The Caravan – A book that breaks the tortured silence on the Kashmir Valley’s darkest years
Sanjay Kak writes:
In the Summer of 1995, six trekkers were abducted by armed gunmen in the mountains of Kashmir, a few hours walk from the tourist town of Pahalgam. Just days after the kidnapping, one of the men, an American, had managed a daring solo escape, raising hope all around. Five weeks later, it all took a grotesque turn when the headless Christian Ostrø, a young Norwegian, turned up in a forest glade, the words “al-Faran” carved on his chest in letters 10 inches high. The search for the other four carried on for most of a year, but the two Britons, the American and the German were never found.
From the start, this was a story that gripped the imagination of the Western press. This shocking—and rare—brutality against foreign tourists played a critical part in shaping the international perception that Kashmir was in the grip of ‘Islamic terrorism’, a broad brushstroke that would soon be deployed to smear a range of diverse, complex issues.
In The Meadow, investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark brilliantly evoke the besieged landscape of Kashmir in the 1990s. It’s not a pretty picture they draw, and it couldn’t have been easy for them to negotiate it either. But they wade in with tenacity and emerge with a meticulous narration of the tragic kidnapping, and a clear-eyed account of the Kashmir in which it was staged. While the abduction was mounted by a Pakistan-based militant outfit, and fueled by their determination to ransom a release for its imprisoned men, the shocking conclusion towards which the book points us lies on the Indian side, amongst forces determined to avoid a swift or easy resolution, people “who did not want this never-ending bad news story of Pakistani cruelty and Kashmiri inhumanity to end, even when the perpetrators themselves were finished”. This was a shadowy world of surrendered militants, rogue elements of the Special Task Force (STF) of the state police, as well as a clique within the Indian Army and Intelligence, “all of whom had come to operate outside the norms and with absolutely no oversight”. And for whom “there had been no virtue in ending the hostage-taking at all”. The men were finally led to their death, the book suggests, not by their kidnappers, but by those who were to rescue them.
Kidnapping was not unfamiliar to Kashmiris in those years. The book reminds us that the insurrection, which began in late-1989, is itself widely seen to have gathered critical visibility only after the audacious abduction of Rubaiya Sayeed, daughter of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the then Union home minister and himself a Kashmiri. It had ended triumphantly for the abductors, with the release of five important militants of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front. By 1991, Kashmir had witnessed the kidnapping of the daughter of a Kashmiri Member of Parliament, later released in exchange for a militant; of a senior executive of Indian Oil Corporation, who was exchanged for 12 militants; and of two Swedish engineers, who were held for 97 days before their release. A daring gambit had swiftly turned into a routine tactic.
But as the steel of the Indian security forces began to stiffen into a security ‘grid’, and military domination of the countryside increased, the outcome of the kidnappings became less predictable. In May 1993, a legislator from Bihar was released only a few days after being picked up, with the kidnappers reportedly pleading with the negotiators to take him off their hands. In June 1994, two Britons, including 16-year-old schoolboy, Kim Housego, were kidnapped and held by armed militants for 17 days in the Pahalgam mountains, before they too were released without any trade-off. (The teenaged Housego received an inscribed clock from his abductors, with a message that compared Kashmir’s Indian occupiers with the Nazis, signed “Harkat ul-Ansar International”!)
John Childs, the American who had literally run his way to liberty, and Hans Christian Ostrø, whose decapitated body was recovered, were travelling alone. But the wives and girlfriends of Donald Hutchings, Keith Mangan, Paul Wells and Dirk Hasert had been with them at the time of their abduction. As their anxious weeks turned into months full of dread, the full complexity of Srinagar unfolded before them, a chessboard for a massive game of nerves. Within the city’s guarded enclaves, Levy and Scott-Clark deftly locate the formidable array of opponents facing the kidnappers: footsoldiers from the Crime Branch; the vast tentacles of the Intelligence apparatus; the brute muscle of the Army and paramilitary forces; and everything under the transfixed white-heat glare of the international press. Diplomats from four countries were also standing by, as were the top hostage negotiator from Britain’s Scotland Yard and the head of the Crisis Negotiation Unit of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. Lodged in nearby guesthouses were military advisers from both countries, and spooks from MI6 and the CIA, with access to the almost legendary electronic and satellite-based intelligence resources of their outfits. Yet those working to rescue the four men were unable to leverage all this awesome firepower into anything resembling a deal.
In a book about the consequences of a tragic kidnapping, one that affects a group of American, British and European men and women, it’s possible for the reader to occasionally bristle at the care that is lavished on these privileged lives, to see The Meadow as somewhat Euro-centric. For such attention is not paid to any of the locals in that landscape, who are also being consumed, en masse, by the same processes that made such tragic victims of these six white men. An exaggerated olfactory sensitivity frequently encourages that feeling: India is a “chaotic mix of vinegary odours”, “the wheezing, scratching, snorting insurgents” smell of “gunmetal and goose fat”; they live in “muttony shelters” . But these are minor quibbles, for it’s the abduction that finally sweeps everyone away, forcing us into a sort of Noah’s Ark of shared tragic experience.
Ironically, the most reticent of the accounts comes from John Childs, the only survivor amongst the six, an explosives and ordnance engineer on a short break from his work in India for an American munitions company. Through the book he remains a taciturn loner, in itself a clue to the powerful sense of self-preservation that fuelled his improbable escape from heavily armed captors. (“I came from America, the land of the free”, he says in a moment of touching political naiveté.) The other five we get to know through the warm, refracted memories of their loved ones. The man who was most brutally beheaded, Hans Christian Ostrø, emerges, in a heartbreaking portrait, as a sunny, gregarious Norwegian, fresh from his army training, physically strong and tragically unwilling to be subdued. (“I have my knife,” he says in the days prior to his kidnapping, “I’ll be fine.”)
While their status as ‘foreign’ journalists has clearly opened up areas that are totally opaque—or potentially too dangerous—for local journalists in Kashmir, Levy and Scott-Clark also bring to the table almost forensic investigative skills, and a robust reputation for ferreting out the forgotten secrets of our time. (Their last book, Deception , was a compelling account of the clandestine—and often bizarre—routes by which Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan orchestrated the creation of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb.) The Meadow swiftly unmasks the mysterious Al Faran as little more than an alias for an operation mounted by Harkat ul-Ansar (the ‘Movement of the Victorious’), the notorious Pakistan-based group nurtured by that country’s Inter-Services Intelligence. The Harkat was determined to ransom a release for its fire-breathing general secretary, Masood Azhar, who had been captured in Kashmir the previous year and was now in an Indian prison.
Though Harkat’s name subsequently showed up in sensational assaults on other places—from New York’s Twin Towers to New Delhi’s Parliament House—it’s still not easy to concede the claim made in the early pages of the book that with this kidnapping “Masood’s gunmen experimented with the tactics and rhetoric of Islamic terror”. The centrality of Masood Azhar to the kidnapping has probably encouraged the disquieting subtitle of the book’s UK edition, Kashmir 1995—Where the Terror Began, even though the substance of what follows doesn’t sit well with this assertion. Or with the claim set out in its preface, that here “a crime was committed whose nature and cruelty signalled the start of the new age of terror Osama would go on to marshal”. In a book that works so ferociously to be persuasive, the link with that big bad bogeyman, Osama bin Laden, remains a speculative one. To frame Kashmir as the petri dish for the cultivation of something called ‘Islamic terror’ is facile—far too casual a deference to the hyperbole currently in fashion within strategic thinktanks of the West (and the salacious needs of its media and publishing industry). The dubious credit for igniting that new age surely belongs to some place further west of Kashmir: perhaps Pakistan, or even Afghanistan, where their jihad against the Soviet Union first brought the US into a collaborative tryst with the Mujahideen.
It’s possible to read The Meadow as a thriller, although it’s not a who-dunit (we know it was the Harkat); or even a why-dunit (the release of Masood Azhar). Instead, the often heartstopping tension in the narrative comes from trying to figure out how, despite being tantalisingly close to it for so many months, the men were never rescued. In teasing out the story of the kidnapping, Levy and Scott-Clark create a picture of a brooding and oppressive time, not so long ago, when Kashmir itself was held hostage. Such a chronicle has so far existed mostly in the traumatised hearts and minds of Kashmiris who lived through the terrible years of the 1990s, and it has only now begun to be alluded to in some of their recent writing. But in its unmatched access to points of view from inside the security state, in its ability to create the comfort that allows the apparatchik to proudly expose themselves, The Meadow is clearly destined to become a landmark narrative.
The authors’ own clear-eyed insight into this dystopia is almost casually scribbled in the margins of their big kidnapping story, as they note the effects of the proliferation of army, paramilitary, intelligence and police outfits, each with a different set of goals. When they recognise, in a matter of fact way, that “kidnapping of a local for money was so regular” that it “barely raised an eyebrow”; when they refer to various agencies “sponsoring sectarian hits and fomenting betrayals”; when the Inspector General of Police admits that under Governor’s Rule, “it was the spies who really governed”, we know then that The Meadow breaks a tortured silence on those years, in a way that is quietly deafening.
The script written out for Al Faran may have been authored in Pakistan by the Harkat ul-Ansar, but its tragic consequences were pencilled in elsewhere, the book suggests. That universe was represented by men like DD Saklani, a former Lieutenant-General in the Indian Army, and at the time, an Adviser to the Governor of Jammu & Kashmir. In this capacity he also chaired meetings of the Unified Command, placing him at the fraught intersection of the military and civilian dimensions of the Kashmir crisis.
Two vignettes around Lt Gen Saklani give us a glimpse of the rough justice that was playing out in the Kashmir of the mid-1990s. The more benign is of the lines of anxious people forming outside the Security Adviser’s office, at 8 o’clock every morning—parents of young men who had been picked up by the security forces (and then presumably ‘disappeared’). “There was not much that he could do for any of them,” we are told, “so he doled out a few rupees, like alms, and sent them away.” The other, from just days after the kidnapping, is an image of a more proactive Saklani, surveying the Pahalgam mountains from the vantage of a helicopter. When the pilot spies a man “roughly dressed and limping badly, making his way down the mountain”, the helicopter rotors down for a closer look, in what will shortly turn into the chance ‘rescue’ of the escaping American, John Childs. In those uncertain minutes, Saklani turns to his police escort and calmly asks him, “to load a weapon and take the boy out”. Take the boy out. Kill him, that is.
A sliver of hesitation by the police officer was mercy enough, for by then it was evident that the roughly dressed man was a foreigner. (You’re safe now,” Saklani told Childs in the chopper, “we’re the good guys.” By the escaped American could just as easily have become one of the disappeared in Kashmir or perhaps surfaced dead, in the garb of an Afghan or Chechen or any kind of foreign militant. Or become one more of the 6000 people killed that year.
The man handpicked to conduct the negotiations with Al Faran was an unusual choice: Rajinder Tikoo, Inspector General Police (Crime Branch), but with no previous experience in dealing with hostage negotiations. By his own addled self-description (or an embarrassing purple patch in the authors’ prose), we learn that “Tikoo was a subtle thug, and an elitist democrat, a remorseful tyrant and a scientific plod”. In Kashmir, he is known for his twisted genius in conceptualising the STF in 1994, which first began concentrating on locals to fashion the rude blade of Indian counterinsurgency strategy. It was premised on the strategy that “pitting Kashmiri against Kashmiri was always preferable to losing Indian men”. In a few short years, the dreaded STF had turned into a “mobile killing force”. When fused with the ‘renegades’ (the surrendered militants locally referred to as Ikhwan), the STF developed a terrifying reputation for extortion, rape and murder, and for settling personal scores and siphoning off booty. That left the “classically educated” Inspector General Tikoo free to be a charming cosmopolitan, an Inspector Morse for Kashmir, having read Plato’s The Republic while still in school, and “as at ease among the Elizabethans, as in the abstract universe of pure maths”.
But hostage negotiation is not merely an intellectual joust, a contest between two great minds—it’s “not Karpov against Spassky”, as the visiting Commander Ramm from Scotland Yard points out in frustration. It requires training. It also requires the will to win, and the backing of a system that wants a clear end result. Like many of us, this is something the Commander assumes, a presumption that turns out to be unsettling for him, nerve-wracking for the families waiting in Srinagar, and deadly for the hostages.
The Meadow is conjured up on a scale that is near operatic, with a cast of appropriately larger-than-life characters—men from deep within the imperium like Lt Gen Saklani and Inspector General Tikoo, with their bravura speaking parts. These are joined by more grounded voices: the redoubtable Yusuf Jameel, a journalist with the BBC in Srinagar.
Kifayat Haider, the senior police officer in Pahalgam town, and Mushtaq Sadiq of the Crime Branch. And, of course, the families and friends of the abducted. Each one is encouraged to describe what they remember, sometimes in such dense, overlapping detail that the narrative starts to overwhelm. It’s like watching the six blind (or blindfolded) men of Hindostan as they engage with their elephant-sized discomfort, unsure of what it really is that they are grappling with.
The biggest puzzle, of course, was the consistent sabotage of the negotiations conducted by Inspector General Tikoo. There was never a matter of principle involved here: the Indian government had relented with kidnappers many times in the past, and they were to do it again in the future. Indeed, only four years later, the same Masood Azhar was winging his way to freedom for the price of a planeload of Indian tourists on board an Indian Airlines flight, hijacked from Kathmandu to Kandahar. The Indian foreign minister even escorted Masood Azhar to Afghanistan, in what has been waggishly called the ‘Kidnap Express’: flying with him was a Kashmiri sentenced for the kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed. And a Briton who was in jail for a botched abduction in Delhi: Omar Shaikh, later to be indicted for his role in the killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl.
The failure to negotiate may have also been linked with the national election which was due in India early the next year, and where the ‘tough’ handling of Kashmir would play as an important plank. But meanwhile winter was looming, and after months of shepherding the abducted men, the Al Faran were exhausted and jittery, a condition that could seriously jeopardise the lives of the hostages. The Indian security establishment seemed to be looking for ways of protracting the incident, using it to draw attention to the cruelty of its Pakistani handlers but triggering lethal consequences for this motley group of foreign trekkers. (The brutal, and almost senseless beheading of Ostrø, it turns out, was a consequence of his relentless urge to escape coming up against the increasing frustrations of the men who held him captive.) Whoever was calling the shots on the Indian side seemed ready to accept collateral damage. They may have even welcomed it.
Until they happened to land up on that mountain trail in Kashmir, all at one blighted time, the only thing that the six abducted men and their families shared was that they were foreigners in Kashmir. The hardest hit were the four women left behind that day, watching bewildered as armed abductors led their partners into the grey. Most of them had been in India only for a few weeks; nothing had prepared them for the cauldron into which they landed in Kashmir.
We learn of the efforts made by each one of the abducted to find out how safe Kashmir was for trekkers, and the anodyne reassurances provided to them by Tourist Offices in Delhi and Srinagar. Even as the German couple, Dirk Hasert and Anne-Katrin Hennig, were being encouraged to go on a trek by the Tourist Police in Srinagar, right next door at the UN Office, three women were reporting on the abduction of their partners—Donald Hutchings, Keith Mangan and Paul Wells.
We learn that as Saklani’s helicopter thundered up the Pahalgam valley, the area was crawling with the Rashtriya Rifles, the counterinsurgency force of the Indian Army. They were not deployed to search for the kidnapped, though, but were part of the watertight security put in place for the Amarnath yatra, the annual trek that brings tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims to this valley. As he flew over the massing soldiers, the general was fully aware that no attempt was being made to bring back to safety at least 30 other hapless foreign trekkers still out in these mountains.
We learn that even as the fleeing John Childs was plucked to safety by that army chopper, a furious Al Faran squad was out there again, humiliated at his escape, and hungry to square their tally by picking up more trekkers.They quickly found two: Dirk Hasert and Hans Christian Ostrø.
In a narrative built with the relentless cross-referencing of perspectives, it does begin to seem as if there was a gigantic conspiracy afoot to lure this set of innocents into a noose, pulled ever so slowly, and by several different sets of hands.
