Claims that Shujaat Bukhari Was Killed for Attending a Track Two Conference Are Built on Shaky Foundations

Two articles have suggested that the veteran journalist’s leading role in a Track Two conference led to his assassination. Courtesy Rising Kashmir
20 June, 2018

As with any other high-profile murder in Kashmir, Shujaat Bukhari’s killing has thrown up a number of claims long before real evidence has been publicly presented. Two articles—one in The Quint and one in Asia Times—have suggested that the veteran journalist’s leading role in a Track Two conference led to his assassination.

Track Two conferences are meeting places for people to discuss ideas. They are not political processes in themselves, but function primarily as wider support structures. This is why they are tolerated by multiple parties who are in conflict with each other. It is also why it is wildly implausible that merely attending one, or organising one, would lead to being murdered.

From the end of 2009 to the end of 2015, as part of an international organisation, I managed the funding, design and monitoring of a series of peacebuilding initiatives in Kashmir as well as between India and Pakistan. I did not lead or organise these initiatives. Due to the rules under which they are held—one can talk about them, but not name names without explicit permission—I cannot identify the actors, but I can write about the processes themselves.

The initiatives I was involved in hosted multiple conferences like the one that is said to have led to Shujaat’s murder. These included high-level conferences attended by serving cabinet ministers, advisors to prime ministers, as well as former decisionmakers with ranks such as National Security Adviser, Chief of Army Staff, head of intelligence agencies, foreign secretary and ambassador. Important dissident leaders also attended these events.

All of these conferences discussed ceasefire violations along the LoC, explored ways to decrease violence between all actors, and suggested how to promote peace constituencies: topics similar to those discussed at the last Track Two conference Shujaat attended. They all ended with a formal statement calling on the Indian and Pakistani governments, as well as regional governments and other decisionmakers, to take actions towards peacebuilding—statements very similar to the one said to have led to Shujaat’s murder.

These similarities are not coincidental. Shujaat had been a friend of mine since 2005, when I started my civil-society and journalistic work on Jammu and Kashmir. We were well informed about the separate initiatives we were part of. You could even say that the organisers of the one I was involved in and Shujaat were friendly competitors. There are only a few topics around which such initiatives can be built: security issues, governance structures, human rights, water issues, trade and culture. We would often discuss the same things covered in other Track Two initiatives, with many of the same people, covering similar ground in the hopes of finding some small way forward. These included issues such as the human loss to civilians due to the breakdown of the LoC ceasefire, the potential of cross-border trade and the infrastructural needs (such as for banking services) that must be met for it to happen, and the roles and experiences of women in conflict.

This is the banal reality of Track Two work. As a former intelligence chief laughingly said to me during an initiative I worked on, “Even I wouldn’t listen to myself now.” Most of the people at such conferences do not decide policy (there are rare exceptions), but owing to the posts some have held or hold, they are able to inform and advise decisionmakers. There is a clear understanding that they are present at these events to discuss ideas, and that alone. Others, whether civil-society leaders or journalists, play an important role in disseminating information to the public, as well as being able to bluntly relay what is happening on the ground, so the former decisionmakers can carry those messages up the chain of command.

To paraphrase a former National Security Adviser, the Track Two process helps in putting forth ideas that governments may or may not accept. The participants know the red lines and understand the limits of what can be pushed, and to whom. Governments cannot engage in this type of haggling because anything they do is, by definition, a government position. At the same time, the local populace, whose participation is key in making sure confidence-building measures can be sustained, is brought into the ambit of what is being discussed by the decisionmakers.

It is deeply frustrating work, as most participants feel that they must put forward the red lines that decisionmakers will baulk at. Quite often discussions end in a deadlock, with people insisting that their position be acknowledged first before discussions move on, leading to others also sticking to non-negotiable positions. This is also why many Kashmiri participants are often angered by how Track Two processes are bounded by the same red lines that control their daily lives, and how, despite large funds being spent, so few direct outcomes come of them.

This type of work has never led to anybody being killed, and it has continued for decades. There is, though, one exception that proves the rule. In December 2009, the Kashmiri separatist leader Fazal Haq Qureshi was shot; Shujaat reported on the incident. Qureshi had attended Track Two conferences, but that is not considered the reason behind the attempt to assassinate him.

Qureshi was a high-level political actor perceived to be involved in negotiations on behalf of Mirwaiz Umer Farooq’s faction of the Hurriyat. As a former leader of a militant group, he had been deeply involved in negotiating the 2000 ceasefire between the Majid Dar faction of the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Indian government. In fact, the assassinations in Kashmir that resemble the manner in which Shujaat was murdered, more even than that of the attempt on Qureshi, were of political leaders of high stature—Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq in 1990, Abdul Ghani Lone in 2002, and Maulana Showkat in 2011.

Shujaat was not a political leader. The argument has been made that maybe he was seen as one because his brother is a cabinet minister in the Jammu and Kashmir state government, but anybody who knows Kashmir knows that the brothers kept a safe distance between each other, given that one was in the media and the other was in politics. It would be startling if the assassins, who seemed to have planned the strike meticulously, were ignorant of this well-known fact. You do not go to such lengths to murder somebody in one of the most heavily securitised locations in Srinagar, a day before Eid—when security is even more enhanced—without some research.

Both the articles in The Quint and Asia Times emphasise the fury of the leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen, Yousuf Shah (who uses the nom de guerre Salahuddin), over the recent Track Two conference that Shujaat helped organise in Dubai. There is no reason to doubt this, but it adds one more wrinkle to the narrative that Bukhari was targeted for his involvement in the conference. Salahuddin—and the United Jihad Council he heads as the leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen—is based in territory very carefully controlled by the Pakistani security establishment. Conciliation Resources, a UK-based NGO, under whose aegis this conference was held, and with whom Shujaat was associated, has been working in that area since they started their Kashmir initiative. One of the reasons that CR held its conferences overseas was the impossibility of getting a registration under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. Having begun their work on that side, they found the Indian government deeply suspicious of them, and reasonably so. The very few conferences they held in India had to be done through partnerships with other organisations.

Given these facts, if these individuals wished to target CR and its initiatives, why would they organise such a drastic action when they could far more easily put greater pressure on their side of the LoC—especially if it was just about a conference which featured a rather anodyne press release? Nobody would have even heard of it were such pressure to be applied to CR, and no more conferences would have been held.

The history of assassinations in Kashmir and that of Track Two conferences suggest that Shujaat’s murder is unlikely to have been for so petty a reason as a conference, especially given that numerous Track Two conferences are still taking place, in which many people say things that are meant to push specific agendas. Such speculation, based largely on hearsay, only distracts us from finding the culprits behind Shujaat’s murder, and the murders of the two policemen accompanying him. We have video evidence, and an investigation team has been set up. Shujaat’s journalistic peers would honour his memory far better by doing evidence-based reportage rather than writing prose more befitting a mystery thriller than real life.