On Friday, the last day of the fasting month of Ramadan, thousands attended funeral prayers of veteran journalist Syed Shujaat Bukhari at his native Kreeri village in the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

The 50-year-old Bukhari, editor-in-chief of Srinagar-based English daily Rising Kashmir, was shot dead on Thursday outside his office at Press Enclave by unidentified gunmen, half an hour ahead of the Iftaar – the time when Muslims break their bread at sunset.

His two Personal Security Officers (PSOs) also died in the shootout in the embattled state, where the government had announced a Ramadan ceasefire with militants. One suspect in the assassination has been apprehended, police say; three more are on the run

Bukhari’s killing adds a new level of complexity to the Kashmir conflict, which has devoured over 100,000 lives in the last 28 years.

Peace dialogue infuriated militants

Preliminary investigations and intelligence accessed by Asia Times reveals that a peace conference held in October 2017 in Dubai could have been the trigger for the killing. Multiple government sources told Asia Times in Srinagar and Delhi that the Track 2 dialog, which Bukhari had attended along with large delegations from India and Pakistan, led to his assassination.

“A British NGO, Conciliation Resources, had facilitated the dialogue and it was one of the biggest gatherings from both sides. Bukhari, along with Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak, activist Khurram Parvez, journalist Iftikhar Gilani, representatives from the state’s BJP, Congress and People’s Democratic Party attended on the Indian side,” a senior security official. “From Pakistan, they had Abdur Rashid Turabi and Irshad Mehmood among others” – both advocates of Kashmir’s secession from India.

Bukhari played a key role in getting so many participants to attend, the source confirmed.

Shujaat Bukhari Fourth Suspect
One of the suspects  caught on CCTV examining the victims. He is currently in police custody and a weapon has been recovered from him. Photo: Courtesy Majid Hyderi

At the conference, Bukhari and others made a convincing case that armed insurgency was not helping the Kashmir cause, at least four of the participants confirmed to Asia Times. For security reasons, the participants requested that their identities be kept secret.

“The general consensus emerging from the dialog was that for 28 years, the armed insurgency had only worsened matters,” a source said. “Shujaat Bukhari was a prime driver of this thought and spent hours convincing everyone that we needed a new paradigm.”

The outbreak of potential peace seems to have triggered furious reactions among India-based Hurriyat – militants who fight for Kashmir’s secession – outfits.

The Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Hizbul Mujahideen were the first to condemn it; the United Jehad Council (UJC), an umbrella group of armed secessionist groups also condemned the conference. Along with Hizbul Mujahideen leader Syed Salahuddin, they called the dialogue a “futile exercise” and labelled participants from India “traitors.”

Late last year, probably around December and early January, Indian security agencies picked up intercepts that revealed a possible threat to Bukhari and other participants. “I also received some warnings and threats from the local representatives of these armed groups,” one of the participants confirmed to Asia Times.

The plot to kill Bukhari, government sources said, was carefully planned. Several reconnaissances were mounted to check the placement of CCTV cameras. The assassination team kept a watch over Bukhari’s movements and routine, and decided to hit him outside his office, because it offered a better exfiltration route, investigators believe.

The Union Home Ministry and other agencies condemned the attack. Jammu and Kashmir Police launched a probe and released pictures of the suspected assassins.

A police official said fugitive Pakistani militant Naveed Jat, who had escaped from a hospital in Srinagar after killing two police officers last year, may have masterminded the attack. “The man sitting in the middle on the bike caught on CCTV resembles him,” the official said. “We are exploring the possibility and the link because the attack seems to have been meticulously planned,” the officer added.

The killing

On the fateful Thursday evening at 7:10pm, unidentified gunmen, believed to number at least four, fired into the vehicle which Shujaat had just boarded with his two PSOs. Locals rushed to the spot to find the trio lying in a pool in blood but in a sudden burst of chaos, everyone fled.

“Every one of us started running away,” said a photojournalist. “And for another 20 minutes, nobody, not even police, came.”

Police, however, said the duty officer at the nearest station, Raashid Ahmed, reached the scene within five minutes. Witnesses warned that militants could still be hiding in the car, so Ahmed first fired multiple shots before rushing into Bukhari’s vehicle, with smashed windscreens.

shujaat Bukhari Rising front page
Bukhari’s newspaper, Rising Kashmir paid tribute to its slain editor on Friday morning. Photo: Courtesy Majid Hyderi

Police said Raashid drove the damaged vehicle to the hospital, where Bukhari and one of his bodyguards were declared dead. The third victim subsequently succumbed to his wounds.

What appeared to be three of the killers escaping on a bike were captured in a CCTV image. But while the area is under widespread CCTV surveillance, some media houses owning the gadgets have told police that the devices were “not operational,”  hampering investigations, and raising yet  more questions.

A convoluted plot

At a funeral, believed to be the largest-ever in the area, many mourners speculated that Bukhari was killed by “agencies.” But which agency? In the killing fields of Kashmir, an “agency” can refer to either Indian or Pakistani intelligence units, which play a key role in the conflict.

Two key militant outfits in Pakistan –the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Hizbul Mujahideen – have condemned the attack and demanded an international probe.

State police believe the killing to be handiwork of secessionists. Police have released pictures of four suspects seeking their whereabouts. Three are seen riding a motorcycle; one is seen examining bloodied victims in the car immediately after the gun attack. Only one of the four – the one steering the bike – has covered his face, with a motorcycle helmet.

Inspector General of Police (Kashmir Range) SP Pani told reporters that the fourth suspect had been arrested and was being interrogated for leads.

Making things even more curious is the fact that, during the day, a police van as well as intelligence officials in plainclothes had been deployed in the media hub – but none were present at the time of the shooting. “How did militants manage to bring automatic rifles to the secure area and manage to escape without being caught?” asked a mourner.

The holder of a PhD in journalism, Bukhari was seen as the most educated editor of any English daily in the trouble-torn state. He survived three previous attacks, including an attempted abduction.

Though his brother Syed Basharat Bukhari is a senior minister in the Peoples Democratic Party-BJP government, Shujaat Bukhari was known for his anti-establishment stand. Sometimes, this  deprived him of  advertisements from the current and previous administration; such ads are a key revenue source for newspapers in the trouble-torn region.

Apart from running three newspapers, Bukhari, was a prominent lobbyist organizing peace conferences and other summits in the US, UK and other parts of the world. He was also part of several Track 2 dialogues with Pakistan.

Although thousands have been slain in the last three decades in Kahsmir, Bukhari is only the fourth journalist to be killed.He is survived by his wife, one son and one daughter.