If abductions are secret, silent crimes, with each side trying to outguess the other, then a puzzling feature of the Al Faran kidnapping was just how public it was. Ransom notes arrived, photographs with critical clues to the possible location of the men were delivered, telephonic negotiations continued over several months, and audiotapes with messages from the hostages were made available. At one point the hostages were even brought onto a VHF wireless network, and spoke directly to Inspector General Tikoo. And after their families placed an appeal in the local newspapers, the Norwegian Embassy in New Delhi was promptly faxed a handwritten note from Hans Christian Ostrø. This was clearly one of the most uninhibited abductions in history.
There comes a stage in the book when this profusion of messages from the remote, inaccessible valley of Warwan—the meadow of the title—begins to feel positively unreal. Sequestered there for several months, the abducted men seem to be sending out notes and appeals for help at such a pace that it appears as if every stone and rock, and every field and crevice, was being used to stash away a message to the outside world. They create a “literary moraine” so dense that you are tempted to think of it as occurring in an almost hallucinatory space, to sometimes see these as the authors’ imagining of the desperate outpourings of the abducted men. Furiously annotating the margins of his collection of photographs, Ostrø composed intense, almost mystical, poetic commentary: “Like a swarm of wild, sick horses, caught in a corral, they have been running in panic,” he wrote on one picture, “the hooves smashing against bare granite, the white is in their eyes.”
The Meadow makes clear that in this kidnapping—as in everything else in the impossible battle that India has waged in Kashmir for more than half a century—beyond a point, nothing is what it seems. It’s therefore not improbable that to maintain the visibility of the abductions for the outside world, to keep the emotional charge of their families locked down in Srinagar, the prisoners had actually been encouraged by the Indian side to send out these messages of distress. After all, Warwan may have been remote, but it was not a secret place. It was not beyond the all-powerful scrutiny of the nearby Rashtriya Rifles outpost. It was not opaque to the Air Force helicopters systematically flying overhead in photoreconnaissance flights. (Years later, a former chief of the Indian spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, confirms the pictures: “They were so detailed you could see the sweaty faces of the captives as they played volleyball.”)
Sometime in the middle of September 1995, after a profusion of signals over the past 11 weeks, everything suddenly went quiet. The negotiations with Al Faran had been conclusively called off; Inspector General Tikoo had quit the assignment to go on leave. (He too had begun to see through it all: each time he had come close to any sort of breakthrough on the telephonic negotiations, it had been prematurely—and mysteriously—leaked to the press in faraway Delhi, and blown out of the water.) Meanwhile, a bomb attack on the office of Yusuf Jameel of the BBC had injured him, killing his colleague and friend, the photographer Mushtaq Ali. The two had been very close observers of the abductions: Srinagar’s increasingly inquisitive press was being warned. A series of sightings suggested that the Al Faran party were leaving the meadow. They seemed to be headed towards the southern Kashmir town of Anantnag/Islamabad, arousing some feeble hope in the families because that’s where the teenaged Housego had been released the previous year.
In the operatic scale of the book, with its twisted, byzantine subplots, the finale surely deserved Anantnag. This was not just any town in the Kashmir of the early 1990s: breaking open this doughty bastion of the armed resistance had proved to be one of the most difficult tasks before the Indian security apparatus. But finally they had, through the application of the “reckless lack of precision” of the Rashtriya Rifles, and the ruthless use of the Ikhwan. With a carte blanche to do what it took to pacify the area, they started the disciplining with strong-arm tactics, through informers, and by looting. But eventually the Rashtriya Rifles ended up enforcing their writ via a straightforward deal with the Ikhwan: cash-for-corpses.
If Srinagar, with its multiple power centres and agendas, seemed difficult and opaque, then the naked cruelties of Anantnag left little to the imagination. Hutchings, Mangan, Wells and Hasert were being moved towards this area not because it was a militant stronghold (as the media and the families were being told) but because it was not. It was run by the Ikhwan militia. It turned out that ‘Sikander’, the Kashmiri face of Al Faran, had all along been an old comrade of ‘Tiger’, the renegade whose merry band controlled the area around Warwan. Their friendship was as old as their days together in the Ikhwan-ul Muslimoon, the first militant group to surrender to the Indian Army, giving the Ikhwan their name. A second renegade commander, ‘Alpha’, also turned out to have signed a secret ceasefire pact with ‘Sikander’. Suddenly, even the Al Faran didn’t seem to be what it was.
The abduction had now entered a porous, suppurating zone, where it was no longer possible to distinguish between insurgent and counterinsurgent, and the differences between the two were papered over with a brutal criminality. It’s into this vortex of renegades, coldblooded killers, secret arrangements and enormous duplicity that the four men finally disappeared, never to emerge again. In the mountains of Pahalgam, and in the bylanes of Anantnag, Srinagar, Lahore and New Delhi, the endless human capacity for malevolence had once again been demonstrated.
With the sharp beam of its focus on the kidnapping, The Meadow shines a light on the most secret terrors of the 1990s, a decade in which Kashmir’s armed insurrection was brought to heel. This book will be read for many reasons: its publication is in itself an achievement in the exacting process of putting together the history of that tortured valley.
Business Standard – The High Stakes of Desperate Men
It is the summer of 1995. The Kashmir valley is roiled by insurgent violence. Eight years ago Delhi had rigged the state polls, leading to an explosion of protests and the outbreak of a full-blown insurgency by home-grown groups and those supported from across the border in Pakistan.
Though tourist traffic drops precipitously in the heavily militarised valley, foreign tourists, encouraged by local assurances that militants don’t usually target them, continue to trickle in. But six trekkers – two Britons, two Americans, a German and a Norwegian – are not so lucky and are abducted in the mountains by a little-known group called Al-Faran.
The kidnappers demand the release of 21 militants incarcerated in Indian jails in exchange for the tourists. On top of their list is Masood Azhar, a chubby radical cleric from Pakistan. Under a harsh international glare, the struggling, minority government of P V Narasimha Rao insists that there will be no prisoner releases and assures the distraught families of the victims that they will get their men back. Eleven months, many such assurances and several rounds of negotiations later, the hostages vanish with their captors. Nothing is ever heard of them again.
This is what the world knew till now. But Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, award-winning journalists with formidable credentials – the duo wrote Deception, a racy investigation into the A Q Khan-run global nuclear bazaar – have come up with a gripping account of the kidnapping and aftermath, one that demolishes the official narrative. The Meadow, named after a famous campsite in the Pahalgam mountains where the kidnappings took place, is a vivid and tautly told story of a kidnapping that was never satisfactorily explained, and which possibly changed the face of modern terrorism.
Talking to detectives who probed the kidnappings, Levy and Scott-Clark pose several uncomfortable questions, pointing to the charge that the hostages were possibly killed by pro-India militia after the government dragged its feet on the crisis to embarrass Pakistan and tell the world how it was stoking militancy in Kashmir.
Why was John Childs, the only trekker to flee his captors and the main witness to the kidnapping, allowed to leave India quickly without briefing investigators? Why was a Rs 1 crore cash-for-hostages deal with the kidnappers negotiated by an intrepid police officer leaked to the media and scuppered? (This when the kidnappers, over time, had whittled down their demand for 21 prisoners to four, with Masood Azhar and London School of Economics-educated Omar Sheikh leading the list.)
The questions get thornier as Levy and Scott-Clark negotiate the treacherous web of fact and fiction in Kashmir. Why did Indian helicopters hover over a house where the hostages were kept high up in the mountains for days without launching a rescue operation? Did the authorities make up several sightings of the kidnappers and their quarry months after the kidnapping to placate the families of the victims? How did the newly elected Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah promise the families more than a year after the kidnapping that in 10 days he would “give them proof that the hostages are alive” and never spoke about it again?
So why did India drag its feet, the authors ask. To extract maximum propaganda value out of the incident at a time when a beleaguered government in Delhi was trying to stay afloat?
More pertinently, investigators ask the authors, what was so special about these kidnappings that it dragged on when other similar incidents in the past had ended with India releasing prisoners, paying cash or providing some fat concession to the insurgents? Were the hostages, as they tell the authors, finally handed over by the kidnappers to India-backed vigilantes who killed them in cold blood because they were scared that if released the hostages would spill the beans? “There was only one end waiting for them [the hostages] and we all knew it,” an eyewitness to their killings told a detective. “No one could risk the hostages being released and complaining of collusion, having seen uniforms and Special Task Force jeeps, possibly hearing things too that they understood.” The witness said the captors had been led into the snow on December 25, 1995, five months after the kidnapping, and shot dead.
The Indian government has not reacted to these sensational charges, but if Levy and Scott-Clark are correct, the 1995 kidnappings reveal the ugly underbelly of an insurgency at its peak. The all-powerful army, the rash paramilitary, the “slippery and opaque” spooks, and the hapless police are bickering and sniping, caught up in a sticky stew of chaos and distrust. The pro-government militias, fattened on government largesse of alcohol and money, are law unto themselves in their mission to snuff out militant groups. “There were no rules,” say the authors, “only outcomes.” The result: “A permanent rumbling chaos in the valley that both prevented Pakistan or Kashmiris from moulding a resistance that was capable of capturing the state from India, and stopped India from imposing a profound enough peace to be able to incorporate the state into its union.”
A recently released book “The Meadow: Kashmir 1995 — Where The Terror Began” by British investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark took four years of dedicated research in New Delhi, Kashmir, Pakistan and in Britain, the USA, Norway and Germany. Creating ripples internationally as well as in political and security establishments in New Delhi, the book demystifies the 1995 Al Faran kidnapping of six westerners in the Pahalgam hills of Kashmir. Among other revelations, the book concludes that the four westerners were killed by forces loyal to the Indian Army.
Previously honoured with ‘Foreign Correspondents of the Year’ award in 2004 and ‘British Journalists of the Year’ award in 2009, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark have co-authored three books in the past, including the much-acclaimed “Deception, exposing America’s covert abetting of Pakistan’s nuclear programme”.
In an exclusive interview with Majid Maqbool, the authors talk about the behind the scenes story of the kidnapping, attempts by unknown establishment figures to sabotage the negotiations with the kidnappers, and how a failure to probe injustices done and justice denied in Kashmir is a stumbling block to change.
What prompted you to write this particular book on the kidnapping of foreigners in Kashmir?
We have been working in Kashmir (and across South Asia) as writers and foreign correspondents, for The Sunday Times and then the Guardian, since the era of the kidnappings, and followed events that unfolded in J&K.
We covered all sides: Pakistan’s intervention in Kashmir, it’s backing of the armed struggle and it’s subtler steering of the political scene, as well as its increasing use of jihadi fronts farmed in the Pakistan Punjab, Karachi and Muzaffarabad, who started off in Kashmir but then took off to Africa and Europe. We reported a brutal war in J&K, the crushing of the armed azadi movement, and how in this state of constant emergencies, where any and every means were used, the law (and moral judgments) were set aside.
We covered massacres, rapes, disappearances – of an entire wedding party –and cold-blooded killings in J&K perpetrated by the security forces and also by militants, Kashmiri and foreign. We witnessed Pakistan’s adventurism in the Kargil heights, and we also gradually saw how all sides lost their humanity in a melee that did not better the conditions for the Kashmiri people caught in the middle of it.
How was the 2005 earthquake a turning point in terms of access to information previously unavailable and access to border areas that were till then unreported?
Things changed after 2005 when the earthquake opened up vast areas of the Valley. For the first time, lawyers and reporters were able to travel freely everywhere, and closed off communities began to share what they had been through. Out of these accounts came the first tangible evidence of unmarked and mass graves. An open discussion about the Disappeared in Kashmir took flight too, with activists having warned that as many as 8,000 Kashmiris could have vanished, many from official custody. We reported the security force view that in the graves were combatants and that the missing had resettled over the LoC, and we traveled along the non border to report villagers’ accounts of having been compelled to illegally bury the dead – that arrived by the Leyland truck load, many of whom were innocent local boys.
By 2008, it became clear that the issues were likely inter-related, leading to the first credible reports on the missing and the unlawfully buried, the scale of which gave some clue as to the full horrors of what had taken place in this non-war. How much had Pakistan thrown into the Valley to set it on fire? How far had India gone to quell the insurgency? The price appeared unconscionable. Tens of thousands dead, injured, scarred and missing – including many thousands of police officers and soldiers – in a process with no closure or external mediation, a non war that has become the greatest not talked about international affair in the world. The newly impoverished Western governments, with greedy eyes on Indian markets, have been rebuked for raising Kashmir, and, accordingly, have buttoned their lips.
However, in Kashmir people are talking. The graves issue proved cathartic and even the SHRC climbed aboard, its police investigators validating the research, which in turn emboldened remote communities to speak some more. Witnesses, agents, renegades, police officers, civil servants—all began to talk in this new glasnost. They also began to reflect on one of Kashmir’s most puzzling missing case: the al-Faran episode. In Kashmir there are plenty of appeals by mediators and experts for reconciliation – the ‘moving on’ lobby. But they insist that this happens without discovery. The moving on lobby wants to draw a line under the crisis, and step forwards.
Nowhere in the world has absolution been possible without discovery. And this is also true of the al-Faran case. People we tracked down were relieved to nail the truth so that they could set it aside.
And what became clear as we put the pieces together was that while only six people were directly affected in this al-Faran case, and many tens of thousands have been victims of the Kashmir crisis (Hindus, Muslims, and members of the security forces), the numbers are not the story. Through this one case a reader gets to see much of the entire Kashmir imbroglio.
The Meadow is not 9/11. And 9/11 is not the start of the epoch of terror we are living through now. What the Meadow was, was a proving ground for new kind of terror: the beheading of a tourist, his body carved with the name of the group, the remaining hostages vanishing. JeM that came out of al-Faran/Harakt-al-Ansar would then polish this understanding of how terror could work, sending a British-born suicide bomber to attack BB Cantt, its members abducting and beheading Daniel Pearl, facilitating the London bombings, directing the shoe bomber and the liquid bombs plot. And elements within the Indian security forces would also come to understand the power of terror, exploiting the missing tourists to blacken the Kashmiri struggle and expose Pakistan, deploying renegades so that Kashmiris fought each other, using them as a cut-out to work alongside Harkat al Ansar, and ultimately dupe them.
Your book claims that a pro-government renegade Ghulam Nabi Mir alias Alpha, or Azad Nabi “bought” the four hostages from Al Faran and held them for months before killing them. The state authorities, despite knowing the location of the hostages, as the book mentions, didn’t want to rescue them. Why?
The hostages were pinned down in the Warwan Valley for almost 11 weeks, some in the authorities claiming, limply, it was because the valley was unapproachable. The close observation of the hostages was done so well, during this time, that analysts could see the sweat on their brow as they played volley-ball.
After the execution of Ostro, the Norwegian actor, the remaining hostages were moved out of the Warwan and commuted around the hills of Anantnag, a territory that was, by then, completely under the control of Azad Nabi’s fighters.
We discovered that the renegades led by Azad Nabi had also by then been instructed by some of their handlers to strike a deal with HuA. That ‘no-fire’ pact, which was sweetened with weapons and cash, passed from the renegade side to HuA, was designed to concentrate all resources on HM in the months leading up to the state and national elections. So important was it that Congress and NC big hitters sought out Nabi (who they paid lavishly) to stress to him how peace was to be made to prevail so that a vote was run “even if he had to march the voters to the polls with guns to their backs”.
The pact also meant that good intelligence on al-Faran was easily gathered and passed back, which is why the government had so many accurate sightings. Investigators also learned that the al-Faran team and its HuA shield eventually wanted to give up. They were freezing and hungry, and what was clear to them was that unlike virtually all of the previous kidnappings, in which India had released prisoners or paid cash and kind, nothing was being offered in this one. Every attempt by the police to talk down the kidnappers was externally sabotaged.
The J&K police wanted to end the crisis but others preferred to use it politically, instructing the renegades to take control of the hostages towards the end of November 1995, rather than see them released and a happy ending prevail that absolved Pakistan and Harkat.
During the initial negotiations with the kidnappers, how did their demands fell from releasing 21 to 15 prisoners, then to four prisoners, and ultimately to just one crore rupees?
The police negotiator Rajinder Tikoo – who probably does not agree with the book’s conclusion – struck up a remarkable relationship with the al-Faran point-man who called himself Jehangir. And over 60 or 70 days, Tikoo, with little help and no support, on a radio and telephone, whittled the demands down, until they reached just four prisoners. He had been working under the assumption that in previous kidnappings many more prisoners had been released.
