Shujaat Bukhari: In many worlds at the same time, yet rooted to the ground
Shujaat Bukhari, perhaps embarrassed about his tall and distinct demeanour, hunched just a wee bit to make his friends comfortable. His two children, before they were five, would walk with their head distinctly bent to the right, as that was a good imitation of Abba, always on the cellphone, trying to be hands-free. Always wired, he was quick to read up NYT and The Guardian first thing in the morning, before the smartphone arrived, as he tapped his fingers, itching to read the newspapers that reached only in the afternoon. With a trademark mischievous smile, he had mastered just the right manner to disarm you as he proceeded to slowly rip your arguments apart —whether in the biting Kashmir cold or the sweltering Delhi heat. He had just turned 50 this February.
A journalist with spunk, courage and a keen sense of his calling, of telling the story, Bukhari fundamentally believed it was his bounden duty to jump fences between holders of different truths and come to his own conclusions. It is no surprise that his ‘pinned tweet’ is from an Editors Conference in Lisbon in May. He liked being in many worlds at the same time.
Bukhari, widely travelled inside and outside Jammu and Kashmir, was able to blend a truly rooted view of the ground in the state with an easy cosmopolitan perspective. His stints in universities abroad, his long journey with The Hindu brought out the best in him, even though in his final years he gave his newspaper, Rising Kashmir, his everything.
Laughingly, he would speak of The Hindu as being the best teacher, because he had to ultimately ensure that “Anna Salai” (the road with The Hindu’s head office in Chennai) understood the importance of what was happening “downtown or in Baramulla”. That, he said, forced him to be able to tease out stories and be most matter of fact. A long and sustained stint there through very troubled years in the state made his a reliable and valued byline. Says Harish Khare, his editor for many years who got him into The Hindu group, “He was my first contact in Kashmir and I was always struck by his commitment to fairness in reporting. I met him in 1994, got him into the group then.”
Bukhari, in his own office at Press Colony, hosted hundreds of parachuting journalists in and out of the state — in dark times, when stepping out was impossible after sunset, to rosier times, when apple orchards would be covered and there was optimism over the bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad.
Says Sachidadand Murthy, resident editor of The Week, “His deepest quality was his curiosity. He was always hungry for all kinds of information from all sides and had an ability to piece together all the nuggets. He was an excellent reporter, always ahead of things. After a recent health scare, we all flocked to him after he came to Delhi, but he scoffed our concern away with the reminder that he needed to bring out a paper everyday and had to have his hands back at the wheel.”
On quitting The Hindu, Bukhari took to editing his own newspaper. Even in his avatar as an Editor-in-Chief, with more responsibilities now and a sibling who went on to become (and still is) a minister in the PDP-BJP government, always punched hard and stayed above the fray. In a world dominated by social media, Bukhari adapted remarkably to being able to translate his thoughtful and shrewd assessments to the demands of expressing himself 24X7.
With a declared and courageous view that he stood by the peace process, Bukhari was part of a small group of voices with a well-rounded view of the Kashmir situation and an ability to convey what changed there and what didn’t, convincingly to the rest of the country and world. He was happy to not always be seen to be in sync with the dominant view of his peers in the field. For example, he felt that Kashmir should host a literature festival in 2011, contrary to what influential colleagues and writers felt, and he wrote about it and held his ground. In the past few months, while he welcomed the Ramzan ceasefire, his world had grown darker and he did not like what he saw.
Among the last things he did was to still write about his defence of objective and solid reporting from Kashmir as he wrote about allegations that Kashmiri journalists were biased, “we have done Journalism with pride and will continue to highlight what happens on the ground”.