined journalism, Shujaat Bukhari was already a widely read and respected byline in Jammu and Kashmir and beyond. Our first meeting in person –as it has happened between most journalists from Srinagar and Jammu –was during the budget session of the state legislature in Jammu in February 2000. I had done a story tracking a pattern of some Opposition legislators creating a commotion, bringing House proceedings to a halt and then making peace with the government even on most scandalous issues they raised –every such episode ended after brief chats between such legislators and Ministers. Shujaat had met with the Chief Minister that day and he told me, in the presence of many colleagues, what Farooq Abdullah thought of the story. Barely a few months into journalism, it was encouraging for me but I suspected he was just flaunting his access to and ease of conversation with the Chief Minister. A couple of weeks later we came across Farooq Abdullah by chance while he was stepping out of Asia Hotel after an event. Shujaat introduced me to him with reference to that story. Chief Minister complimented. I saw in Shujaat a potentially sincere friend, a guide, and a patron. In 2007 when I launched a magazine of my own, a lot many people appreciated and a number of them asked for their complimentary copy. Among the first properly filled-in subscription forms that I received along with fees was from Shujaat. This came by post, together with a latter, underlining the need for reader-driven crowdfunding of serious journalism. Our friendship deepened and in our hearts, we started recognizing ourselves as each other’s best friends.

Traveling together, it is said, reveals you to each other in truer form. For over a decade Shujaat and I took many journeys together and each revealed him to me as a man of great character and strength.  Our every travel to just another district in Jammu and Kashmir, another city in India, or to a faraway continent offers a great story to tell. Such stories will come in due time. Here I am recalling the last journey we took together and the last evening we spent together. This memorialisation of the last time we spent together is a tribute to my friend.

On May 2, 2018, barely a month and a half before we lost Shujaat, we were supposed to attend a meeting of what is called as Track II in Istanbul. Turkey excites even those who have not watched Dirilis Ertugrul. Shujaat, I, and two other friends decided to make use of this opportunity and find a way to visit Konya, the final resting place of Maulana Rumi. The idea was to pool our personal resources and arrange this private travel before the scheduled meeting. Traveling from different destinations, we arrived in Ankara on the evening of April 29. After checking in to the hotel we decided to meet an hour later in one of the rooms for a proper catch-up before heading for dinner. In the middle of a casual conversation in the room, I was scrolling down YouTube on my mobile for some music when I came across what is called as ‘Tarana e Kashmir’ or the anthem of Kashmir. This was apparently because of my browsing history as I looked up for this a few times since February when there was news of this song played at a cricket match in Los Angeles. I played the music with an obvious intent to see how everyone reacts. In the first round, Rashid Jahangir’s melodious voice and the background music held us literally captive. Then came the turn of poetry, and politics. The anthem, Lehra ae Kashmir ke jhande, has its background in the events of 1931 in Kashmir and the political movement after that. The flag of Kashmir referred to in the poetry, white plough on a red base, was adopted in June 1939 when the Muslim Conference was declared to be converted into National Conference. In later years, National Conference leader Maulana Masudi wrote the poem Lehra ae Kashmir ke jhande in honour of the flag. With the addition of three white stripes the same flag was later adopted in June 1952 by Jammu and Kashmir Constituent Assembly as the state flag and the rest of the story running up to August 5, 2019, is better left for some other occasion.