When Rubaiya Sayeed was kidnapped in 1989, five prisoners had been released, including a Pakistani militant. When Nahida Imtiaz had been abducted in 1991, a Pakistan-trained militant was freed. Later that year when an executive director of Indian Oil, K. Doraiswamy, was snatched in Kashmir, New Delhi ended up secretly handing over twelve prisoners, against the wishes of Kashmir Governor Girish Saxena, and despite the fact that the initial demand had been for only five. During the 1993 siege of the Hazratbal mosque in Srinagar, there was safe passage granted to at least seven Pakistan-trained gunmen, and a former politician from Bihar, P.K. Sinha was spring from his captors by secretly acceding to their demands for flack jackets and materiel.
Finally, as desperation set in, the gunmen agreed to a cash payment, to be made after the hostages were released and they themselves were over the LoC. That too was blown.
The book says that most of the leaks about the negotiations with the kidnappers were splashed on the front pages of newspapers in Delhi, which forced the then Inspector General Rajinder Tikoo, the Crime Branch Chief, and negotiator with Al Faran, to move out of the scene. Who was making these leaks and what was their purpose?
The source of the leaks remained unknown but the leaks were frequent, pervasive and highly damaging and not simply the indiscretion of one drunk officer, as one journalist recently claimed. The opinion within the Governor’s office was that these leaks were politically motivated and came at a very high level that had clearances to access the material – most probably within the intelligence community – and that they sought to prevent a deal being reached.
How were the negotiations with the kidnappers sabotaged by Indian officials?
There were many levels to the sabotaging of talks. Firstly there was almost no real effort to spring the hostages until after Ostro was beheaded. Instead they were pinned into the Warwan, moving from village to village, at times. During the period, Amarnath pilgrimage was allowed to proceed and negotiations went on, with the security concerns concerning the pilgrims of course eclipsing the kidnapping. But through it all the police negotiators were given nothing to play with, nothing to dangle, no carrots.
These talks were then repeatedly exposed to public scrutiny, eventually leading to their collapse, as more and more classified information from them, was passed to newspapers, making it impossible for both sides to continue.
Why was the Crime Branch investigations into the incident closed without being presented before a court?
Death certificates were eventually issued to the families of the four missing tourists, which means the authorities recognized that the case was closed. And we know from the file that a date of death was approximated via police informers, as well as a location given as to where the bodies were likely buried. Due process was not then followed, and it is not clear whether that was for cavalier reasons or for political gain (or more simply a disregard for the law).
We tried to locate the original FIRs and even they could not be found as a clerk in Anantnag revealed that many original papers had been destroyed in a fire in a document store there, and of course arsonists also burned down the Crime Branch old HQ, destroying many of its paper files too.
While in captivity, were the hostages hopeful that they will be rescued? How were they treated in captivity by al-Faran guerrillas? Were the foreign hostages aware of the negotiations and the larger games played by the state and central security and intelligence agencies?
Difficult to tell. We have found reams of their writings, which show some remarkable things. The hostages had tried repeatedly to escape. Ostro was killed by Hamid al Turki, a foreign fighter in al Faran, for escaping too often. The al Faran team was then divided with some, it appears from the hostage writings, siding with the captives, as did villagers in the Warwan, helping them get their writings out and to the authorities, as well as assisting them in escape bids. It also seems clear that al Faran believed it could talk its way out of the crisis and had no idea that in reality no resolution was being sought on the Indian side. The hostages must have been aware of this towards the end of 1995, but we have no indication of it. The hostages also would have known they were being transferred from al Faran hands to renegades, which we can only speculate must have been terrifying.
The co-author of the book recently wrote in a piece that an important reason for writing The Meadow was that “it gave us the chance to highlight events over the past twenty years in the Kashmir Valley, a place that even today is still predominately thought of in the West as a stoner’s paradise more than a conflict zone.” What other events in the past two decades of conflict in Kashmir, you would say, deserve to be extensively investigated and written about?
There is international silence over Kashmir. It is poorly reported on, and portrayed often in the international media as a complex, sovereign issue, stoked by Pakistan that has to be resolved by India. The wide-scale human rights abuses that have taken place in the Valley (with all sides guilty of them) have been rarely reported, whether that be Pandit claims or Muslim allegations – none get much space.
Partly this is down to our governments desire not to get involved, fearing that fragile relations with India that are potentially lucrative these days – would shut down. But it is also, I think, down to the lack of truthfulness in this precarious story. Finding the truth in Kashmir is very difficult, as there are so many distortions of it by all sides. Even finding one version of a name can be difficult at times, whether that be a village, street or family. The lack of consensus, the unavailability of maps and reference point, has created a conscious ambiguity that makes Kashmir hard to write about.
Western perceptions of the Valley were also changed dramatically by the al Faran episode. Kashmir morphed from a self-determination struggle, a muddle created by the retreating Empire, that India had managed, through blunt force to fan into a full-scale insurrection, into a theatre for a new kind of Islamist terror, incubated in Pakistan. So the event was pivotal, and understanding it is crucial.
Over 18 years spent reporting in and out of J&K there have been so many incidents, bear traps, massacres, committed anonymously, directly, obliquely – and we have looked at some of them. The unmarked graves issue has received an enormous amount of attention worldwide. But this one episode from 1995, the al Faran incident, while only affecting a handful of people, became the portal through which the wider world saw Kashmir, and that’s why we zeroed in on it.
Cathy Scott-Clark further writes that “the lack of oversight and accountability, through the judicial and parliamentary systems, which were often held in abeyance, led to massive abuses of power in J&K: rapes, murders, abductions, torture, disappearances. And seldom has a guilty party prosecuted or put on trial…” Do you think in the absence of justice, there will be any progress towards resolution, or “moving on” for Kashmiris, as some Indian journalists and analysts seem to suggest in their recent commentary?
Wherever there has been absolution and reconciliation, it has been predicated on discovery. In South Africa, Spain, and many Central and South American countries truth is leading, slowly, to reconciliation. It is a painful process. In some places it is happening right now as in the case of the fascist’s forced adoption policy in Spain where official in the Church and state have been resisting demands – but slowly they are capitulating.
Kashmir must be the only conflict zone in the world where academics and officials propose the opposite: a clean chit, where drawing a line under the truth, and forgetting about it, can help the State move on. While there cannot be a trial for every body dumped, or an accounting for every militant kidnapping and killing, or for every Pandit claim of being forced from homes and businesses, there has to be a broad and detailed truth-telling that encompasses acts criminal and conspiratorial – or there will never be closure.
The unmarked graves issue is one that demands resolution. Until it is properly mapped and understood, who is to say who is right? Are these the bodies of armed men gunned down in battle – and if so, why were they buried secretly and in such large numbers, by villagers compelled to do the task – and say nothing about it. Was it merely laziness – that so many died no one could be bothered to log the deaths? Or are the innocent also buried in these graves, as some claim: the missing and abducted. There is only one way to find out and resolve the issue.
The claim you hear in government circles these days is that truth suits no one – other than Pakistan. Every bite of truth will profit a neighbor keen to exploit it. Although to be frank, Pakistan is right now grappling with its own truths having nearly succumbed to terror, economic collapse, and political deadlock – and having no clear strategy as to what to do post US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The one thing that is clear is that resolution in Kashmir is based on the resolution of far broader regional issues. There will be no time given over to truth until there is a greater understanding of the regional crisis especially concerning a future government in Kabul.
What has been the response of Indian media and government authorities regarding the revelations made in the book? Do you think there will be a proper investigation of this case now and many other cases of disappearances that have taken place in Kashmir over the past two decades?
One journalist wrote that if the allegations are true they are “a feather in the cap of the government.” It seems as if the hawks want to reclaim the episode as an example of hard power.
I hope there is a full inquiry although the truth suits no one. The SHRC has made a start. We commend them. A search could be made, a new one for the bodies which I think now could be found. A full list of potential sources, witnesses, investigators and protagonists could be drawn up and scrutinised. This would have to be done independently and perhaps even in-camera. But is there the political will to do this? At the moment I am not sure and I fear that what will happen will be localized, disruptive and potentially unhelpful.
Other than putting more facts before people, hitherto unknown or ignored, what purpose does your book serve?
There has been no closure for the families of the Western missing. And perhaps excavating the truth of the demise will also reveal something about how the Kashmir conflict has been managed too. I do think the book has revealed something of the truth about the Kashmir imbroglio, the cost to all sides, India and Pakistan, and what has been done in the name of winning.
What India ‘gained’ from all of this was to create a visceral image of Kashmir in the West as a cradle of terrorism rather than a paradise Valley. However, as many senior police and intelligence officers conceded, what was lost in all of this war and gamesmanship was humanity
From your research for the book over the past years, was there anything more you would have liked to be included in the book but did not make it to the final draft that was published?
I have files of information and taped interviews – enough to fill another book perhaps!
Written with Cathy Scott Clark, the tome recalls the disappearance of six Western backpackers in the mid-nineties, one of whom, Hans Christian Ostrø, was beheaded by his abductors. The Norwegian’s body was dumped near Pahalgam, Kashmir, and scarred with the name of the terror organisation responsible. Of the six, only one escaped. The remaining four have never been found.
This beheading 17 years ago, so Levy argues, was “carried out to capture the world’s attention”. The terror group, Al-Faran, had demanded the release of Pakistani militant Maulana Masood Azhar, who was imprisoned in India.
Despite please from international organisations, the release was not forthcoming.
“Beheading the Norwegian was an act exploring how the West would respond,” says Levy, since when the practice has become an all too familiar feature in the terrorists’ lexicon. Daniel Pearl’s murder in 2002 was just one of many such incidents in Pakistan’s recent history.
Over the weekend, the body of Khalil Dale, a British aid worker who was abducted in Baluchistan province, Pakistan, in January, was found on the outskirts of the town of Quetta. He had been beheaded. A note was attached to his corpse saying that he was killed because no ransom was paid to his captors. According to local police, the abduction and execution had all the hallmarks of the Taliban.
The towns along the border form part of a large, disenfranchised area
“Beheading is just part of the grammar in this modern epoch of terror,” says Levy. Reflecting on this most recently atrocity, he adds: “Anyone that tells you it is an Islamic act would be incorrect. That would be a misunderstanding of what is an act of terror and an act of religion.”
I ask the journalist, who has spent several years investigating these all too frequent acts of brutality on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, about the motivations behind kidnapping and beheading, and its relations to the Taliban.
“The killing of Dale was a horrific crime, a senseless crime,” he says, “but there is a common mistake that creeps into the reporting of some of these acts – there is no such thing as ‘the Taliban’ in the sole sense of an al-Qaeda operated Taliban.
“There are a lot of criminal gangs, many that are simply mercantile. Dale’s death may have nothing to do with what the Afghan [the more religiously motivated] Taliban.”
For Levy, “Taliban” has become a catchall term used in the region, often by the criminal gangs themselves as a defensive measure. “What they’re really interested in is leveraging money out of the increasingly profitable trade in kidnapping,” he says.
“Some of that money does go into the terrorist funding engine,” he admits, “but a lot of it is just about enriching the clans behind the gangs.”
The 46-year-old foreign correspondent, who has been working for the Guardian since 2001, adds that “scores of these gangs” operate in the border region that runs along the demarcation line between Pakistan and Afghanistan. For them kidnap and ransom is a favoured methodology.
“It is important to remember that a lot of the victims of kidnapping are not reported in Western media. They are quite often wealthy Pakistanis, many of whom are still missing or are still being held.”
So lucrative has kidnapping become in Pakistan that the practice has started spreading south towards the financial centre of Karachi and the political centre of Islamabad.
Yet it is the towns along the border, such as Quetta – part of a large, disenfranchised area – that remain the most dangerous.
“The region has been allowed to become a poor and unruly place,” says Levy.
“This was a strategic move by the Pakistan military, who wanted to create a ‘prickly hedge’, an area that was impossible for foreigners to penetrate or to invade; an area that could act as a buffer between Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
Another problem, he says, is that the Pakistani border regions do not form a homogenous state. “It’s a borderland blending between two countries, full of tribes who operate and wander quite freely. No country would be able to rule an area effectively. Pakistan has occasionally been accused of deliberately misruling the area so that it can carry out its more covert foreign policy, but also with the current destabilised civilian government it’s incapable of governing the area. “
Pakistani security officials stand next to covered body of Khalil Dale
“There are elements of the Afghan Taliban working in the area,” he adds “but more familiar are groups and tribes from Pakistan to give succour to the Afghan Taliban.”
For Levy, some of these so-called “Taliban” groups operating in Pakistan do have religiously motivated goals, such as the introduction of Islamic Sharia in the areas such as the Swat Valley. However, many of the “Taliban” groups working in the Waziristan area are “simply criminal”, out to “exact revenge for the poverty they themselves live in”.
Regardless of the motivations, the incidents of kidnapping are “very frequent”, says Levy. “They are happening all the time”.
“Some of the most affected parties are the emigrated children of Pakistani families – British, American and European Pakistanis – people that are born elsewhere but return to see their ancestral roots and are almost immediately targeted.”
“They’ll get off the plane, drive in the family car up to Peshawar, and will often end up being abducted as they are viewed as foreign and rich – people from whom the abductors can extract money from their families.”
Levy adds that the police rarely get involved, and the sums involved can be massive, running into millions of dollars.
The author believes that the group that kidnapped Dale was “particularly mercantile, particularly vicious and acting in a very tribal way”.
“Whatever the ridiculous justifications they invent, this was simply a profiteering scheme,” he says. “Yes – they could also have killed him if they feared a rescue effort… but the brutality of the crime – it’s the act of people with a criminal mindset rather than a religious or a political one.”
Why did you choose to write a book on Kashmir? Tell us about The Meadow-Where the Terror Began.
In 2005 the terrible earthquake opened up vast areas of the Kashmir Valley. As a result of the disaster, lawyers and reporters were able to travel everywhere freely for the first time, and the first accounts of unmarked and mass graves came out as a result. An open discussion about the disappeared in Kashmir took flight too. By 2008, it became clear that the two issues were likely inter-related, leading to the first credible reports on the missing and the unlawfully buried, the scale of which gave some clue as to the full horrors of what had taken place in this non war.
During this period, people also started to talk about Kashmir’s most puzzling missing case: the Al Faran episode. New eye witnesses, as well as old hands who had investigated it, spoke out. A sea change also took place within the Indian establishment where former and serving police and agents began to open up, as if they too felt that enough was enough. For some the Al Faran case represented justice delayed, for others, justice denied, and for another faction it was a myth that needed to be dispelled. People we tracked down were relieved to talk, gushing even, and said they had been sitting guiltily on secrets for 16 years.
The book starts with the Abbottabad air raid in which Osama Bin Laden was killed and ends with the release of his colleague Mulana Masood Azhar of Jash-e-Mohammad by India after the 1999 Kandahar hijacking episode. Did Al-Qaeda ever operate in Kashmir?
Al Qaeda did not practice or start in the Valley and in a literal sense has not been active there, but some of its ambassadors have honed their skills in Kashmir. We are saying that the West and India had no idea back then about the resilience and complexity of the jihad movement, it’s potential to evolve and split, to morph and subsume. Small splinters would come together and put aside liturgical differences to fight a common enemy (the West or India). And so many came over the LoC from Pakistan to fight that IB and RAW had little time to spend differentiating one clique from another.
Masood’s men began as Kashmir-bound Mujahideen, paid up by Pakistan, propelled by the ISI. In the Meadow they practiced and honed their methodology, getting a taste of what terror really was. Upon his release by India, Masood, who was still not understood by RAW, or in the UK by MI5, reactivated and expanded his global network that would soon stretch from east London to Karachi, via Mumbai, co-operating with al Qaeda when necessary, finding common ground with an erstwhile ally in Osama bin Laden.
Al-Faran militant group kidnapped six Western tourists but India-backed renegades with full knowledge of army and STF killed four of them. How does the book establish it?
Pakistan perpetrated an act of terror (the kidnapping of six Western tourists and the execution of Hans Christian Ostro), which India recognised as a useful tool to expose its neighbour’s proclivity for destabilising Kashmir, at a time when the West was reticent to get involved, and perceived Kashmir as a soft human rights issue. Hardliners within Indian intelligence and the army ran the operation to fulfill a key plank of the Rao Doctrine: frame Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror. When Al-Faran folded, renegades supported by some in the Valley’s intel and military establishment took over the hostages. We interviewed hundreds of people on both sides of the LoC, former and active jihadis, Indian intel agents, and police officers at the highest levels. Our writing reflects their beliefs, a secret finding too awful to share.
