Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Meadow suggests the unthinkable

By Ghazala Wahab

In the end it didn’t matter who killed the five foreign trekkers in the Kashmiri paradise. What matters is that those who could have saved them chose not to do so for reasons that can only be termed diabolical. This is the single most shocking conclusion of the 450-page, painstakingly researched and meticulously detailed book, The Meadow, written by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark.
In the summer of 1995, six foreign trekkers — two Americans (Don Hutchings and John Childs), two British (Keith Mangan and Paul Wells), one Norwegian (Hans Christian Ostro) and one German (Dirk Hasert) — were kidnapped near Pahalgam in Kashmir in a span of a few days by an unknown group called al Faran. For a few days, the story made the front pages of the Indian newspapers speculating the identity of al Faran but also because within four days of the kidnapping, John Childs escaped. Thereafter, the kidnapping once again made news when Han Christian’s mutilated body was discovered more than a month later. Then, it fell off the radar. Sporadic reports appeared once in a while about the kidnappers’ demands till those too dried up and the four men disappeared from public memory.
I remembered the kidnapping incident when I started reporting on Kashmir nearly nine years ago. But I could not recall what eventually happened to Don Hutchings, Keith Mangan, Paul Wells and Dirk Hasert. During one of my visits to the state a few years ago, I asked a few people, journalists included, about the aftermath of the kidnapping. Were the hostages killed? Were they released in a secret compact? The answer was a shrug. People had no memory of what had happened to them. I was not the only one who had forgotten what had happened to them. It seems, except for the families of the four hostages, the world had forgotten too. ‘Until Now’, write the authors in the prologue.
Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark have not merely chronicled the kidnapping; they have attempted to tell the story of six unfortunate souls caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, along with that of their families. Woven from intensive interactions with the family members and also from the notes most of them wrote before and during their confinement, The Meadow — racy, though sometimes overwritten — builds up to the kidnapping almost like a thriller, introducing each character gradually before arriving at the denouement through multiple sources. Reading the book, one gets to know each hostage intimately, developing a fondness for them, fervently hoping for a happy ending.
But in the Kashmir of the Nineties, there were no happy endings. The happiest were the tragic endings because at least there was closure; the surviving members could mourn and bury their dead. For the rest, as for the family members of the four, life was reduced to following up with indifferent officials about the fate of the loved ones; with hope sometimes, but mostly with despair.
At some point during the incarceration, the hostages lived in Warwan Valley, east of which was Kargil. On clear days, they could see the majestic Nun-Kun massif, which are the highest Himalayan peaks in Kashmir. The shorter of the two peaks, Kun, means ‘what is’, while Nun means ‘what appears to be’. Ironically, the story of the four, as told by Levy and Scott-Clark constantly hovers between what was and what appeared to be.
Even by most Indian accounts, Nineties were the darkest Kashmiri years. Nothing was in black and white, everything being the colour of blood. Taken completely by surprise, by the uprising of 1989 and the rapid support it found among the people, the Indian government was desperate to convey to the world that what was happening in Kashmir was not an insurgency but acts of terrorism perpetuated by Pakistan. In its desperation and also to wrest physical control over the territories where militants (both Kashmiris and foreign) had a free run, accountability and humanity were given a go by. The orders from the top were to get rid of the militants/terrorists and their supporters by all means. Since the desperate government had given a long rope to the security forces, they in turn outsourced the dirty job to mercenaries (renegade militants) with one brief: Each kill will be rewarded in hard cash. In just a few years, Kashmir was in the grip of a different kind of terror unleashed by the renegades, hordes of whom built palatial houses for themselves on the bodies of those they had killed for money. It was immaterial who the dead were, as long as they were dead.
It was in these times that the legend of the unknown gunmen first came about and persists even today. The legend was useful. It hid in its fold the ugliness of both the law-breakers and the law-enforcers because in the Nineties there was a thin line dividing the two. The only difference between them was the flag under which they operated. Countless Kashmiris have been killed by unknown gunmen and the legend continues.
In this dangerous land, the trekkers arrived in the summer of 1995. There were no advisories to refer to, and the desperate tourism office of Srinagar painted a rosy picture. All trekkers were told at different times that trekking in and around Pahalgam was perfectly safe. Kicked about the ensuing adventure, the tourists ignored the fortified valley and the overwhelming presence of the security forces. The landscape was too beautiful, the people too hospitable; till they were betrayed by both.
