Shujaat Bukhari, editor-in-charge of Rising Kashmir, was no stranger to assassination attempts. He had said that he had escaped three attempts on his life; the last in June 2006. He was, therefore, given personal security officers (PSOs) by the government. Bukhari was involved in track-II diplomacy with Pakistan and frequently travelled to various countries for peace talks. One such initiative, in Dubai in October 2017, is believed to have provoked militants.
The conference called for the cessation of hostilities and the revival of the ceasefire agreement arrived at by former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and general Pervez Musharraf in 2003. Militants dismissed the suggestions. Syed Salahuddin, chairman of Muzaffarabad-based United Jihad Council, a coalition of various militant groups, and supreme commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, had termed the participation of Kashmiris in the conference as treachery.
On June 14, 2018, Bukhari and two of his PSOs, one of whom doubled as the driver of his SUV, were shot multiple times near the Press Enclave on Residency Road, Srinagar. They had stepped out of the Rising Kashmir office only moments ago. The four assailants struck when the markets in the area were still buzzing with pre-Eid shoppers. The police are convinced the attackers had carried out a reconnaissance of the location and chosen the time carefully. The assailants took out AK-47s from a burlap bag, came close to the SUV and sprayed bullets at Bukhari and the SPOs, seconds after they had got into the car. Journalists working in the newsrooms nearby mistook the gunfire for fireworks on the eve of Eid. They rushed out only after some passersby who had witnessed the incident raised an alarm. By then, the assailants had fled on a motorcycle. The attack happened metres away from a picket of the Central Reserve Police Force.
Bukhari was found on the back seat of the SUV, lying on his face, with his left arm hanging down. He had multiple bullet-wounds on his head and body. The jaw of the SPO in the front passenger seat was dangling from his face. The driver, eyewitnesses said, was whispering something unintelligible. Some said he was reciting the shahada (Islamic creed): “Allah is the only God and Muhammad is his messenger”. Bukhari was declared dead at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital.
Bukhari’s assassination is considered one of the three major reasons for the end of the alliance between the BJP and the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party, more than three years after they formed the government. The other two being the deteriorating security situation in Kashmir after the end of the Ramzan ceasefire, and the murder of Rifleman Aurangzeb Khan, who was going home to Poonch for Eid, by militants at Pulwama in south Kashmir.
The parting of ways in itself, though surprising, was a relief to many. But, what has baffled observers is that the BJP, and not the PDP, pulled out of the alliance. PDP sources said the party had no inkling of the BJP’s decision. “We learnt from the media that the BJP had walked out of the alliance,” a PDP leader told THE WEEK. The ending of the alliance is an indication that the Centre is going to deal with militants with an iron hand. A PDP leader said that there was a feeling in Delhi that PDP-BJP government was an impediment to the restoration of order in Jammu and Kashmir before the 2019 general elections. Ram Madhav, the BJP’s pointman for J&K, who played a key role in the formation of the PDP-BJP alliance, hinted towards that at a news conference in Delhi. He said continuing in this government had become untenable. “After taking stock of the situation in the state, the Central government and the party is of the view that we should leave the government,” he said. He said the Ramzan ceasefire was not reciprocated by separatists or militants. “Keeping national interests and that Kashmir is an integral part of India in mind, we have to say it is time that the reins of power in the state be handed over to the governor,” said Madhav. “Terrorism, violence and radicalisation have risen and the fundamental rights of citizens are in danger in the valley. Shujaat Bukhari’s killing is an example.”
Sources said the BJP wanted to preempt any move by the PDP to break the alliance, after the Centre refused extension of the unilateral ceasefire beyond Ramzan. Such a move, which was being discussed among the PDP top brass, would have embarrassed the BJP. After handing over her resignation to Governor N.N. Vohra, Mehooba Mufti told a news conference that she was not shocked with the BJP’s decision. “We did not get into this alliance for power,” she said. “It had bigger motives like the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Pakistan, withdrawal of cases against the youth and ceasefire. This decision to form an alliance with the BJP was unpopular, but, in the larger interest of the state, Mufti saheb [Mufti Muhammad Sayeed] decided to ally with them.” She said the PDP supported talks with Pakistan and the separatists, and also wanted a ceasefire, which the militants did not reciprocate.
The PDP-BJP coalition never had a smooth run since the two parties came together after the elections, which followed the 2014 deluge. The late Sayeed, former home minister and two-time J&K chief minister, had described it as an alliance between the North Pole and the South Pole, due to the inherent ideological contradictions between the two. The alliance had enraged PDP supporters in Kashmir. Political observers say the PDP’s decision to ally with the BJP fanned anger among youth and rise of militancy in south Kashmir’s Anantnag, Pulwama, Shopian and Kulgam. The four districts are considered the power base of the PDP.
The BJP supporters in Jammu had also felt betrayed. They believed the party traded the interests of Jammu for power. The Kathua rape case and the developments that followed had further turned Jammu against the BJP. The stand taken by the Centre and the state government antagonised the party’s support base there. In Jammu, anger against the BJP grew after Mehbooba refused to hand over the case to the CBI. Two BJP ministers, who had participated in the rally called by the Hindu Ekta Manch in support of the accused in the case, were forced to resign. By calling off its alliance with the PDP, the BJP hopes to assuage the feelings of its supporters in Jammu, ahead of the general elections. The BJP is hoping to at least retain the three Lok Sabha seats it has out of the six in J&K.
For now, Vohra, who is being given an extension, will oversee the functioning of the state administration. The Army will deal with the security situation and report directly to the Centre. The Army has already intensified its operations after Eid and killed four militants. Operations have also led to the death of three civilians. The efforts to nab the killers of Bukhari and Khan will gather pace. And, any political process is unlikely to resume before the Lok Sabha elections. Till then, the state will continue to suffer a political vacuum which could strengthen separatists and militants.