In the book you write ‘someone in the authority was briefing against the talks’. Who was against the talks? What was the level/designation of these officers?
The J&K police, the Security Advisor to the Governor (retired) Lt General D.D. Saklani, and others tried to solve the crime, and nearly all concluded they were impeded by external forces. Every crucial stage of the secret talks between India and Al Faran was undermined by a pattern of leaks so persistent and accomplished, dealing in highly classified information that they concluded it had to stem from a very high level. Politicians and civil servants reflecting on this period recall that they were side-lined by the military and intelligence factions, which ran the show. This suggests—and they believe—that some people in intelligence were behind the leaks rather than the odd drunk policeman as one reporter has lately suggested.
Who among the Indian army men knew of the hostages’ location?
IB, RAW, and the army all knew of the hostages’ whereabouts for almost the entire time they were in the Warwan Valley—some 10 or 11 weeks from mid July 1995. The police discovered this by interviewing villagers there and sampling statements from a network of informers and agents they had in place there. We did the same, exhaustively. IB/army acquired photos of the hostages so detailed that according to some of the agents who saw them they could “see the sweat on their brows” as they played ball games, to alleviate their boredom. Villagers in the Warwan reported the hostages’ presence on numerous occasions to the Rashtriya Rifles. On at least one occasion, documented by police, villagers complained they were beaten and detained by soldiers of Victor Force who told them to mind their own business.
One foreigner John Childs of United States who escaped from Al-Farhan was hurried to the US. Didn’t he wish to lead army or state forces to kidnappers in the forests? What happened to his attempts?
John Childs told us that as soon as he was rescued he had insisted on taking the security forces back to the mountains but was prevented by the army and then US diplomats were keen on getting him out of the country. Childs expressed dismay to US state department officials and later reflected that everyone seemed far more keen to control reporting on these events than solving them. He regrets to this day that he was not able to return to rescue his comrades.
You write a foreign woman, who informed the army about the hostages, was raped by the army major? Who was this army officer?
A woman was sexually assaulted. The identity of the army officer was known to the Crime Branch who complained to the Rashtriya Rifles. Perhaps an inquiry into these events would throw up the name.
There is a mention of state Congress and National Conference parties together paying Rs 4 crore to a renegade commander alpha (Nabi Azad) in 1996 polls for harassing villagers into voting? Can you elaborate?
Rajesh Pilot visited the renegade bases above Anantnag, passing on his orders, according to the renegades themselves, who recalled he told them to get the vote out in 1996 even if “they had to march people into the booth with their guns”. The amount paid was recalled by them too and also by their handlers in the police STF.
And why did Hurriyat deny mediating? Who in the Hurriyat refused to accept this role?
Hurriyat could have intervened. It seems cold and churlish of them not to. They could have secured the men’s release. Earlier it had issued statements condemning the kidnappings. But the feeling at the time was hard line—that to carry Al-Faran’s message would have been to implicate themselves in an incident they had nothing to do with. To carry a message to India was to recognise India. It was a stone cold logic that showed how far everyone had slumped over these years of fighting. This inflexibility ultimately served to work against the hostages.
We had Scotland Yard and FBI personnel in Kashmir those days. Why didn’t they lead any rescue mission?
A panoply of Western security advisors and negotiators were on the ground in 1995: FBI, Scotland Yard, MI6, CIA, US Special Forces and the SAS. However, all were tethered to New Delhi or their Srinagar bases at government guesthouses. When the US Special Forces pushed to work in the countryside, the Indian military went ballistic, lobbying in Delhi, claiming that Kashmir crisis was all about sovereignty and that foreign boots on Indian soil was thus unacceptable.
‘The hostages played cricket and captors washed their clothes.’ What does it say about the captors? Did Al-Faran really mean to harm hostages?
The impression gained from police statements and eye-witness accounts is that many in Al-Faran or Harkat-ul-Ansar, as it was, would have rolled over and released the hostages towards the end of the standoff, but was prevented from doing so.
However, the Al-Faran team was divided, with one faction siding after a time with the hostages. Some in the party together with villagers from the Warwan seem also to have assisted the hostages in getting secretly written messages out—some of which, incredibly, eventually reached Srinagar.
There was also another, hard-line faction within Al-Faran, led by a foreign fighter known as The Turk, that was more pragmatic and battle hardened. This faction was behind the decapitation of Ostro, something for which it was admonished by its handlers in Pakistan, who saw it as a senselessly cruel act that would play terribly in the Western press. Al-Faran ultimately gave in. They settled for Indian money. But this deal was exposed and sunk. They then let it be known that they would offer the hostages up. At this stage renegades were instructed by their handlers to try and buy the hostages from Al-Faran to let the crime continue.
IGP Paramdeep Singh Gill was trying to get passed off DNA tests of an Afghan fighter as matching one of the hostages—Paul Wells. Was it for $2 million reward?
Mr Gill repeatedly told the press, and the family of Paul Wells, that his inquiry (run by SSP Ashkoor Wani) had found Paul’s body. He was advised early on, in 1997, by Paul’s father, Bob Wells, that the corpse could not be his son as a detailed examination of its head showed that its teeth were in perfect order while Paul had undergone extensive dental work. Mr Gill ignored this and told newspapers that DNA would prove his case.
By 2001 results emerged that purported to show the corpse had the same DNA as Paul Wells. This, Mr Gill, told reporters, entitled the force to apply for the US reward money. The British foreign office asked for the human samples. A lab in the UK found that the body in the grave was not Paul Wells, as Mr Gill insisted, but a South Asian man, just as villagers who recalled burying the body had repeatedly warned from the start.
In 1997, the British High Commission in New Delhi filed a formal complaint against Mr Gill for his treatment of Bob Wells, Paul Wells’ father.
In 1999 an Indian Airlines plane was hijacked to Kandahar. The highjackers repeated demands that were made by Al-Faran in 1995. Is Al-Farhan and highjackers the same group?
No point guessing. The group behind the kidnapping had among its number, HuA fighters including Amjad Farooqi, who went on to behead Daniel Pearl, and members of Masood’s family, possibly Ibrahim Akhtar Alvi, who was travelling under a false Indian passport registered to ZI Mistri.
Do you suggest that India agreed to release jailed militants in the highjack case purely because this time the hostages were Indians including as you write daughter of a ‘powerful official’ in the Prime Minister’s Office, whose elder sister was married to a former director of the elite National Security Guard?
The release was triggered by political considerations rather than intelligence ones. During the 1995 kidnapping the government was suspended in Kashmir and Governor’s rule was in place. Politicians were side-lined as were seasoned bureaucrats. The army and intelligence ran everything.
In 1999 the politicians were in charge, and were deaf to entreaties by the IB and RAW who advised them to sacrifice the passengers on the jet, as “that many people die every month in India”.
Were there other considerations? Undoubtedly. On board 914 was SS Tomar, a senior RAW operative returning from Nepal. His wife was the youngest child of SK Singh, a senior official in the PM’s office. Her eldest child was married to Nikhil Kumar, former director of the NSG.
In Kashmir, rights activists are demanding investigation into mass graves. Do you think the renegades had buried the hostages in one of such graves in South Kashmir?
The Western hostages are part of the missing in Kashmir and deserve to be investigated alongside the Kashmiri missing. Their grave is said to be in the Mati Gawran area close to Warwan. A search should now take place, eye-witnesses gathered etc.
The state police chief DGP Khoda, according to a local newspaper, recently rubbished your claims. Your reaction.
Let there be a full inquiry. These are national security concerns. All the responsible investigating officers should be called to give evidence, perhaps on camera. DGP Khoda was not part of the team then. His future is uncertain having been indicted, by a Crime Branch report, in an historic triple murder case. An independent body must investigate, which cannot be accused of being part of the cover up.
What do you want readers to take away from The Meadow?
To see all sides, rather than a narrow national interest. We reached out to everyone, and listened to everyone’s stories, sometimes at great personal risk. We hope they do the same.
Baba Umar is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
Daily Kashmir Uzma
According to reports on July 4, 1995 in South Kashmir unknown gunmen abducted and take hostage of 6 foreigners and demanding release of some of their comrades. One of the captor succeeded in escaping while as one was beheaded. Hitherto the fate of 4 foreigners are not known. They were Dirk Hassert (Germany), John Childs and Donald Hutching (US) and Hans Christan Ostro (Norway)
After long time of 17 years a book based on in-depth investigation revealed some facts wherein it has been stated that the four foreigners were killed by the gunmen working with the army which includes one British Keith Mangan. However, human rights organizations filed a petition seeking re-investigation into the matter. The Commission has taken cognizance few days back and issued notices to 4 officials to file their reports.
The spokesman of the British Govt. has expressed satisfaction over the SHRC order. The spokesman has stated that when Keith was abducted, the British High Commission and Common Wealth Office at Delhi were updating the family members and a newspaper. The spokesman said the British govt. is watching these proceedings and in this regard has talked with the Indian consulate there. Further the Spokesman stated, “We appreciate the developments in this behalf and also we are closely monitoring the media coverage”. The state human rights commission said, “Long time has passed and after new report comes out the commission has taken serious note of it.”
حکومت برطانیہ نے ریاستی حقوق کمیشن کی ہدایات کا خیر مقدم کیا سرینگر//حکومت برطانیہ نے 1995ء میں کشمیر میں اسلحہ برداروں کے ہاتھوں 3دیگر غیر ملکی سیاحوں کے ہمراہ ایک برطانوی شہری کو اغوا کئے جانے سے متعلق انسانی حقوق کے ریاستی کمیشن کی ہدایات کا خیر مقدم کرتے ہوئے امید ظاہر کی ہے کہ اس معاملے پر کوئی پیش رفت ہونے سے مغوی شہری کے اہل خانہ کو انصاف فراہم ہو گا ۔اطلاعات کے مطابق 4جولائی 1995ء کو جنوبی کشمیر میں نامعلوم مسلح افراد نے 6غیر ملکی شہریوں کو اغوا کر کے ان کی رہائی کے عوض اپنے ساتھیوں کی رہائی کا مطالبہ کیا ۔ان میں سے ایک شہری اغوا کاروں کے چنگل سے فرار ہونے میں کامیاب ہوا جبکہ ایک کو ذبح کر کے قتل کر دیا گیا اور4غیر ملکی شہریوں کا تب سے کوئی اتہ پتہ نہیں ہے۔ان میں امریکہ کے 2سیاح ڈان ہیچنگس ، جان چلڈس ، برطانیہ کے 2سیاح کیتھ منگن و پال ویلز ،جرمنی سے وابستہ ڈرک ہیزرٹ اور ناروے سے تعلق رکھنے والا سیاح ہینس کرسچن آسٹروشامل تھے۔17سال کے طویل عرصے کے بعد حال ہی میں تحقیق پر مبنی ایک کتاب میں اس بات کا انکشاف کیا گیا کہ چاروں سیاحوں کو سرکار نواز بندوق برداروں نے گولیاں مار کر ہلاک کر دیا جن میں برطانیہ کا رہنے والا کیتھ منگن بھی شامل تھا ۔چنانچہ اس سلسلے میں انسانی حقوق کی تنظیموں نے سٹیٹ ہیومن رائٹس کمیشن میں درخواست دائر کی اور اغوا کاری کے اس واقعہ کی از سر نو تحقیقات کا مطالبہ کیا ۔کمیشن نے درخواست تسلیم کرتے ہوئے چند روز قبل پولیس اورانتظامیہ کے کئی سینئر افسران کے نام نوٹس جاری کرتے ہوئے انہیں واقعہ سے متعلق رپورٹ پیش کرنبے کی ہدایت دی ۔ برطانوی حکومت کے ترجمان نے انسانی حقوق کے ریاستی کمیشن کی طرف سے جاری کی گئی ہدایات پر اطمینان کا اظہار کیا ہے ۔ترجمان نے بتایا کہ جب کیتھ کو اغوا کیا گیا تو دلّی میں قائم برطانوی سفارتخانے اور کامن ویلتھ آفس کی طرف سے اس کے اہل خانہ اور ایک اخبار کو اطلاعات فراہم کی جاتی رہیں ۔انہوں نے کہا کہ حکومت برطانیہ اس کیس کے حوالے سے تازہ پیش رفت سے واقف ہے اور اس ضمن میں برطانوی وزارت خارجہ نے وہاںقائم بھارتی کونسلیٹ کے ساتھ بات کی ہے ۔ترجمان کے مطابق ’’ہم برطانوی شہری کے لا پتہ ہونے سے متعلق کیس کے سلسلے میں کسی بھی طرح کی پیش رفت کا خیر مقدم کرتے ہیں ،ہمیں ان میڈیا رپورٹوں کابھی علم ہے جن کے مطابق جموں کشمیر کے سٹیٹ ہیومن رائٹس کمیشن نے کیس کے سلسلے میں تازہ ہدایات جاری کی ہیں‘‘۔ترجمان نے بتایا کہ اس واقعہ کو اب بہت عرصہ گزرچکا ہے اور اس کے بارے میں نئی رپورٹ سامنے آنے کے بعدکمیشن نے اس کا سنجیدہ نوٹس لیا ہے۔
Local intelligence, the army, and the Jammu and Kashmir Police got busy tracking down the kidnappers. To no avail. One hostage escaped, another was beheaded. Mystery shrouds the fate of the other four, believed killed and buried high in the Himalayas.
The Meadow: Kashmir 1995 — Where The Terror Began challenges this sketchy narrative. After four years of dedicated research in New Delhi, Kashmir, Pakistan and the “so-called G4 countries — Britain, the USA, Norway and Germany”, investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark conclude that the four westerners were killed by forces loyal to the Indian Army.
The book’s baffling denouement rationalises itself as a part of the ongoing “Game” in Kashmir. But its strength lies in the long, inexorable build-up to this finale that runs the full gamut of the state’s conflict, and the unsparing operation that has, in two decades, claimed nearly 70,000 lives. The game continues still, checking the Valley’s stumbling progress to normalcy.
The Meadow makes a crucial departure from other Kashmir narratives. There is no all-encompassing frame to comprehend the dizzying diversity of violence, its contentious historical explanation and contemporary geopolitics. It is a refreshing effort to nuance the debate with the myriad narratives that clash, overlap and merge into a frightful, muddled reality. The investigation reveals the kidnapping as a treacherous play of the conflict. Hidden in dark recesses, identities of victims and perpetrators fuse. The conclusions turn on their head conventional wisdom and the received truth of many well-documented, high-profile events. While blaming the army for deaths, the book also clouds suspicion over south Kashmir cleric Qazi Nisar’s murder that led to a full-blown pro-New Delhi armed insurgency. It claims the assassin, Hizbul Mujahideen commander “Umar”, had been “turned” by Indian intelligence.
The Meadow shines a bright torch on the cross-border sources of the violence — Pakistan’s Binori town and Afghanistan’s Yawar camp, staging posts of Afghan jihad through the 1980s now harnessed by ISI’s “Brigadier Badam” to foment militancy in the Valley. It draws an overarching portrait of Masood Azhar, the “portly cleric from Pakistan,” who becomes a lynchpin of the Kashmir campaign, and too towering a jihadi figure to be left in jail.
The spoilt son of a wealthy landowner from Bahawalpur, Masood was “capable of getting the youth hot and bothered”. He was the mouthpiece of a guerrilla outfit, which, together with Osama bin Laden, had fought Soviets in Afghanistan to a standstill in the late ’80s. In 1993 he, alongside Osama, provided Somalian Islamists with rocket-propelled grenades that brought down two US Black Hawks in the battle for Mogadishu, killing 19 American soldiers, wounding 73; an event that inspired the movie Black Hawk Down. It was Masood’s Jaish-e-Mohammad that staged a suicide attack on the Indian Parliament on 13 December 2001.
As the editor of Voice of the Mujahid, he once wrote that Kashmiris were just too moderate “to mount the kind of total war that was needed if India was to be unseated”. Once the Azadi campaign began in 1989 — a bloody conflict by 100 armed-to-the-teeth militant outfits — “the Game” had no boundaries. “India and Pakistan fought each other in the Valley by manipulating the lives of others. Everything that happened here involved acts of ventriloquism, with traitors, proxies and informers deployed by both sides, and civilians becoming the casualties,” the authors write.