As I played the song a couple of times, Shujaat got emotional, hugely emotional. He regretted of a dream gone wrong. “What kind of a Kashmir was imagined then after a long struggle and what are we living in today”, he lamented. We picked up each verse for a thorough discussion trying to re-imagine the political environment that informed the poet’s imagination. “Generations have passed by as spectators but the kind of Kashmir imagined in this poem remains illusory”, Shujaat said with teary eyes. We always liked to enter into arguments that often took us to ethnic and regional paths to critically challenge each other’s views. This always helped in understanding how other people in Jammu and Kashmir most likely think. I said that problem of Kashmir is in this anthem. How? He asked. I said this is about a Kashmiri dream and not a dream for the whole Jammu and Kashmir and all sorts of people. Shujaat was not willing to take anything. We went through every line of it again and again and it offered more and more Kashmiri exclusivity –exclusivity about the Valley, its places, its lakes, its culture, the faith, and everything that is Kashmiri. “A refusal to accept simple realities of diversity has made it a hugely complex problem that identities clash so fiercely within the construct of a dream”, I argued. Shujaat agreed and then opened the scope for a wider discussion. His acceptance and public acknowledgment of historical and living realities outside the Kashmir Valley was one of those things which put him in the crosshairs of many invisible yet potent forces.

The next day we took a train to Konya. All along the journey and during our time at Maulana Rumi’s mausoleum and in the town Shujaat kept on talking about Kashmir –he needed that bullet train in Kashmir, he needed that cleanliness for Kashmir, he needed those thriving businesses for Kashmir, he needed that vibrancy of life for Kashmir, and he needed that calmness for Kashmir. He always wanted every good thing for Kashmir. The day after, we took a seven-hour long bus journey from Ankara to Istanbul. The conversation triggered by the anthem continued.

 

The Istanbul meeting

The meeting that we were scheduled to attend in Istanbul was a byproduct of a grassroots level engagement since 2008 with diverse actors drawn from all regions and communities in Jammu and Kashmir –the whole of Jammu and Kashmir that figures on the map, and all communities which took pride in the ‘State Subject’ as common identity; not a single idea or identity excluded. Set up in 2014 with some of the most renowned names from India and Pakistan carrying a wealth of direct experience in the subject at hand –Kashmir and India-Pakistan relations –this group in a Track II process treaded very cautiously with all the sensitivities involved. In the meeting room the next morning an argument broke out between Shujaat and a senior member from the Indian side when the item under discussion was ‘review of the current situation’. People who haven’t been to such meetings often have a very poor and rather contemptuous idea of conversations. However, in practice, the Track II process is very tough navigation between hard stands participants carry from the settings they come from. Shujaat said that the situation was deteriorating and New Delhi was not taking interest in dialogue. “Dialogue with whom”, came the question. He dwelt upon the possibility “if New Delhi was interested” and referred to a recent statement of a Kashmiri leader. “Are you a spokesman of that leader”, came another harsh question as everyone in a small group of ten participants looked on. “The dialogue is stuck up because of Kashmiris and not because of New Delhi”. Shujaat gave up for that moment to allow the conversation to move on. This took me back to a similar situation in 2016 when this group (with slightly different demographics) met on the sidelines of a larger conference in Dubai which has since 2018 been passed on as one of the causes eventually leading to Shujaat’s assassination. By all yardsticks and with experience of numerous conversations since 1990, the Dubai conference was seen as the most successful event. (I am saving the reasons for another occasion.) We were elated over the consensus statement which called for the cessation of all sorts of violence. The group sat for a review and the road ahead. Buoyed by two days of frank discussions in the larger conference, the group agreed to encourage the relevant actors for an official dialogue. Shujaat asked a member from the Pakistani side to use his influence with the State for encouraging the actors in Kashmir to prefer some basic dialogue against the policy of no dialogue. Lo and behold! He found Shujaat’s suggestion outrageous and went on to rebut impressions of any role Pakistan ever had over the separatist political structures in Kashmir. These two episodes introduce to us the emotional restlessness of Shujaat Bukhari which veered around his untiring quest for peace in Kashmir. I have often heard people questioning Shujaat’s locus standi as a private person. It doesn’t need to be a political leader to feel concerned about people and seek violence to be replaced by peace. Shujaat always felt deeply concerned for the situation in Kashmir and tried to make use of all opportunities to push for peace.

