Investigation into the abduction of five foreign tourists in Kashmir in 1995 and dramatic events that led to their murder
“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 casualty.” This is how a senior Jammu and Kashmir police officer, Mushtaq Sadiq, explains what he calls “the Game” in Kashmir in The Meadow.
Sadiq was an officer of the crime branch of the J & K police that investigated the kidnapping of five western trekkers high up in the mountains, ahead of Pahalgam in south Kashmir, in 1995. Sadiq’s boss, Rajinder Tikoo, who was the inspector general of police, crime branch, was negotiating with the hostage-takers— Al Faran, a militant front of the Pakistan-based Harkat-ul-Ansar. Tikoo saw the evidence of a “profound betrayal that reached the summit of the government’’ as his efforts to secure the release of the hostages were constantly compromised. Pointing towards a sabotage from within, Tikoo notes that an Intelligence Bureau officer, “Agent Singh”, had been installed in a location near his residence, from where he listened in on every call Tikoo received from Jehangir, a representative of Al Faran.
The Meadow by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark is a 500-page, threadbare investigation into the abduction of the five tourists and the dramatic events that led to their murder. The book—the research for which was reportedly done in India, Pakistan, Europe and the US over four years—sketches a story in which Kashmir just looks like a chessboard for a large game of intrigue, and where the official truth is always a manufactured narrative. The book challenges the government narrative that four of the hostages were killed by counter insurgents working with the army. It also raises serious suspicion about the true loyalties of the killers of south Kashmir’s mirwaiz—Qazi Nisar—whose assassination led to the first major violent divide in Kashmir’s separatist militant movement.
The Meadow is not a conventional Kashmir book. It doesn’t revolve around the history and geography of Jammu and Kashmir or its politics. It is essentially the unravelling of a crime that was carried out in the name of Kashmir’s separatist struggle but had nothing to do with it. The hostages, the book explains, were nothing more than bargaining chips for the release of Masood Azhar—“a portly cleric from Pakistan” who “found Osama (bin Laden) in North Africa well before the Sheikh had been flagged up on Western watchlist”.
Here the story of Masood Azhar, the founder of Jaish-e-Mohammed, is of an unwilling soldier who got shot in his leg at a training camp when he stepped out to “relieve himself” one night and forgot to utter the password to the guards. “Over weight and short of breath”, Azhar failed to make it through the 40-day basic training in Harkat’s Yawar Kili camp in Khost, Afghanistan, in 1988. Azhar’s father Master Alvi was a very important figure in the Deobandi movement and that is why the incident didn’t signal “an ignoble exit from the world of Jihad” for him. Instead, he was made editor of Sadai Mujahid (Voice of the Mujahid), a desk job to focus on propaganda and recruitment rather than toil in the battlefield.
When Moulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen needed a trusted emissary to travel to Kashmir in 1994 to forge a unity in the movement and set up Harkat-ul-Ansar, Azhar was dispatched via Bangladesh on a fake Portuguese passport. Within days, he was arrested in Anantnag.
Although Al Faran demanded the release of 21 militants imprisoned in Indian jails, it was clear that it was only about Azhar from the very beginning. Quoting people from within Pakistan’s security establishment and Azhar’s own journal, the book claims that Azhar’s affluent father Master Alvi and his mentor Khalil had sought help from the ISI’s “Brigadier Badam” to ensure Azhar’s release. They were told that the only way to ensure this was through an exchange of hostages and Harkat could well do it. The Harkat then planned “Operation Ghar” to bring Azhar home.
The book creates a portrait of Masood Azhar: “a favourite, spoilt son of a wealthy landowner of Bahawalpur” and a “stubby firebrand whose hypnotic patter had already propelled thousands into battle”.
The book also suggests that the Indian government didn’t show any seriousness in negotiating with Al Faran to end this hostage crisis and instead “deliberately dragged its feet on this case, squeezing the kidnapping for maximum propaganda value’’ and taking every opportunity “to focus worldwide attention on Pakistan’s responsibility for the kidnappings”. Quoting a “veteran” in the J&K Police’s Crime Branch, the book gives the contours of the game: “Pakistan had already played its hand… the ISI had helped form and equip Al Faran. Islamabad was keen to see India squirm as it tried to defuse the resulting hostage crisis, drawing international attention to the Kashmir imbroglio… Then it had been the India’s turn to play. For (Indian) security forces, winning the war in Kashmir, playing the Game, came before everything else, including the lives of a few unimportant backpackers.”
The hostage crisis entered a new phase when the Crime Branch sleuths managed to penetrate the militia led by Ghulam Nabi Mir, nicknamed Alpha by the army. He defected from the militants to help the army in its counter-insurgency efforts. In the mid 1990s, when the counter insurgents with the active support of the army had crushed Kashmir with brute force, a slogan painted on the wall of Mir’s camp in Anantnag explained his group’s strategy: “Get them by their b****, hearts and minds will follow.” The brutal ways of the renegades especially in Anantnag were always known but The Meadow has exposed the shocking details as to how this counter-insurgent group contributed to the murder and disappearance of the western hostages.
The Crime Branch files, interviews with senior police officers, the eyewitnesses from the villages where the hostages were held, the surviving renegades, the book says, lead to one fact: the security agencies knew every detail of the location and movement of Al Faran militants and their five hostages. Alpha’s counter-insurgency group had surrounded the hostage takers and still the government didn’t take any action.
The story of the kidnapped backpackers is elaborate, starting with the Englishmen Keith Mangan and Paul Wells and the Americans John Childs and Donald Hutchings who trekked right up to the meadow near the Amarnath cave. Their camp is attacked by militants sent out by Hamid al Turki, the leader of Al Faran. Although they were part of the recently unified Harkat-ul-Ansar, they set up a shadowy front called Al Faran to escape blame in case of a botch-up. Childs—a 42-year-old explosives and ordnance engineer from Connecticut—managed to escape and was rescued by the governor’s security advisor, Lt Gen DD Saklani who spotted him from a helicopter. Keith’s wife Julie, Paul’s girlfriend Catherine Moseley and Hutchings’s wife Jane Schelly were not taken hostage by the militants, who only wanted to keep the men.
Childs’s escape, the book suggests, made commander Turki furious. He ordered his men to do everything to get hold of the American. They failed to find Childs but spotted other trekkers—the German Dirk Hasert, his girlfriend Anne and the Norwegian Hans Christian Ostro. They let Anne go but took the two men along. On August 13, 1995, Ostro—an actor who had been learning Kathakali before travelling to Kashmir—was beheaded by Turki.
Although the government refused to release Azhar or any of the other imprisoned militant leaders in 1995, Azhar’s family and Harkat didn’t relent. There were two unsuccessful attempts to free Azhar soon after his arrest in 1994. Finally, on Christmas Eve 1999, when an Indian Airliner flight carrying 178 passengers was hijacked and forced to land in Kandahar, the hijackers demanded the release of 36 prisoners from Indian jails. Azhar’s name topped the list.
In fact, Azhar’s brother was among the hijackers while his brother-in-law had helped organise the hijacking in Kathmandu. New Delhi relented and agreed to release Azhar and two other militants—Omar Sheikh and Mushtaq Latrum. Omar Sheikh was later arrested for his role in the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, while Azhar launched Jaish-e-Mohammad that carried out scores of suicide bombings inside Kashmir and attacked Parliament in 2001.
This is precisely why, The Meadow concludes, that the abduction of the five western trekkers in Kashmir in the summer of 1995—their bodies were never found—“marked the beginning of a new age of terror’’.
The Meadow, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, Penguin, Pp 536, Rs. 499