A leading hand, in the squad set up by the J&K Police to trace the hostages, reveals: “Pakistan tried something, India blocked it and turned it around, or the other way around, and there were so many angles to it, that really when you were playing it you forgot yourself completely, until it seemed like the most beautiful thing in the world”.
The authors’ Kashmir is not a simple moral world. Dominant discourse no longer dictates conventional roles for perpetrators and victims. On the Valley’s chessboard, each pawn can become a king and every square is a shade of grey
On July 4, 1995, Americans Donald Hutchings and John Childs, as well as Britons Paul Wells and Keith Mangan were kidnapped by the little known Al-Faran militant group while trekking in the Himalayas near Pahalgam, 97 km (60 miles) southeast of Srinagar.
Four days later, Childs escaped. On the same day, the captors abducted German Dirk Hasert and Norwegian Hans Christian Ostroe. Ostroe was found beheaded in August 1995. The others were never found.
Journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, whose book “The Meadow: Kashmir 1995 – Where the Terror Began” is about the abduction, claim that the four Westerners were murdered by a pro-government militia group who worked for Indian security forces.
After Ostroe was beheaded, Al-Faran was ready to strike a monetary deal to free the hostages and might have released them for £250,000, the authors claim. They say the deal was deliberately sabotaged.
“It appeared that there were some in the Indian establishment who did not want this never-ending bad news story of Pakistani cruelty and Kashmiri inhumanity to end, even when the perpetrators themselves were finished,” the book says.
Al-Faran then demanded the release of 21 prisoners, including Masood Azhar and Omar Sheikh, who were freed by the Indian government after the hijack of an Indian Airlines plane from Kathmandu in 1999.
The book claims a pro-government militia leader, Alpha, or Azad Nabi, alias Ghulam Nabi Mir, who used to be in Anantnag area of south Kashmir, had “bought” the four Western hostages from Al-Faran and held them for months before shooting them.
The investigators became convinced a pro-government militia group had control of the four Westerners after Al-Faran dropped them, according to the authors, quoting the Jammu and Kashmir police’s crime branch squad.
“The squad reported some of its thoughts to its seniors, using these kinds of words, ‘Sikander’s men handed over Paul, Dirk, Keith and Don to Alpha’s renegades in the third of fourth week of November, around the time when the final sightings dried up. Sikander has given up. Al-Faran is finished. Embarrassingly, India controls the renegades.’”
Quoting a crime branch detective, the book claims that the Indian government had not wanted the hostage crisis to end.
India authorities then said Al-Faran, which claimed responsibility for the abductions, was part of the Harkat-ul-Ansar militant group. But Harkat denied any ties with Al-Faran.
The U.S. state department later listed Harkat-ul-Ansar as one of 30 “foreign terrorist organisations” for which it is illegal to raise funds in the United States. It also bars visits by members or representatives of the groups.
The fresh demand for a probe into the hostage taking comes after a Kashmir-based human rights group requested the region’s State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) to investigate the circumstances surrounding the kidnapping and subsequent killing of the four Western tourists.
The six tourists were trekking in a Himalayan meadow when they were kidnapped by a previously unknown militant group named Al-Faran. One American escaped, but the body of a Norwegian was later found in a remote village. Another American, a German and two Britons were never located.
India said the kidnappers were backed by Pakistan, and that some disappeared after the crime while others were killed in gunbattles with Indian troops.
However, authors Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clarke suggest in a recently published book, “The Meadow: Kashmir 1995 — Where the Terror Began,” that the Indian government deliberately undermined hostage negotiations and prolonged the crisis to damage Pakistan’s reputation, and then used its own militants to take custody of the hostages before they were killed.
The Jammu-Kashmir State Human Rights Commission asked Tuesday for reports about the 17-year-old case from government and police authorities. Commission Secretary Tariq Ahmad Banday said it is also seeking access to two officers who were part of the original investigation.
The commission will discuss the case at its next meeting May 28, after being asked to look into it by a local rights group, the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice.
The group called for an inquiry into “why no action was taken on various points … despite the authorities having knowledge of the location of the hostages, and then subsequently the burial site of the hostages.”
The six tourists were trekking in a Himalayan meadow when they were kidnapped by a previously unknown militant group named Al-Faran. One American escaped, but the body of a Norwegian was later found in a remote village. Another American, a German and two Britons were never located.
India said the kidnappers were backed by Pakistan, and that some disappeared after the crime while others were killed in gunbattles with Indian troops.
However, authors Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clarke suggest in a recently published book, “The Meadow: Kashmir 1995 — Where the Terror Began,” that the Indian government deliberately undermined hostage negotiations and prolonged the crisis to damage Pakistan’s reputation, and then used its own militants to take custody of the hostages before they were killed.
The Jammu-Kashmir State Human Rights Commission asked Tuesday for reports about the 17-year-old case from government and police authorities. Commission Secretary Tariq Ahmad Banday said it is also seeking access to two officers who were part of the original investigation.
The commission will discuss the case at its next meeting May 28, after being asked to look into it by a local rights group, the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice.
The group called for an inquiry into “why no action was taken on various points … despite the authorities having knowledge of the location of the hostages, and then subsequently the burial site of the hostages.”
The claim has raised serious mark on the credibility of long process of counter insurgency in valley.The Meadow- a book written by investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark has ruffled the system and prompted human rights group, International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice (IPTK), to file a petition in the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) seeking fresh probe into the kidnappings.
SHRC has listed the case for April 17.What exactly happened? In July 1995 six foreign tourists were kidnapped by Javid Ahmed Bhat alias “Sikander”, Abdul Hamid al-Turki alias “the Turk”, Nabeel Ghazni, Abu Khalifa, and others. One among them was able to escape and the other was beheaded and his body was found later in August. The Reason of abduction was to seek the release of Jaish Muhammad chief Masood Azhar and Omar Sheikh.However, subsequently in an operation on 4 December 1995 at village Dabran in Anantnag district, the three kidnappers were gunned down—fourth one died on 17 February 1996 in a bomb blast that was claimed as accidental by the army, says the petition.
The book claims that a pro-government renegade Ghulam Nabi Mir alias Alpha, or Azad Nabi who used to be based in Shalipora near Islamabad in Kashmir, had “bought” the four hostages from Al Faran and held them for months before killing them. The four persons, the book says, had been killed in the remote twin villages of Mati and Gawran, an approximately five hour drive from Anantnag town, on 24 December 1995. The authorities had the knowledge of the location of the hostages but didn’t want to rescue them, the book reveals.The petition, which quotes passages from the book, says Al Faran was ready to give up the hostages for a ransom of Rs 1 crore but the deal was said to have fallen through at the last minute.
The petition says that Al Faran handed over hostages to Mir alias Alpha on 1 December 1995 for Rs 4 lakh. The petition says that the Crime Branch investigations into the incident were closed without being presented before a competent court. “The authorities, who had knowledge at various times of the location of the kidnapped persons, and ultimately of their burial site, did not intervene for political reasons,” the petition says.“The crime branch investigations were closed without being presented before a competent court. The authorities who had knowledge at various times of the location of the kidnapped persons, and ultimately of their burial site, did not intervene for political reasons,” said the petition filed before commission.
New York Times
Rather than working for the hostages’ release, the Indian government, Indian intelligence agencies and Indian military prolonged their capture and sabotaged negotiations with the kidnappers, a new non-fiction book called “The Meadow” alleges. Indian officials’ actions were part of a larger plan to present Pakistan, and the Pakistan-backed insurgency in Kashmir, in as harsh a light as possible to the world at large, the book says. Ultimately, the men were killed by a second group, funded and controlled by the Indian government, the book alleges.
The book is based on years of research and hundreds of interviews by authors Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, who worked in South Asia during the kidnappings and for many years after. It uses a combination of named and unnamed sources, journals and official files and transcripts to build its case.
“All the time New Delhi said it was trying to crack Al Faran, a group within intelligence and the STF (Special Task Force, an Indian Police division) was letting them dangle, happy to let the militants portray themselves as savage criminals,” one police detective who worked on the case tells the authors.
A spokeswoman for India’s Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees India’s intelligence bureaus, said there was no way that the ministry could comment without reading the book. An e-mail with specific questions about the book’s premise was sent to the Home Ministry earlier this week, and the spokeswoman said a response could be expected after April 17.
The book contains blow-by-blow descriptions of the negotiations for the hostages’ release between an inspector and the kidnappers, which seemed to be nearly completed several times, only to be blown apart when the agreed terms of the negotiations were leaked to newspapers, including the Hindustan Times, infuriating the kidnappers. At times when the Indian government claimed the kidnappers and their hostages were untraceable, the book said, they were being watched and photographed by an Indian Army helicopter.
Despite a government precedent of releasing prisoners in exchange for kidnapping victims, in this instance officials refused. Masood Azhar, a Pakistani cleric jailed in India whose release was the kidnappers’ top demand, was let go by Indian officials four years afterward, after an Indian Airlines plane was hijacked to Afghanistan.
A member of the Crime Branch team who worked on the case describes the “dawning realization that their desire to solve the crime was at odds with the goals of some senior figures in the military and the intelligence services, who could have saved the hostages but chose not to.”
The book points fingers at the central government. “Right from the beginning the strings were being pulled from New Delhi,” said Altaf Ahmed, a police security official who worked with the security adviser to the government of Kashmir.“Those of us dealing with the hostage-taking on the ground in Srinigar were not in control.”
India’s top officials aren’t the only ones “The Meadow” lays blame on. Woven into the nearly 500-page book are a number of blunders and miscalculations allegedly made by Indian and foreign officials: the area in Kashmir was not cleared of backpackers after the first kidnappings because of a religious pilgrimage in the area; a woman’s sighting of German Dirk Hasert’s kidnapping was not reported immediately because the Indian Army officer the woman approached sexually assaulted her and the Army was trying to hush that assault up; instead of allowing escaped hostage John Childs to lead police to the kidnappers, as he wanted to, American officials whisked him out of the country.
On Christmas Eve, 1995, the four remaining hostages were walked into heavy, deep snow behind the lower village of Mati Gawran, shot and buried, an eyewitness to the killings said, the book reports.
“There was only one end for them, and we all knew it,” he said. “No one could risk the hostages being released and complaining of collusion, having seen uniforms and STF jeeps,” he said. (STF is the Special Task Force of police in Kashmir).
Arun Joshi, a reporter with the Hindustan Times and who covered the story at the time, has also not read the book but expressed skepticism about its claims. “Personally I don’t think it correct, I was there, I followed the story when it happened,” he said in a telephone interview. The story was not mysteriously leaked by intelligence to the Hindustan Times, Mr. Joshi said. Instead, he said, he pried some details out of the inspector conducting the negotiations when the official was “completely drunk.”
The 1995 kidnappings quickly snuffed an already waning flow of foreign tourists to Kashmir, once a popular destination. In recent years, after years of violence, tourists have tentatively started to return, mostly from India.
The book’s claims echo some of the darkest fears brewing in the international intelligence community after the hostages, or their bodies, failed to surface month after month.
Almost a year after they were taken, the fate of the hostages was still uncertain, despite diplomatic appeals and secret military operations from the United States, United Kingdom and Germany, The New York Times reported.
“So far none of these efforts have come close to ending the drama, whose ambiguities and illusions and hopes deceived have baffled a succession of anti-terrorism experts sent by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and by Scotland Yard,” John F. Burns wrote from Kashmir in May of 1996. He writes:
“Nobody can even be sure whether the kidnappers, who call themselves Al Faran, are real insurgents or, as many better known Kashmiri guerrillas assert, are Indian-backed renegades who have set out to discredit the entire movement.“There are many bizarre things about this entire business,” a senior diplomat said. But the diplomat added that India, while gaining politically from the bruising that the hostage-taking had given to the image of Pakistan and to the insurgents, had nonetheless dealt honestly in attempts to free the men.Still, the diplomat added, “there are cross-currents here that have troubled us deeply.”
New York Times Q&A
Q.Can you tell us about the research process for this book?
We began reporting for The Sunday Times magazine in South Asia around the time of the kidnapping, before becoming correspondents based in Delhi, working for The Sunday Times foreign department.We then moved over to The Guardian, and worked across the entire of Asia. Kashmir was a story/issue/crisis we followed and investigated for those two newspapers (consecutively) for 16 years. Over that time we developed close contacts in the Jammu and Kashmir Police, Intelligence Bureau (IB), Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and as significantly in civil society groups, consisting of lawyers and the so-called “mothers of the missing,” or Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons from their foundation to now.These relations all deepened after the earthquake of 2005, when we and them scoured Kashmir reporting the disaster but also reporting on the emergence of unmarked and mass graves in areas previously closed down. Our focus on the missing and the graves brought us back to the subject of the Western missing, which officials, agents, officers and villagers began to talk about freely for the first time, as a cathartic reaction to their mapping of the graves.In 2007, after finishing a book on Pakistan, we went back to our notes from the 1995 kidnappings, and approached the Western inquiry teams first: diplomats, Scotland Yard detectives, and the FBI, to explore what had been known and what were the basic research material available: timelines, maps, sightings, eye witness accounts.Armed with these, including the complete diplomatic chronology of events, we then moved research to Pakistan, where we have worked extensively. There we have particularly good contacts with federal investigators, and inside the government and military. These led to meetings with the Masood circle, his father and associates in the Punjab, Karachi and what was the Northwest Frontier Province. An enormous range of material was made available to us, including a Masood journal and his early writings, as well as files on his group’s creation of Al Faran.In India, with the help of Western diplomats and contacts in Delhi, we created lists of who was in the J&K police inquiry, the IB and RAW at the time, running the Valley, but also with specific responsibilities. These names included the most senior officers and agents, all of whom we approached and then returned to on multiple occasions, interviewing them and drawing them out.They in turn passed us on to others in RAW (mostly retired), IB and the police, until we had a fairly complete diagrammatic structure of who was where and had interviewed almost all of them.The army and the Ministry of Defense declined to get involved at any level, although Gen. D.D. Saklani, who was the security adviser to the governor, did talk at length.My general observations would be that the J&K police’s senior officers wanted to talk and were enormously helpful, as were IB. Through them we got to files and tape recordings.We also determined the exact route taken by the kidnappers, and followed that route, through Anantnag, and over in Kishtwar and the Warwan Valley, interviewing hundreds of villagers over the years, staying in Sukhnoi where we learned from villagers, and then the IB and the J&K police, the hostages had been deliberately penned in for 11 weeks approximately, while they were observed in detail and near daily, by an Indian helicopter.Our basic method was then to take the gamut of “witness” statements from the countryside back to the J&K police, IB etc and bounce them around to see what memories were jogged and if these memories matched official accounts, which they did.The view of Indian politicians, was that none of this (in 1995) was in their control, given the governor’s rule was in place in the Valley, and they were elbowed out and replaced by the military/intelligence/policing arrangement.We did approach former civil servants from South Block who all confirmed that the hostages had been penned in the Warwan and that intelligence and military ran the show.So starting with maps and a chronology, we created lists of officials and agents, whose accounts we then matched to new eyewitnesses, and whose statements we put to the people who had run the inquiries to eke out the truth.We also then reached out to all of the victims of the earlier kidnappings. We looked at these events in details from all sides to see the building methodology of the group. We visited some of the jihadis involved in jail in India and in Pakistan.
The most shocking part of the book concerns the role of the Indian government and military. Can you tell us at what time in your reporting you had, as one crime squad member said in the book, the “dawning realization that their desire to solve the crime was at odds with the goals of some senior figures in the military and the intelligence services.”
We had no idea until 2010.The idea of a conspiracy of some sorts had been building, in that we had been told, convincingly by officials and civilians, that the hostages’ whereabouts was known for an extensive period of time. There was no attempt to rescue them, only efforts to make the affair more protracted.We also knew by then the workings of internal and secret talks between the J&K police, IB and the kidnappers. We had the tape transcripts and interviews with those who talked on all sides. And from this it became clear that these talks were sabotaged by Indian officials.The details were rich and precise, showing how at every level when a solution was found, it was undermined at the highest level by the intelligence agencies and military.No names were ever given us, although the opinion expressed by all involved in talking to Al Faran was that only those at the top within intelligence could have had access to the information.In 2010-2011, we also were introduced to the renegades who had been working with the military and IB, and they and their handlers revealed a truce that had been struck between themselves and the kidnapping group, a truce that went against everything that was being expressed publicly.These Renegades, their handlers and the police who were investigating them, suspicious of their involvement in the kidnapping, led us in 2011 to information, witnesses and official accounts of how the hostages were “sold,” bought from Al Faran, and taken charge of by the Renegades led by Nabi Azad in Shelipora.