Being in Islamabad

AFTER the Istanbul meeting, we were scheduled to travel to Pakistan for attending an event in Islamabad for which a commitment had been made months ago. The night before our travel I developed a serious health issue and decided to return to Delhi. Shujaat would not agree to that. “In that case, I will accompany you”, he insisted. There was quite a deadlock. The organizers would find it embarrassing if none of us turned up. I gave in. The next morning we landed in Islamabad. The event was a day later. This was the third time in less than ten years when Shujaat and I were together in Islamabad. He had, however, traveled many times ever since President Musharraf took the first group of Indian journalists to Pakistan in 2004. It was always difficult to catch hold of him in Islamabad, exactly as difficult as in New Delhi with friends and phone calls competing against each other. All his usual friends were coming in, passing through, but this time the air was piercing. It drizzled across those two days but the weather smelled of conspiracy. It was perhaps more in the head than in the space. Since the Dubai conference of 2016, there was a barrage of propaganda posts against Shujaat across a number of digital platforms. Militant organizations had already placed on record their statements describing the participants of Dubai conference as traitors of the ‘Kashmir cause’. Some of them later retracted also. Our own assessment, informed by some practical inputs, suggested that some of the critical reactions to Dubai conference were engineered by some of the people who would have personally liked to engage in such conversations, but they were jittery about not finding a seat on the table. This entire process, of which Dubai conference was a part, has always been based on ideas and fundamentally against hierarchies. But the traditional politics in our entire larger region is based mainly on hierarchies and entitlements, and not ideas. This propaganda was being run from different places and by different actors with one common pattern –masked identities, doubting everyone, sparing none, questioning all initiatives and offering no alternatives. Such an atmosphere obviously put the lives of the one who stand out in jeopardy. My health condition further deteriorated prompting me to make an early return. Shujaat stayed on for another couple of days. We never found an opportunity to have a conversation on the time spent in Islamabad.

The Delhi redux

FORMER R&AW Chief and a self-proclaimed and also widely acclaimed friend of Kashmir, A.S. Dullat’s book ‘Spy Chronicles’, written together with former ISI chief Gen Asad Durrani, saw a high profile launch in Delhi’s Claridges Hotel on May 23, 2018. The proverbial Lutyen’s gang graced the event to its full. From retired Generals and Ambassadors to young scholars, everyone with an interest in Kashmir showed up. I was passing through Delhi and Shujaat had flown in from Srinagar to make it to the event. Former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, former President Hamid Ansari, Dr Farooq Abdullah, BJP’s estranged leader Yashwant Sinha, Congress leader Kapil Sibbal and former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon took the podium. This made a perfect anti-Modi gang, as described by a section of TV channels, caught in one frame.

Asad Durani couldn’t get travel permission, so he had sent a recorded video to be played to the audience. Barkha Dutt moderated the discussion. Manmohan Singh didn’t speak. Every other dignitary, one after the other, hit out at the Modi government. Since there were no television anchors to interrupt, they bared their hearts out in criticizing the Prime Minister personally for allegedly failing Kashmir and ruining any possibility of good relations with Pakistan. Sinha was not a more vociferous critic of the Modi government then than he is today. Ansari, Sibal, and Menon counted the gains of Congress-led government, spurned by Pakistan, and eventually destroyed by the Modi government. Farooq Abdullah’s speech was the most confusing. He was clearly indecisive between Kashmir and Delhi. He left many in the audience murmuring with his overemphasis and repeated reference to the patriotism of Kashmiri youth. “Kashmiri youth’s heart beats for India, but New Delhi is not feeling that pulse”, said Farooq Abdullah. May 2018, when back home Mehbooba government looked stressed, was a great time to make such claims in Delhi. He then went on to advise the Centre to slash the airfares so that Kashmiri youth could connect closely with the rest of India. He consumed at least five minutes in bringing his estimates of airfares on other routes or between big Indian cities and other countries. The audience was not almost fully convinced that the Modi government has spoilt the Kashmir story.

