From Caravan Magazine: “The Dogs of War“
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 torso of Hans 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.
The dogs of war had been unleashed in the Kashmir valley following the outbreak of the 1990 rebellion against Indian rule. The Indian military remained singlemindedly focused on crushing the armed insurrection and beating into submission an increasingly restive population that was asking for no less than azadi, freedom. The news of the beheading came as a timely distraction from the ongoing bloodshed in that benighted valley. Al Faran—a group unheard of before this incident—successfully drew attention away from the 6,000 people who were killed in Kashmir that year. Officially described as the body count of ‘terrorist-related’ incidents, the death toll was really the outcome of a ruthless military offensive by India, but one that was played out under wraps. Ostrø’s mutilated body, and the anxious, endless search for the other men, rapidly stanched a growing international acknowledgement that what Kashmir was witnessing was an uprising against India.
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, snoring 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.”) But 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 other kind of ‘foreign’ militant. Or become one more of the 6,000 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.
Sanjay Kak is a film-maker and occasional writer, whose recent work includes the documentary Jashn-e-Azadi—How we celebrate freedom (2007) about the conflict in Kashmir. He is the editor of the anthology Until My Freedom Has Come—The New Intifada in Kashmir (Penguin India 2011).