Who are the people that you would say strongly support your conclusion?
The Crime Branch team on the ground, the security team working for the then governor of Kashmir, very senior officers in the J&K police, both serving and retired, IB officers (retired), jailed militants in Tihar, who were first framed for the killing and then cleared by the Indian authorities, British foreign office sources (retired), and eyewitness to the men’s death.We also were shown extensive records, journals, accounts by investigators including eye witness statements.We interviewed the eyewitnesses and police sources.Inspector General Rajinder Tikoo (who led the negotiations with the kidnappers) confirmed the sabotaging of the talks and that intelligence did not want there to be a resolution. He resigned as a result from the inquiry. He then had no part to play and does not express a view of the ending.
Did you attempt to make contact with any of the senior-most figures who would have been involved in that decision? Members of then-Prime Minister [Narasimha] Rao’s inner circle? Pranab Mukherjee, who is quoted during one press conference? Former Gov. of Kashmir Rao? Former heads of RAW or IB who would have been active at that time? If so, what was their response?
Military, apart from Saklani, would not play ball. Politicians all declared they were led by the intelligence and military as they were out of the picture. IB and RAW conceded that prolonging the crime was their intention. It was wrapped up in the language of strategy, in that they could publicly claim the Warwan Valley was inaccessible and that any raid would be detected and thwarted leading to the deaths of the hostages.IB and RAW officers conceded that the view inside the bunker of intelligence was that Pakistan started this, and would not be allowed to end it. The kidnapping was a boon that enabled the Indian intelligence fraternity to clearly demonstrate Pakistan backed terror and demonize Kashmiri aspirations.These same agents and officers claimed that the ending was a local affair and riven by agents in the Valley who were too close to the Renegades who were by now uncontrollable. The Special Task Force of the police were similarly out of control, they were a criminal nexus. Indeed, they were also keen to point out that a judicial inquiry into Prime Minister Rao’s government in Delhi concluded that it, too, was completely in the pay of a criminal nexus, tainting his entire administration in scandal.
“The Crime Branch investigations (in the case) were closed without being presented before a competent court. The authorities, who had the knowledge at various times of the location of the kidnapped persons, and ultimately of their burial site, did not intervene for political reasons,” says the petition filed before the SHRC by three human rights organization — International Peoples Tribunal on Human Rights, Justice in Indian-Administered Kashmir and Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons.
The petitioners have sought fresh investigations “to identify the grave sites and bodies of the four kidnapped persons as mentioned in the book”. There should be forensic examinations of the sites, says the petition.
“An inquiry should be conducted as to why no action was taken on various points despite the authorities having knowledge of the location of the hostages, and then subsequently the burial site of the hostages, to ascertain the level of institutional culpability,” said Khurram Pervez, a member of a Srinagar-based human rights group.
In July 1995, militants of the Al-Faran, a front of the Harkat-ul-Ansar, kidnapped six persons — John Childs and Don Hutchings of the US; Germany’s Dirk Hasert; England’s Keith Mangan and Paul Wells; Norway’s Hans Christian Ostro — from Pahalgam mountain range.
Childs was able to escape on July 8 1995 but Ostro’s dead body was found on August 13 1995. The rest are still missing.
Authors Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark’s new book released in March last year in England has made startling disclosures in the case. “The four hostages were shot and buried…a good, hard walk behind the lower village,” the book claims.
“A Western female trekker had approached the Rashtriya Rifles in Pahalgam to say she had witnessed the kidnapping of Dirk Hasert. Instead of assisting her, a Major of the army’s Rashtriya Rifles sexually assaulted her,” claims the book.
The book claims a person named Ghulam Nabi Mir alias Alpha, a gunmen working for the security forces, had signed a secret ceasefire agreement with Javid Ahmed Bhat alias Sikander, the main abductor prior to the kidnappings.
“Mir was told by the police special task force, and army and intelligence handlers to pass on weapons and explosives to Bhat and his partners. This was part of a larger plan that used Bhat and his partners against the Hizbul Mujahideen.
“This was the reason why the pro-government militiamen in the area, who had knowledge of the whereabouts of the kidnappers and the hostages, had not intervened…On December 1, 1995 the hostages were handed over by Al Faran to Mir for Rs 4 lakh,” says the book.
The books claims that the death of Bhat on February 17, 1996 in an accident was “a planned operation set up by soldiers and Mir”.
“The disclosures in the book, based on Crime Branch investigations, strongly suggest that the officials of the army and government were deliberately misleading the investigations into the kidnapping and withholding information,” says the petition before the SHRC, which has listed it for April 16 for hearing.
“A final call on the petition will be decided by a division bench,” SHRC’s senior officer Tariq Banday told the HT. Director General of Police Kuldeep Khoda, however, has rubbished the authors’ claim. “We have not found anything like that during our investigation as claimed by the authors in their book,” said Khoda.
Sunday Times News Review
He passed a sentry, gripped his stomach to feign dysentery and squatted down behind a tree. Childs grabbed a handful of dirt and rubbed it over his face and into his hair to camouflage himself as best he could. He thought of his young daughters back home and also made a silent pledge to his fellow captives: “I will seek help and come back to you.” Then he bolted.
It was July 8, 1995 and Childs was not to know that the men he was leaving behind would become caught up in a slow-burning conspiracy that would take more than 16 years to unravel fully. Childs and the others also had no inkling that they had become ensnared in one of the first sorties in a new age of Islamist terror that would be punctuated with beheadings, hijackings, roadside bombs and suicide jackets. The “success” of the kidnapping — from the jihadist perspective — inspired others to target western civilians in an increasingly brutal fashion, a trend that persists to this day. Earlier this month saw the murder of a British and an Italian hostage being held by Islamists in Nigeria when a rescue was attempted.
Research undertaken for our new book also revealed how the lives of the Kashmiri hostages could have been saved if they had not been sacrificed to the wider agenda of the Indian authorities. Their ordeal had begun when a dozen western tourists, mountaineers and walkers had camped in a place high in the mountains known as the Meadow, a riverside glade sown with wild irises. The advice they had received from tourist information kiosks in Delhi was that it was safe; it was other parts of Kashmir that were affected by spasms of violence.
Childs, a self-confessed loner, was there on his own and kept apart from the other tourists. Mangan, an electrician originally from Teesside, was with his wife Julie. Both aged 33, they had sold up in Tooting, south London, and headed for south Asia. Their 10th wedding anniversary was the following month and they intended to celebrate at the Taj Mahal. Also in the Meadow were the Mangans’ new travelling companions, Catherine Moseley and Paul Wells, 24, a couple who had met each other in Nottingham, where she was a social worker and he was an aspiring photographer.
At dusk one night, an indeterminate flickering had drawn Julie’s eye. Struggling to focus in the twilight, she thought she saw a group of men in robes between the pines. Within seconds bearded gunmen were upon them, demanding passports. Gripping Keith’s hand, Julie Mangan was filled with dread.
A second armed group appeared with Childs in tow. “They were armed to the teeth with knives, semi-automatics and handguns,” he recalls in his first extensive interview about his ordeal and its aftermath. “The leader had the stillness of someone who had experienced real fear and survived it.” He pointed his gun at the men in the group: “You, you and you.” Mangan, Wells and Childs scrambled to their feet. “I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye,” Julie Mangan says. “They just took off, the 10 armed men and our three.”
The petrified women huddled together. “I don’t think they’re coming back,” Moseley recalls saying. Further down the valley the kidnap party had seized Hutchings, a neuropsychologist from Washington state who was trekking with his wife Jane Schelly. As he was dragged away, “we just looked into each other’s eyes”, she recalls.
The hostages were then marched in circles, hopping between herders’ huts, guarded by masked men who smelt of gunmetal and mutton fat. They began to debate their strategy. The Britons wanted to wait to be rescued while Childs, a weapons engineer, said nobody was looking for them and any attempt to free them would be stymied by the terrain. Eventually, in the middle of the night, he made his decision to run.
As he made good his escape he headed up, not down the mountain. Only a fool would climb into the deep freeze of the Indian Himalayas — and he hoped his pursuers would think the same. For 18 hours he trekked through the wood and snow, the occasional sound of gunmetal on rock making him realise the search party had not been called off. Eventually, however, the only sound he could hear was the shrill descending whistle of a bearded vulture circling above.
Then came a stroke of incredible good fortune. An Indian army helicopter, on a routine mission monitoring thousands of Hindu pilgrims climbing to an ancient ice cave, reared up over a ridge. Childs wasn’t safe yet. The crew had spotted him and assumed the lone figure was a terrorist plotting an attack on the Hindu devotees. A member of the crew recalls: “I was told to load a weapon and take that boy out.” But before he could shoot, the pilot, noticing Childs’s pale skin, intervened: “He’s a western guy.”
On the ground Childs was thrown into panic. “I was terrified. It was a big military thing with gun muzzles poking out of the window and men dressed in uniform.” To reassure him, the pilot moved the chopper so its tail faced the man below, showing the saffron, white and green of the Indian air force insignia, before setting down. Hauled inside, Childs beseeched the crew: “We have to go back for the others.” His rescuers tried to calm him. “You’re safe now,” one told him. “You’re with the good guys.”
Childs was taken to Srinagar, where the traumatised wives and girlfriends were now staying at a government guesthouse. One of their guides had returned with a ransom demand. They knew the raiding party were Muslim extremists using a name — al-Faran
— that local police had never previously heard. The hostages would be executed unless India released 21 Pakistanis held on terror charges.
There was more bad news. A woman arrived at the guesthouse and introduced herself as Anne-Katrin Hennig. A group of gunmen had appeared from nowhere that morning, she said, and had abducted her boyfriend. His name was Dirk Hasert, 26, a German student. It was the kidnap gang who had been searching for Childs. They had found another tourist, too: Hans Christian Ostro, a 27-year-old actor from Oslo. Now there were five captives in the mountains.
Childs was free and safe, but for the wives and families of the other men the trauma had only begun. Communications from the kidnappers came in fits and spurts. Photographs emerged of the increasingly gaunt hostages. A few taped messages materialised. The women made emotional pleas for the lives of their loved ones. On August 13, 1995 a decapitated body was found in a remote grave. Police retrieved a head nearby and seeing its blond hair guessed that it was Ostro. Into his torso was carved “al-Faran”.
Concealed about his body and in the lining of his clothes were dozens of notes that revealed some of what the captives had been going through. Many more, scattered by him in the woods, had somehow been retrieved by villagers. “I am tired and stop for the night,” he wrote in one. “The sky is still blue but only very little from outside comes into this cell.” Another addressed his family: “If I should die now, there will come bubbles of the tenderest love to those who are going to keep going with this life on earth which I have loved. The warmest hugs . . . I’m not afraid to die.”
Ostro’s family would later take solace in the fact that they had a body. For the others there would be no such closure. Mavis Mangan, Keith’s mother, says: “If those men holding our son wanted us to feel the terror, they certainly [succeeded]. This was real terror.” Even Benazir Bhutto, then Pakistan’s prime minister, was haunted by Ostro’s beheading, telling us shortly before she was killed in 2007: “We were living in the days of innocence back then. We had never seen terror like it. But once the perpetrators had crossed the line there was no stopping them.”
This is where the fate of the Kashmir captives interlocks with the rise of the increasingly violent Islamist terrorists. At the top of the kidnappers’ list of prisoners to be released was Masood Azhar, the portly head of a Pakistan-based terror group who was an ally of Osama Bin Laden. Both had cut their jihadi teeth fighting the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Then they moved on to Somalia and helped to arm the Islamists who shot down the American helicopters in 1993 in the incident that inspired the film Black Hawk Down. Azhar also travelled to Britain where, based at a mosque in east London, he had raised a fund to finance jihad and recruited British terrorist sleepers.
In 1994 he became temporarily unstuck. Slipping into India on a forged passport procured in Britain in the hope of boosting the insurgency in Kashmir, he was captured by the Indian army. This triggered the kidnappings of July 1995, which sought to free him. India refused to budge, repeatedly ruling out a prisoner exchange.
However, on Christmas Eve, 1999 after an Indian Airlines plane with 178 passengers was hijacked en route from Nepal to Delhi by members of Azhar’s outfit, the Indian government blinked. Azhar was freed, striding back to join his supporters, exhorting them: “Instead of shaking hands with each other, fill your arms with lightning.”
This they did. A year later a suicide bomber struck the army headquarters in Kashmir. The bomber was one of Azhar’s recruits, a 24-year-old student from Birmingham called Asif Sadiq. Three months after 9/11 Azhar’s group attacked the Indian parliament in Delhi. The following year his bodyguard and another of his British sleepers adapted tactics honed in the Kashmir kidnapping to trap Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter, uploading his beheading to YouTube.
In 2004 Azhar’s men welcomed several British Pakistanis back to the land of their forefathers and in the terrorist training camps of northwest Pakistan helped them plan the carnage in London of July 2005. The next year another of Azhar’s British protŽgŽs led the so-called liquid bomb plot to bring down transatlantic airliners. While Bin Laden was finally run down last year, Azhar remains at large.
More alarming for the relatives of the men who were seized was the story of what had happened to them. In 1996 a photograph was produced of them looking healthy, which was said by the Indian authorities to prove they were still alive, and periodically there were witness reports. But after Kashmir opened up as the insurgency dwindled and its grim toll began to become apparent, with more than 6,000 mass graves of local civilian victims discovered, people began to talk about what had really happened.
The hostages had never been lost, maintained one of Kashmir’s most senior police officers, a Hindu with no axe to grind. He described in great detail how early on in their investigation the Indian authorities had learnt their whereabouts, finding the remote valley, the isolated village and even the wooden house in which the hostages were imprisoned, but decided to keep them and their kidnappers pinned down for 11 weeks. A decision had been taken high up the chain of command to let the crime run, blackening the name of the independence movement in Kashmir — and Pakistan, which backed it.
His account was backed by others in Indian intelligence, while another senior police officer, who ran secret negotiations with the kidnappers, revealed he had managed to strike a deal for the hostages, only for it to be blown by forces “in the top tier of government”.
Detectives tracking the hostages came out of the woodwork, revealing how they discovered that mercenaries had entered the fray in November 1995 as the kidnappers, frozen and hungry, were about to give in. These mercenaries, known as renegades, were surrendered Kashmiri fighters, turncoats paid by the Indian forces to hunt down erstwhile comrades. They bought the four westerners for £2,000 a head. The renegades then wiped out the kidnap gang, hunting them down one by one, before making the western hostages vanish too. “Internal police files show that the hostages were executed on Christmas Eve in 1995, outside a small village called Mati Gawran, a five-hour drive up into the mountains ringing Kashmir’s southern city of Anantnag,” says one senior detective. “I knew then that we really had lost our humanity. This is the price of so many years at war.”
Some of the families are now demanding belated justice. Bob Wells, the father of Paul, told The Sunday Times: “For many years I suspected the authorities in India were not telling us the truth. To learn that some in power were actively deceiving us is far worse.” This summer a case is to be lodged with the State Human Rights Commission in Srinagar pointing to the likely burial place of the hostages, demanding a new search and a criminal inquiry into their deaths. Childs rarely talks about the events of 1995, even to his family. Did the kidnapping change him? He claims not, but increasingly he has sought out his own company. Eventually he left his job with Ensign-
Bickford and moved to the northeast Appalachians in the wild and wooded north of the United States, settling in a modest slatted house in a small farming community. He dismisses the weight he carries as the only hostage to escape, while at the same time probing the reasons for his good fortune.
“My belief, after all this time, is that I was lucky on that day,” he says. “For once my planets lined up, if that’s how you want to put it. I picked my strategy. I leapt and got away. But on any other day the same choice would have failed and I would have been caught, hauled back to the hut.” He holds his head in his hands: ” ‘Why couldn’t you just bring Don with you?’ Jane [Hutchings] asked me.” The impact of those words have never left him. “From the start I knew I had to escape. I sensed we would all die. My time came and somehow it worked out. In a struggle there can only be you. But, you know . . .” He pauses, half-closing his eyes. “Even today I can’t sleep between sheets. For the past 16 years I’ve slept on top of my bed, under a rough blanket, like the horse throws we slept beneath in captivity.