After the last speaker finished speaking from the podium, Barkha Dutt opened the floor for discussion. Since the event had already run behind the schedule, Barkha made strict rules: only three questions from the floor and no subsequent discussion. After such a stimulating discussion, almost half of the guests had their hands in the air making it difficult for the moderator to pick only three of them. Shujaat didn’t wait for the moderator to decide. He knew it wasn’t going to happen that way. He just stood up, pointing at the logistic support boy to come with a microphone, and started speaking. The noise settled down in less than a minute and Shujaat was audible enough to everyone. He recounted a number of events between 2014 and 2018 to acknowledge the view of speakers that the Modi regime has ‘pushed Kashmiris to the wall’ and allegedly hurt Kashmir’s compact with India. Then he asked a critical question: did Modi invent the whole thing entirely? No, he said loudly. All the people who had just enjoyed a good bashing of the Modi government began to look at Shujaat with awe and exclamation. “Yes, I agree, Modi has pushed Kashmiris to the wall, but where exactly Kashmiris were before Modi arrived”, he asked. Addressing Dr Manmohan Singh, Kapil Sibal, and Shivshankar Menon, he said Modi is just taking forward the Kashmir envelope from where the Congress-led Governments had left. He held out a mirror to Congress with a number of events and opportunities they wasted over the decades, a number of wrong policies with which they made the Kashmir story complex. “New doesn’t have a Kashmir policy”, he lamented as he went on to argue, “if you don’t accept and recognize problem then you are less likely to solve it and more likely to blame each other as you change sides on the floor (of Parliament)”. Kapil Sibal wanted to respond but the audience seemed more in confirmation with Shujaat. A few minutes ago several hands were jostling to make case for a question or observation but now it looked like most felt that their questions have been asked, observations made. It didn’t end here.

Why blame Delhi alone? Why not look inside also. Shujaat asked Farooq Abdullah if he could help him meet some of those young Kashmiris whose hearts he thinks beat for India. Dr Abdullah looked a little offended. He wanted to say something in anger but that was lost in the din. Shujaat ran counter rhetoric making sure that Dr Abdullah doesn’t get to speak again. He said, “Dr Sahab, most of Kashmiri are today highly radicalized, they don’t love India, we need to tell this truth to the Indian mainstream more frankly and more frequently so that the reality is understood”. Two more questions were taken and Barkha announced the even closed. For the next couple of hours when people enjoyed their drinks and dinner, Shujaat was being reached out by one and all with compliments for speaking up frankly. He was frank everywhere, frank in Delhi, frank in Islamabad, and frank in Kashmir. A frankness much to the disliking of many!

The last conversation

THE last conversation we had was on the evening of June 13, barely twenty hours before the proverbial unidentified gunmen, as they were known before their names were revealed later in the month, sprayed Shujaat Bukhari with bullets in broad daylight at a place which remains the last scene of activity in Srinagar even on a curfewed day. A week after Eid, he was putting together in a conversation at Pahalgam a group of people from Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh, the Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists, the Kashmiris, Dogra, Gujjars and Paharis, the Sunnis and the Shias. I was insisting on including a Kashmiri Pandit mainly on the basis of my personal bias towards this gentleman. Shujaat liked the person but he resisted my request. “There are three Kashmiri Pandits already in the list, including another will make their number disproportionate and this will cause unnecessary suspicion in the minds of participants of other identities”, he argued. I stepped back at that moment but didn’t give up. I had thought to give him a break and resume the conversation a day after Eid. By Eid, Shujaat was in his grave. What an irony of fate. By June 23, the scheduled date for Pahalgam conclave, a lot had changed. On that day, the country’s second most powerful leader and president of the ruling party were in Jammu. At a public meeting that evening, he referred to Shujaat’s assassination as one of the reasons cited earlier by the party for the withdrawal of support and fall of the state government in Jammu and Kashmir. Two years on, it is a different world, but the pain in the heart is as fresh as it was on the evening of June 14, 2018.

This memorial piece by Zafar Choudhary earlier appeared in the special edition of Rising Kashmir on the second death anniversary of Shujaat on Sunday, June 14, 2020

 

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