Al Faran was less of a group and more of an operation mounted by ISI’s Harkat-ul-Ansar to secure the release of Masood Azhar and his compatriots lodged in Indian prisons. According to the book, the middle-level Kashmir police officers were able to figure that out within a few days of the kidnapping. Without any directions from the government of India, as J&K was under the Governor’s rule then, J&K police crime branch under inspector general Rajinder Tickoo ordered the creation of a secret investigative team, Squad, to figure out the kidnappings. A superintendent of police, Mushtaq Mohammed Sadiq headed the Squad. However, within weeks of the Squad getting to work, Tickoo found himself in the middle of the kidnapping fracas in the most unexpected manner. Summoned by the military advisor to the Governor, Lt Gen. D.D. Saklani (retd), Tickoo was asked to receive a phone call made by the kidnappers’ source. Tickoo’s brief was to talk and give away nothing.
Meanwhile, the Squad moved very fast, spreading its investigators among the local population, even infiltrating the Gujjar villages where the hostages were being held. Its reports to the headquarters gave painstaking details about the location and the conditions of the hostages, as well as the number of kidnappers, their duty hours, their relations with the victims and so on. The Squad was not the only one keeping a track of the kidnap party. Military reconnaissance helicopters also frequently hovered over the area where the hostages were kept for several months. The pictures it took were so close and sharp that even beads of perspiration could be seen on the faces of the hostages playing volley ball with their captors.
Yet, all requests of the Squad for a rescue operation went unanswered. Tickoo was also directed by Gen. Saklani to drag the conversation as the government of India was in no mood for negotiations. ‘There’d be no prisoner exchange,’ Saklani had made it clear. With no room for manoeuvre and no intentions of mounting a rescue operation, people like Tickoo and Sadiq improvised as they went along trying to ensure that the hostages were not harmed.
Since nobody in the government has spoken to the writers, except retired spooks who ran the unintelligible government of India policy in Kashmir, Chevy and Scott-Clark can only guesstimate what was going on. The first priority of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s government was the safe conclusion of the Amarnath Pilgrimage. The entire security machinery, from Rashtriya Rifles to the state police and the Paramilitary were deployed along the pilgrimage route. Despite this, the fact that the foreigners were kidnapped from the same location just days before the pilgrimage baffles the writers. Once John Childs escaped after spending four days in captivity, the kidnappers returned to the valley where trekkers were camped and were able to kidnap two more in broad daylight. The impregnable security cordon neither deterred them nor prevented the kidnapping.
Not surprisingly, the writers wonder if the kidnapping was allowed to happen, a belief reinforced by the fact that every time Tickoo reached some kind of a breakthrough in his secret negotiations with the kidnappers, eventually coming to the point when the kidnappers were ready to trade the hostages for a mere Rs 10 million, the contents of the negotiations were leaked to the press and the talks collapsed. In frustration, Tickoo went away on a long leave.
Desperate, the kidnappers approached Syed Ali Shah Geelani-headed Hurriyat Conference to broker a face-saving solution. He refused to get involved. As winters approached, the kidnappers’ desperation increased and they finally abandoned the hostages in December and fled. By Squad’s account, the hostages were handed over to the renegades (who reported to the local RR unit) and the notorious STF combine. As the kidnappers made their way out of the valley where the hostages were left behind, all of them were killed by the RR. Still, no effort was made to rescue the hostages.
While the Squad’ sources informed it that the hostages were killed on December 24 by the renegades/STF on the orders of their handlers (was it the RR, IB or both, the question is left tantalisingly dangling in the air) in the spring of 1996, the army produced a man called Naseer who it claimed was one of the handlers of the kidnappers. The man confessed that the hostages were killed by the kidnappers in the second week of December and even claimed to know where they were buried. A grand expedition was launched in which diplomats from the four Missions were invited apart from many others, to locate the graves but to no avail. Finally, the search was abandoned. In the following weeks the state police and the newly-elected state government discredited Naseer. The families were again told that hostages were alive. And that’s where the tale hangs.
Were the foreigners treated as sacrificial lambs in the unholy game of one-upmanship? Did the Indian government allow the killing of the foreigners to put an international spotlight on Pakistan as the sponsor of terrorism in India? After all, India has always traded prisoners for hostages. It did so before this incident, it did so after this incident and continues to do so even now. Like the unknown gunmen, these questions are also part of the murkiness that rules in Kashmir; the answers being too gross to countenance.
There are two ways a book like The Meadow can be treated: junk it as far-fetched, or read it to reflect on how we allowed short-term politics to brutalise and dehumanise our people and those who were meant to protect them. If a uniformed person does not flinch killing an innocent, he is a danger even to the institution he represents.
The Meadow
Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark
Penguin Books
Rs 499, Pg 490

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