“I don’t know why. Maybe it makes me feel closer to my comrades who were left behind.”
The Meadow, a book written by investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, says that a pro-government renegade Ghulam Nabi Mir alias Alpha, or Azad Nabi who used to be based in Shalipora near Anantnag in Kashmir, had “bought” the four hostages from Al Faran and held them for months before killing them. The four persons, the book says, had been killed in the remote twin villages of Mati and Gawran, an approximately five hour drive from Anantnag town, on 24 December 1995. The book claims the authorities had the knowledge of the location of the hostages but didn’t want to rescue them.
The six kidnapped tourists were John Childs of Simsbury, Connecticut, USA, Dirk Hasert of Bad Langensalza, Germany, Don Hutchings of Spokane, Washington State, USA, Keith Mangan of Teesside, Middlesborough, England, Hans Christian Ostrø of Oslo, Norway, and Paul Wells of Blackburn, Lancashire, England. John Childs escaped on July 8, 2012. They were kidnapped by Javid Ahmed Bhat alias “Sikander”, Abdul Hamid al-Turki alias “the Turk”, Nabeel Ghazni, Abu Khalifa, and others.
However, while John Childs was able to escape on 8 July 1995, Ostro was beheaded and his body was found later in August.
Now, IPTK wants a comprehensive investigation to be ordered into the “kidnappings and associated events and killings” and prosecutions launched against all those responsible, including at the highest levels of the army, police, and government, for the crimes committed. “An inquiry be conducted as to why no action was taken on various points noted above, despite the authorities having knowledge of the location of the hostages, and then subsequently the burial site of the hostages, to ascertain the level of institutional culpability,” the petition says.
The petition, which quotes passages from the book, says Al Faran was ready to give up hostages for a ransom of Rs 1 crore but the deal was said to have fallen through at the last minute. “Inspector General Rajinder Tikoo, the Crime Branch Chief, and negotiator with Al Faran, reached a deal for the release of the victims, with the person negotiating on behalf of Al Faran [who referred to himself as “Jehangir”] on 17 September 1995 for Rs 1 crore. But, by 18 September 1995, as a result of a news leaked to the media, the deal fell through,” the petition says.
However, subsequently in an operation on 4 December 1995 at village Dabran in Anantnag district, the Rashtriya Rifles gunned down three kidnappers—Nabeel Ghazni, Abu Khalifa, and Abdul Hamid al-Turki—and captured two local militants. Sikander (the militant commander heading the kidnap operation) himself died on 17 February 1996 in a bomb blast that was claimed as accidental by the army, says the petition.
On 3 June 1996, based on information that the four kidnapped persons had been shot dead on 13 December 1995 at Magam, a search for the bodies of the victims was conducted at the village. The bodies were not found. The fate of the four kidnapped persons has not been conclusively ascertained to date. “The family members of the victims of the July 1995 kidnapping have spent close to 17 years with the anguish of not knowing the fate of their disappeared family members,” the petition says.
The book, the petition says, reveals a secret ceasefire agreement between the pro-government insurgent Ghulam Nabi Mir alias Alpha and the main abductor Sikander. Prior to kidnappings Mir was told by his handlers in STF (State Task Force), army and intelligence to pass on weapons and explosives to Sikander and his partners.
“This was part of a larger plan that used Javid Ahmed Bhat [alias “Sikander”] and his partners against the Hizbul Mujahideen. This was the reason why the pro-government militiamen in the area, who had knowledge of the whereabouts of the kidnappers and the hostages, had not intervened,” the petition quoting the book says. “The STF, backed by a faction within the Indian Intelligence Agencies, and with the knowledge of counter-insurgency specialists of the Rashtriya Rifles had known about the deal from the very beginning, and in fact, the idea for such a ceasefire agreement had come from the security forces”.
The petition says that Al Faran handed over hostages to Mir alias Alpha on 1 December 1995 for Rs 4 lakh. The petition says that the Crime Branch investigations into the incident were closed without being presented before a competent court. “The authorities, who had knowledge at various times of the location of the kidnapped persons, and ultimately of their burial site, did not intervene for political reasons,” the petition says.
The book deals with the manner in which the Indian government and the military allowed the hostages to die as part of a larger political game. What was the role played by the Indian government and when did you realise the same during your research?
The crux of the book is not that straight forward. First, Pakistan enabled an act of terror, which led to the abduction of six tourists in total, the barbaric beheading of one of them and the imprisonment of four others. The kidnappers’ leadership was grown in Pakistan, funded and trained in Karachi, the Punjab and Muzaffarabad, before being infiltrated across the LoC, kidnapping tourists (as their initial targets — foreign engineers — had got away).Indian intelligence recognised the crime from the off as an error on Pakistan’s part. It was potentially a useful tool with which to expose its neighbour’s proclivity for dabbling in Kashmir and making India bleed, at a time when the West was reticent to comment on Kashmir (and perceived the state’s insurgency as a human rights issue).
Rather than quickly solving the crime, as it had many others that came before it, a clique within intelligence and the Army made it run long so as to eke out maximum pain for Pakistan, fulfilling a key plank of the (former prime minister PV Narasimha) Rao doctrine, to frame Pakistan as a State sponsor of terror, winning an argument on the international stage where India had spectacularly failed before to get heard on terrorism and Pakistan.
In the end, when Al Faran had folded, exhausted, frozen and demoralised, State-sponsored renegades took over the hostages, to keep the crime running, men who had the support of a rogue element in the Valley’s intel and military establishment.
These figures, led by Nabi Azad, had grown within a short time beyond control, and were as criminal as they were brutally effective. The same could be said of the J&K police’s special task force or SoG, which worked with them.
We had no inkling of the ending when we began. We thought this was probably a dirty, opaque story and like many incidents in Kashmir, was likely to be complex, and fraught with difficulty. We thought too that this was an everyman tale, innocents packing their bags for a dream holiday that goes horribly wrong, people taking ordinary decisions, as we all do, that have unforeseen consequences. However, this being Kashmir, we were certain from the start that there would be a political dimension and indeed there was.
How do you think India has gained or lost as a result of this incident? You have quoted (inspector general of police) Rajinder Tikoo as stating that there was a sabotage during the negotiations as the Indian Intelligence Bureau didn’t want it.
The J&K police, the security advisor to the governor, and others tried to solve the crime, and nearly all concluded they were impeded by external forces. Every crucial stage of the secret talks between India and Al Faran was undermined by a pattern of leaks so persistent and accomplished, dealing in highly classified information, that it had to stem from a very high level. Politicians and civil servants reflecting on this period recall that they were sidelined by the military and intelligence factions that ran the show. This suggests and they believe that some in intelligence were behind the leaks — rather than the odd drunk policeman as one reporter has lately suggested.
The feeling within the Al Faran inquiry itself was that it was being sabotaged from without. This view was widely held, and debated. And then hushed up. An inquiry into this episode might discover the names of the leakers and then grill them, on their intentions.
Prior to this, the IB and R&AW, as well as some in the Army, knew of the hostages’ whereabouts for almost the entire time they were in the Warwan Valley — some 10 or 11 weeks. The police discovered this by interviewing villagers there and sampling statements from a network of informers and agents they had in place. IB/Army acquired photos of the hostages so detailed that according to some of the agents who saw them they could see the sweat in their brow as they played ball games, to alleviate their boredom.
Villagers in the Warwan reported on numerous occasions the hostages’ presence to the Rashtriya Rifles. On at least one occasion, documented by the police, villagers complained to they were beaten and detained by soldiers of the Victor Force who told them to mind their own business.
What India ‘gained’ from all of this was to create a visceral image of Kashmir in the West as a cradle of terrorism rather than a paradise Valley. However, as many senior police and intelligence officers conceded, what was lost in all of this war and gamesmanship was humanity.
You have pointed out that Indian politicians had said the entire kidnapping incident was not in their control as there was governor’s rule in the Valley. How true do you think this statement was?
I think there is a good deal of truth in this. The political setup had been quashed. The governor in J&K was in charge. He was surrounded by military and intelligence factions who presented an often distorted and conflicting view of the Valley. War creates distortion. But here intelligence fed the governor and then acted on their own intelligence too, without oversight of any kind.
Compare this to 1999, and the hijacking of Flight 814. In 1999 the politicians were in charge, and consulted Intelligence Bureau and Research and Analysis Wing, some agents advising them to sacrifice the passengers on the jet, as “that many people die every month in India”.
However, the advice was over-ridden. Instead, watching the teary demonstrations outside the prime minister’s house in Delhi build, and families threaten to immolate themselves, noisy families who never shut up, while the families in 1995 were told by all in power to say nothing and keep quiet, the government rolled, fearing the political price of not doing so, and ordered the release of Masood Azhar, as well as (Mushtaq) Latram (Zargar) and Omar Sheikh.
Senior contacts in the ‘civil service’ in Kashmir and Delhi were out of the loop. Some in Rao’s inner circle must have known something.
Did you manage to get names of those in the political circles and also the Indian security establishment who were responsible? Who do you think from New Delhi in the PV Narasimha Rao government was controlling the situation?
An inquiry needs to establish this precise question. Who sabotaged Tikoo’s negotiations? Who sabotaged the operation to free the hostages? An independent hearing that seeks out all those connected might resolve that question.
It is stated that India’s agenda was to show that terrorism in Kashmir was backed by Pakistan. What is the thinking in Pakistan regarding this and what did you find during your various interviews conducted with those close to the Al Faran group?
There has been no official comment on the findings of the book in Pakistan yet, although there was concern at the time about the Al Faran case. Federal investigators and Benazir Bhutto in 1995 expressed dismay to us about the beheading of one of the hostages, Hans Christian Ostro, describing the killing as “a watershed”. That kind of act was unknown before then, and yet afterwards it would become part of the grammar of the so-called terror war.
The impression we gained from police statements and eye-witness, as well as from mujahids in Pakistan, was that Al Faran or Harkat al Ansar, as it was, would have rolled over and released the hostages, but was prevented from doing so. However, the Al Faran team, former Harkat al Ansar people say, was divided, with one faction siding after a time with the hostages. Some in the party together with villagers from the Warwan seem also to have assisted the hostages with an escape bid and to get their messages out — some of which, incredibly, eventually reached Srinagar.
However, there was also another, hardline faction within Al Faran, led by a foreign fighter known as The Turk, that was more pragmatic and battle-hardened. This faction was behind the decapitation of Ostro, something for which it was admonished by its handlers in Pakistan, who saw it as a senselessly cruel act that would play terribly in the Western press, which it did.
The Al Faran ultimately gave in, they say too. They settled for Indian money. This deal was exposed and sunk so as to prevent it happening. They then let it be known that they would offer the hostages up for free. At this stage renegades were instructed by their handlers to try and buy the hostages from Al Faran.
Looking at Kashmir today, what are your views on the militancy there and also what sort of a role are both India and Pakistan playing?
The Indian Army says that foreign militancy has dipped to about 125 fighters, with total militancy standing at 400-odd fighters. Is this a militancy at all? And yet, emergency legislation to counter a fully-fledged militancy remains in place, the AFSPA, the PSA etc, ‘lawless laws’, as Amnesty calls them, that prevent the judiciary operating freely and that undermine India’s claim to establishing equanimity in the state. The militarisation of the Valley remains as well, a place where the security forces admit that not a single prosecution has succeeded against them since 1989, although approximately 59 court-martials have taken place against nameless soldiers, for unknown crimes. These issues remain live in the mind of the international community.
At present youth in Kashmir are shunning the gun. The figures show that as do our extensive interviews in the Valley. How long will this window of opportunity remain open, especially after the non starter of the interlocutors sent from Delhi? Already, a section of society in the Valley is visibly moving very rapidly towards radical forms of Islam, that are not organic to the Valley, which are offering ‘respite’ to alienated teenagers, and also moving them towards a kind of conservative, hard line religiosity never seen before in Kashmir and that could wreak havoc if no real normalcy prevails.
On the Pakistan side, there is far greater instability now than ever, with the military in a bruising conflict with its US sponsors, and the civilian government staggering from crisis to crisis, especially with the judiciary. A destabilised Pakistan is disastrous news for peace in Kashmir, and post-Mumbai there is little cause for cheer in Pakistan-India relations.
Based on your experiences which country (India or Pakistan) would you fault for the state that Kashmir is in?
I don’t want to get involved in a blame game. However, Britain evidently played a disastrous role at Partition. Pakistan repeatedly has used Kashmir as its default bargaining chip, a substitute for any progressive foreign policy. India has failed to act imaginatively or boldly in the Valley, other than its creative use of intelligence assets etc, throwing money and little else into the equation. Where are the big ideas to outflank the default positions of succession (to Pak) and Islamism?
Post the 2010 agitations, an opportunity presented itself but that too has been lost.
The information that has been put out in this book is shocking. Could you tell us a bit about the difficulties and pitfalls faced by you and Cathy-Scott while going about your work for this book?
We spent several years on this, dipping also into 18 years of prior work in the region that has aided us in developing really good contacts on both sides of the LoC. We travelled extensively across J&K, interviewing hundreds of eyewitnesses, former intelligence agents and their assets, police officers serving and retired, politicians and civil servants, renegades and their families, army officers (retired), jihadis in Pakistan, former militants in Kashmir, intelligence and investigative agents and officers in Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar, as well as their opposite numbers in Delhi, Jammu and Srinagar.
Some of the work was done while we were carrying out other reporting duties.
We have been working in Kashmir as writers and foreign correspondents, for The Sunday Times and then theGuardian, since the era of the kidnappings, following events unfold in J&K and across the subcontinent.
We reported and investigated Pakistan’s intervention in Kashmir, its backing of the armed struggle and its subtler steering of the political scene, too. We heard it from Indian intelligence agents and saw for ourselves in Pakistan that jihadeers were getting up steam to stoke Kashmir.
We also reported in detail India’s response, and how in this state of constant emergencies the law (and often moral judgements) was subverted to satisfy the supposed security demands of two countries fighting a proxy war. The same had been true in our protracted non-war in Northern Ireland, where we subsequently discovered that our security services had lost their moral compass, on many occasions, so desperate had our government been to win.
Some of this research went into our book Deception: Pakistan, the United States and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons of 2007, which charted how the US had secretly abetted the Pakistan nuclear programme, creating a volatile regional landscape that today we are still learning to deal with. We recounted how George Bush’s “axis of evil” was partially enabled by the US itself that had had a lot to do also with unravelling the epoch of terror we are still living in now.
We covered massacres and cold-blooded killings in J&K perpetrated by militants, Kashmiri jihadis, foreign fighters, and Indian soldiers and spies. We witnessed Pakistan’s adventurism in the Kargil heights, but we also gradually saw how all sides lost their humanity in the melee that no one was winning.
The lack of oversight and accountability, through the judicial and parliamentary systems, which were often held in abeyance, led to massive abuses of power in J&K: rapes, murders, abductions, torture, disappearances. And seldom was a guilty party prosecuted or put on trial. J&K became a kind of proving ground for the intelligence agencies on both sides of the Line of Control, a place from where they have been reticent to leave.
While in the West, torture, renditions, political judgement and human rights abuses are now seized upon and rigorously investigated, igniting massive debates as to what defines our humanity, nothing of the sort has happened in Kashmir or elsewhere in India where the non-war (that has in recent years all but been extinguished in J&K) has been poorly reported and analysed, its real cost still unknown, any debate about its continuance framed by allegations of treason and heresy.
That changed somewhat after 2005 when the earthquake opened up vast areas of the Valley. Out of the disaster, which enabled lawyers and reporters to travel freely everywhere, rose the first accounts of unmarked and mass graves. An open discussion about the disappeared in Kashmir took flight too. By 2008, it became clear that the two issues were likely inter-related, leading to the first credible reports on the missing and the unlawfully buried, the scale of which gave some clue as to the full horrors of what had taken place in this non-war. How much had Pakistan thrown into the Valley to set it on fire? How far had India gone to quell the insurgency and rebuff its neighbour? How badly had the residents of the state suffered, caught in the firing line? The price appeared unconscionable on all sides.
