Syed Shujaat Bukhari, the founding editor-in-chief of Rising Kashmir, a leading newspaper in India’s conflict-ridden Kashmir, was shot and killed by as yet unidentified terrorists near his office on Thursday, on the eve of the holy festival of Eid ul-Fitr.

Bukhari, 50, was shot multiple times at close range in the head and abdomen as he was getting into his car outside his office in Srinagar’s Press Enclave. He was rushed to hospital, but declared dead on arrival. According to eyewitness accounts, his Personal Security Officers (PSOs) were waiting outside the office when Bukhari was supposed to leave and head to a meeting.

His two PSOs, Constable Hameed and Constable Mumtaz of Jammu and Kashmir Police, were also shot and killed. The area is close to a police station and the fact that police took a long time to respond has left Srinagar abuzz with conspiracy theories.

Bukhari was the editor-in-chief of Srinagar-based newspaper Rising Kashmir and venerated for having a “neutral” and “fearless” voice. He was a vocal advocate for the rights of Kashmiris and journalists reporting from the conflict-ridden state. He had survived three kidnapping and assassination attempts and was given police protection in 2000.

For more than a decade Bukhari was the bureau chief of the state for The Hindu, a major mainstream paper, whose Kashmir coverage was synonymous with him. He was also active on Track-2 negotiations on Kashmir and was known to have advocated peace over violence for years.

He also attracted criticism from the United Jehad Council, an umbrella body of separatist elements as well as the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT). However, the LeT quickly distanced itself from the attack and released a statement condemning it. However, Indian security officials have not ruled out its role in the killing so far.

“He had not complained of any threat to his life. There are no leads; it’s too early to come to a conclusion,” Jammu and Kashmir Director General of Police SP Vaid told The Hindu. None of the terrorist groups active in the Valley claimed responsibility. However, the local militant outfit, the Hizbul Mujahideen had yet to issue a formal statement by Friday afternoon.

Late on Thursday night Jammu and Kashmir Police released photos of three men on a motorbike who were suspected of carrying out the attack. Two of the men hid their faces with a mask and helmet and the third appeared to be hiding between the two. 

Tense Kashmir Valley

Bukhari’s assassination came at an especially critical time in the Valley. Hours after Bukhari’s killing, an Indian Army soldier’s bullet-riddled body was found in Pulwama district. The soldier, Aurangzeb, had been abducted from the district’s Kalampora village as he was heading home for Eid, Army officials said.

Aurangzeb was reportedly a personal security officer to Major Rohit Shukla, an Indian Army Officer of the 44 Rashtriya Rifles branch. Major Shukla was responsible for orchestrating the encounter in May that killed top Hizbul Mujahideen commander Sameer Tiger.

Experts believe Bukhari’s assassination was an attempt to raise tensions and prompt the Indian government to call off the conditional ceasefire it declared in May, asking security forces not to launch any operations against terrorists during the holy month of Ramadan.

Such attacks, targeting the media, are making a comeback after two decades to the valley. The last such attack was on Parvaz Muhammad Sultan, an investigative reporter who ran his own newspaper and who was killed in his office in the same Press Enclave area in Srinagar in 2013. At least six other journalists were killed in a similar manner before him.

Reporting from Jammu and Kashmir has always been perilous for journalists. In August 2000, terrorists planted two bombs in downtown Srinagar and timed the second to go off several minutes after the first, to target the responding security personnel and journalists. Hindustan Times photographer Pradeep Bhatia and 11 others were killed by the car bomb.

Shock in the fraternity

Bukhari’s assassination shocked his peers and colleagues. The state’s chief minister Mehbooba Mufti rushed to the hospital where Bukhari was taken and later broke down while speaking to the media. “What can I say? He came to meet me just a few days ago,” she said. Bukhari’s brother, Basharat Bukhari, is the Law Minister in Mufti’s government.

Union Minister of Home Affairs Rajnath Singh also condemned Bukhari’s killing as “an act of cowardice.” “It is an attempt to silence the saner voices of Kashmir. He was a courageous and fearless journalist,” he tweeted.

The media fraternity was equally vocal about their shock and condemnation. “Shujaat Bukhari and I were colleagues at The Hindu. He was a formidable reporter, and, as editor of Rising Kashmir, a powerful voice for the embattled media fraternity, a true voice of sanity and reason. No words of condemnation are enough for the scum who have assassinated him,” tweeted Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of news website The Wire and a former colleague of Bukhari when they were both at The Hindu.

Bukhari’s assassination is a reminder of the growing challenges faced by journalists in India. The world’s largest democracy slipped two spots in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index for the second consecutive year.