People also started to talk about Kashmir’s most puzzling missing case: the Al Faran episode. New eye-witnesses, old hands who had investigated it. A sea-change also took place within the Indian establishment where former and serving police and agents began to open up, as if they too felt that enough was enough. For some the Al Faran case represented justice delayed, for others, justice denied, and for another faction it was a myth that needed to be dispelled. People we tracked down were relieved to talk and said they had been sitting guiltily on secrets for 16 years.
Only six people were directly affected in this case, and many tens of thousands of souls have been victims of the Kashmir crisis. Why pay undue attention to these six only? We were asked this over and over as we began investigating. But we sensed that the numbers were not the story and that through this one small case of six trekkers who were abducted, a reader could see much of the entire Kashmir imbroglio. This one seemingly insignificant crime, when compared to the daily tragedies of Valley life, was a prism through which to assay the cost of the war.
Do you feel these revelations of the manner in which the Indian establishment reacted to the kidnappings would strain India’s relations with the US, the UK or Germany?
I don’t think it will do on an official level, as trade comes before everything. However, I do think it has revealed something of the truth about the Kashmir imbroglio, the cost to all sides, India and Pakistan, and what has been done in the name of winning.
How has your book been received overseas?
The book has caused consternation and some pain in the United Kingdom and the United States as it delves into matters that are still raw and touches on a wider relationship (between the UK and India) that remains tense, in a familial sense.
The book is not yet out in India and so we await a response which I am certain will be as divided as is public and institutional opinion on Kashmir generally.
However, the book is far more nuanced than some people evidently imagine, and contains a subtler and more balanced analysis than some people are giving us credit for.
For example, the director general of police in Srinagar, (Kuldeep) Khoda, described it recently as “rubbish”. Given that he has not read it, nor studied the evidence, or been involved in the initial inquiry, I think it would be fair to say that this constitutes an uniformed response.
Times of India – EXTRACT
For the past four days and nights his every move, his every bodily need, had been controlled by these rough strangers, who he had begun to hate with a passion. ‘I came from America, the land of the free, ‘ he said. ‘And now I had to ask some idiot kid with a rifle for permission to urinate, to speak, even to wash my hands before eating. I was stunned by the loss of freedom. This is what struck me most. The thing that pained me. ‘ But having got over his selfpity, John was determined to get out.
After four days in their company, he was still not sure who his captors represented, or what they wanted. They appeared to be some kind of mujahideen, like the turbanned gunmen he’d read of fighting in Afghanistan. Two of them claimed to be veterans, without saying which conflict they had fought in, or on what side. Some of the younger ones had let the odd fact slip during unguarded moments.
One said he came from Gilgit, which John knew was somewhere in the Pakistani mountains. Another said he was from ‘the tribal areas’, which probably placed him on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Other than that, there had been little talking. The leader had seen to it that his men kept their distance and said little. ‘Shut up, keep quiet!’ he had barked every time he caught the hostages exchanging whispers, gesturing with his pistol.
One thing was clear. These men had known no life other than the mountains or the battlefield: washing only to pray, defecating wherever, charging up mountains in plastic sandals, spending the evenings obsessively cleaning their weapons. ‘Some of the younger ones were just teenagers, ‘ said John. They made a few attempts to ask about cricket, bands, life in Britain and the US. John had decided right at the start to smile through it, and not to be the one who caused trouble. ‘I didn’t want that responsibility, I didn’t want to anger my captors. I just wanted out of this. I left the bolshiness to Paul. ‘
John focused on the kidnappers, trying to work out the pecking order and their rituals, noticing how reverentially they acted around the leader. ‘He was sinisterlooking, with a long, narrow face, a hawkish nose and an expression that gave nothing away. Unlike some of the others, who got excitable or panicked, the leader was cool, and spoke near-perfect English. Fairskinned, with a long beard and hair, he had a stillness about him that, enhanced by his aquiline profile and robes, gave him the aura of an educated aesthete. He seemed to have come from privilege, but to have been brought down by war to something more basic. ‘ John felt that this man had chosen his path, and that he was capable of anything. Many years later, John would say that every time he saw a picture of Osama bin Laden he was reminded of Al Faran’s leader.
Now he lay studying the primitive eaves of the shelter, roughly hewn from red pine, sawn and hacked into lengths which it must have taken many men and animals to haul to this spot. He had had enough of the last four arduous days, walking and climbing endlessly, with nothing more to greet them at the end of another twelve hours than a smoky hut and a clump of rice.
He studied the sleeping hostages. He and Don had bonded a little. Two Americans in extremis. But the British pair, Keith and Paul, were different to him in outlook, experience and nature, almost as foreign as the kidnappers. They believed, na?vely, in the generosity of others, and in the importance of acting collectively. No doubt they would try to form some kind of escape committee if they had the chance, whereas he had calculated that he would have to capitalise on whatever chances arose, because they would be infrequent. ‘The Indians will save us, ‘ they had said. John had shaken his head in disbelief. They had been abandoned to their fate the minute they had been kidnapped. ‘There would be no rescue. In my mind we were totally alone. ‘
John had always been the one who’d unflinchingly confronted unpopular thoughts, even at the cost of making friends. He knew that saying these things out loud would have made him sound mean spirited. But all he wanted was to live. He needed to see his mother, his father, his daughters again. He believed in the power of his imagination. That was what would get him out of here.
By the faint light of the embers of the fire he could see his sleeping comrades’ faces, pinched with exhaustion. How much ground had they covered over the past seventy-eight hours? Twelve hours of walking and climbing every day, stopping only to pray and at dusk. His, Keith and Paul’s beards were beginning to show, which he was sure would please their captors, as it made them less obviously foreign. He felt bad about what he was starting to plan, and knew it would have an impact on the other hostages. ‘But I had no other option. I chose to live. And I knew if I didn’t do it now, I would die. ‘ Everything depended on the number of sentries outside, and how alert they were. John was banking on the fact that no one would be rising for another three hours, until the 4 am prayers. His stomach knotted in spasms. He was not sure if it was fear, dysentery, altitude sickness or a parasite. Whatever it was, he would use it to his advantage.
He got up and silently wound his way, boots in one hand, between the sleeping bodies. Gingerly pushing the tarpaulin door-flap aside, he emerged into the cold night air of the mountains: wood smoke, pine resin and snow. A sentry who was sitting beside the entrance to the compound looked up. John acknowledged him, then grimaced and gripped his stomach, as he had done many times over the past days. The sentry nodded and went back to cleaning his weapon.
John walked out of the compound, counting three more guards dotted about in the trees, all of them in various states of slumber. He knew there were more sleeping in the next hut. Gripping his stomach again, he groaned gently before stumbling into the woods and finding a place to squat. He shivered and watched, taking in the scene.
Bloomberg – Pankaj Mishra
The authors argue that the drawn-out negotiation, during which Indian intelligence allegedly knew the hostages’ whereabouts, was a charade, part of India’s larger effort to portray Pakistan as a sponsor of Islamist terror, thereby delegitimizing the Kashmiri struggle for freedom.
Certainly, India today no longer needs to highlight the role of the Pakistani army and intelligence in sponsoring extremist groups. It has also succeeded in shifting international attention away from the appalling facts of its counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir — tens of thousands killed, and innumerable many tortured, mutilated and orphaned. The tallying in 2009 of 2,700 unmarked graves containing the remains of people (often buried in groups) killed by security forces barely provoked any comment in the international media, let alone expressions of concern by Western leaders.
Killers in Khaki
But India’s diplomatic and public relations success has been achieved at considerable costs: the rise of militaristic nationalism, the assault on civil liberties, and a dangerously enhanced role in politics for men in uniform.
Most of the million-plus men and women in the Indian military still manifest what Shashi Tharoor once described as “increasingly rare” qualities in India: “high standards of performance, honesty, hard work, self-sacrifice, incorruptibility, respect for tradition, discipline, team spirit.” As a child, I had myself wanted, like many Indians of my generation and class, to acquire the virtuous glow of an army officer’s uniform, and even attended a military school.
It was therefore shocking and demoralizing to encounter, during a visit to Kashmir in 2000, accounts of extrajudicial killings and torture and rape by Indian soldiers — stories that, though commonplace in Kashmir, were largely kept hidden from the Indian public by a patriotic media.
But to those who reported from Kashmir in the past decade and a half — as opposed to the many more who were content to disseminate briefings from Indian army and intelligence officials — “The Meadow” presents a disturbingly familiar picture.
I was there when, during Bill Clinton’s visit to South Asia in March 2000, Indian army officers allegedly kidnapped and killed five Kashmiri villagers and presented their mutilated corpses to the international news media as the Pakistani killers of the 35 Sikhs who had been murdered by unidentified gunmen just hours before Clinton’s scheduled arrival in India. It has taken 12 years for India’s legal system even to acknowledge this well-documented atrocity: Last week, the Supreme Court gingerly asked the army how it wishes to prosecute the officers suspected of the coldblooded murder.
Since 2000, the number of armed militants has steadily decreased in Kashmir. But the human rights situation has not improved. Under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in effect in Kashmir and the northeastern states (where the Indian army was first deployed in counter-insurgency), soldiers can kill on the basis of mere suspicion while continuing to enjoy near-total legal immunity.
Regime of Impunity
The result is a regime of impunity. A coalition of Indian human rights groups in a report to the United Nations this year documented 789 extrajudicial killings in the northeastern state of Manipur alone between 2007 and 2010.
In recent years, the army has also been dragged into Operation Green Hunt, the Indian state’s extraordinarily big, armed offensive against Maoist insurgents in central India. Predictably, the use of scorched-earth tactics once deployed in border areas has undermined the general rule of law in the states of Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and West Bengal.
The widened powers of the military against the new electronic media’s background chorus of hypernationalism have given army officers a public role they never had. Breaking with old protocols, the previous army chief openly speculated about a “limited” war under a “nuclear overhang” with Pakistan.
It is also not at all clear if there is any proper governmental oversight of the Indian intelligence agencies, which, mimicking the doomed Pakistani quest for “strategic depth,” have been trying out potentially useful proxies in Pakistan’s Balochistan province as well as Afghanistan. These adventurist spies and the perennially belligerent men in uniform now seem to constitute as formidable a lobby against peace between India and Pakistan as the Islamic zealots on the other side of the border.
Backed by Hindu nationalist leaders, they even dare to overrule elected politicians such as Omar Abdullah, Kashmir’s chief minister, who has been pleading in vain for a withdrawal of the much-despised special powers act.
Their jingoism, echoed by hawkish think tanks and websites (India’s own military-intellectual complex), goes necessarily together with dubious arms purchases. India is now the world’s biggest arms market; a series of scandals have not stopped spending sprees that, as the recent outbursts of the outgoing army chief reveal, do little to prepare India for any conceivable war.
No Banana Republic
Things are about to get worse. The next Indian army chief comes into office later this month, trailed by allegations of his involvement in an extrajudicial killing in Kashmir. He was also in charge of Indian peacekeeping soldiers accused in 2008 of sexual misconduct in the Congo.
Unlike its Pakistani rival, the Indian army remains firmly under civilian control. A sensationalist recent story in a major Indian newspaper claimed that unauthorized movements of soldiers near New Delhi earlier this year had “spooked” the government. But it is hard to imagine the foolhardy army officers who would attempt a coup in India. Although beset by internal wars and draconian laws and chaotic governance, India is very far from degenerating into, as an exasperated Ratan Tata feared last year, a “banana republic.”
Yet there are plenty of reasons for alarm and dismay over a process that, starting in obscure battles in the northeastern states in the 1960s, was accelerated during the two previous decades in the valley of Kashmir. Levy and Scott-Clark’s book mainly excavates one of the many murky incidents of the 1990s. But its revised draft of history also sheds light on the present — how a democratic state’s addiction to colonial-style dirty wars has damaged not so much the Kashmiri cause of freedom as India’s frail democracy and one of its last uncompromised institutions.
(Pankaj Mishra, whose new book, “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia,” will be published in August, is a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed are his own.)
In July 1995, a previously unknown terrorist group in J&K calling itself al Faran kidnapped four foreign trekkers in the South Kashmir mountains (one escaped three days into the ordeal, so two other foreigners were kidnapped). Although I had already spent several years covering the movement in Kashmir, my focus wasn’t fully on this kidnapping for several reasons: a month earlier, I had made an exhausting trip through Doda, a remote hilly district lodged between the Jammu region and the Valley, little-explored by other Delhi-based correspondents; I was nearly finished writing a biography of Dr Farooq Abdullah, who was thinking of returning for the assembly elections which the government was thinking about holding next year; and my wife was in her ninth month of expecting our second child.
You may recall the kidnappings caused a sensation when one hostage, a Norwegian named Hans Christian Ostro, was found beheaded. Security specialists from the USA and UK made their way to Srinagar for the first publicised time. But eventually, for Indian readers outside J&K, the episode petered out: much of al Faran was gunned down but the hostages were never found. The kidnapping disappeared from memory, reappearing in mine only last week when I read the racy and absorbing book by British journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, The Meadow, about that very kidnapping. What comes out clearly in this well-researched book (that quotes two former chiefs of Research and Analysis Wing) is that our intelligence community made use of this kidnapping, stringing it out and maximising the damnation it caused Pakistan in the world’s eyes. The book leaves no doubt that the foreigners could have been rescued; indeed, RAW was tracking them for long, continually photographing them and their captors throughout the ordeal. The book makes no equivocations and the evidence is categorical: India allowed those four foreigners to die — yes, it’s now unofficially confirmed what was only suspected the past 16-odd years — so that it could win a major battle in the Cold War against Pakistan.
In light of the news that Saudi intelligence penetrated a Yemeni cell of al Qaeda (a double agent delivered to the CIA an underwear bomb under development as well as a treasure trove of details about the al Qaeda franchise that has emerged the most dangerous following the demise of Osama bin Laden a year ago), you could look at the al Faran kidnapping story (and all its sordid details as given in The Meadow) in either of two ways: as another episode of the grinding down that Kashmiris were subjected to, caught in a cruel intelligence game between India and Pakistan; or as a ruthless intelligence operation that was one of the keys in (as described by Delhi officials subsequently) India getting “over the hump” in 1995-96 in its Kashmir problem.
The period that began with the al Faran kidnapping and ended with the 1996 J&K polls was markedly different from what transpired in 1989-1993. At this time, if you were a young reporter, you were convinced that Kashmir was lost. Who knows what would have happened had the rest of the world not been occupied with the fall of the Iron Curtain, the invasion of Kuwait and the first Gulf War? There was complete disenchantment in Kashmir with India; and then there was the violence, which invited a terrible retribution from the Centre.
For most of independent India’s history, the Intelligence Bureau has run Kashmir, and during the 1990s things were no different; on behalf of the Government of India (and an utterly Machiavellian prime minister like PV Narasimha Rao) the IB was tasked with tackling the insurgency and bringing a semblance of political structure back to Kashmir. I had friends at the IB’s Kashmir group, and while I read The Meadow I felt deep shame at not having come close to the real story. Not that any of them would have disclosed it — such operations never get talked about. And in retrospect, it is no wonder none ever encouraged me to go to Kashmir and follow the story (in those days, I would hop onto a Delhi-Srinagar flight at the drop of a hat). The funny thing is that I often asked my IB friends for the story of one secret operation or another that I would try and turn into a John Le Carré type novel. This kidnapping would have been perfect, but they never did. India has still not mastered the art of revealing its intelligence secrets as heroic tales of propaganda in the stunning way that the Americans do.
It makes you wonder: do journalists, who are considered among the more informed members of our society, really know what is going on? (At least we’re better than academicians.) Some journalists may seem to thrive on conspiracy paranoia, but then why are there so many unexplained events in our public life? What happened, for instance, to those of Robert Vadra’s family members who died early deaths? Perhaps the old saying is true: paranoia is just a state of heightened consciousness. Maybe journalists don’t get the whole picture, but we get enough of a glimpse to know that something is rotten at the core of reality.
That rot is just this: power is ruthless, and the government of India is no less ruthless than other governments, be they Chinese, Israeli, Russian or American. And perhaps all we journalists do is serve as a distraction so that citizens, oblivious to the darkness that is perpetrated in their name, go about their happy little lives.
The writer is the Editor-in-Chief, DNA, based in Mumbai