The Way To The Meadow: A Review
By Dr. M Ashraf Bhat
26 September, 2012
“ Kashmir was comprised of secrets, buried so deeply they might never come to the surface" 'Cath' in The Meadow
Judging from the two dozen odd reviews that it has garnered so far, The Meadow by the British journalists, Adrian Levy & Cathy Scott-Clark, is quite contentious despite impressive evidence of the very thorough research which has gone into its making. My review, however, is different from other such assessments in one significant way: the events narrated in the book simply happened around me.
Growing up in the shadows of conflict, of guns wielded by both militants and armed forces, we in Kashmir have witnessed many confusing narratives that just 'happened' but which are now imprinted in our minds, seemingly forever. Everything in 1990s Kashmir was, as I remember it iteratively, brought to a standstill each day. Our lives as young boys were ruled by a primary goal: to save ourselves and to live just for one more day. While boys of our age in other parts of the country were aiming for productive careers in the engineering, medical and civil services and concentrating on their studies, our lives were part of another narrative - knotted, twisted and often grotesque, despite the shimmering beauty of the landscape we inhabited.
In July 1995, after our XI standard biology lecture, a seventeen-year-old boy told us a strange story before the news actually broke in the media. It was the tale of the kidnapping of six foreigners from the upper ranges of Pahalgam valley. How did this boy know of this event even before the fiery media disclosures? He did not tell us and we did not ask - but the dramatic kidnapping episode soon became the talk of the whole town. Everybody had their radios tuned to the frequency for the BBC Urdu news, the only source the people of Kashmir perceived then as reliable and unbiased. I could hear people speculate about the kidnapping everywhere but only a few knew the truth - one of them being a classmate of mine.
The Meado w— the name of the lush, pine-scented camping ground in the Kashmiri Himalayas — tracks this decade and half old but still haunting story. The book is essentially an unravelling of the brutal 1995 kidnapping of six foreign tourists (two Britons, two Americans, one German and one Norwegian) which, some believe, changed the face of modern terrorism and, in a convoluted kind of ways, paved the way for the urban attack of 9/11.
In contrast to the marvellous description of the scenic beauty of the valley, the truth about the journey of the hostages is gritty: the book unsparingly describes their incarceration in deep, remote forests, their rough hand-written notes, the counter-insurgency of militants, the horrific torture by security agencies, and the routine killings of innocent civilians. The Meadow is a candid tract, leaving out little. It discusses the narratives of global jihad, Kashmir , India , Pakistan , Afghanistan , America , Britain ; it deals in ideologies, clashes, deception, the making and unmaking of militancy, of Muslims and the western world. It also considers language, identity and cultural discourses in both indigenous and global contexts.
From my 'Kashmiri' point of view the whole tragedy of the kidnapping recorded in such meticulous detail in The Meadow is framed by two larger 'action' narratives - the narrative of the Pakistani involvement in Kashmir and narrative of the Indian state. Neither of these tales of violence, exploitation and indifference lack in the murky undertones and sinister overtones. Both have had major repercussions not just on the lives of the innocent foreign victims of the 1995 kidnappings but on the continuing lives of the Kashmiri people. That is why The Meadow is such an important and revealing work of journalism - it exposes the overwhelming complicity of governments in ruining the psychological as well as physical environments in which ordinary people live.
The genesis of the first 'Pakistani' narrative that animates this book lies in the attempt by a group of Pakistan based militants to 'free' Masood Azhar, a cleric, and the founder of Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistani militant organization, who happened to be languishing in an Indian jail in the 1990s. How so? Well, Masood's long-term objective was to persuade Kashmiris to engage in a holy war—a jihad— for freedom or azadi . This overt aim on his part was happily in consonance with the more covert goal of Pakistan 's secret service organisation, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), whose eyes were on Kashmir after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan , to create a strategic discourse that would foment discontent in Kashmir . In the February of 1995, Masood Azhar was, thus, dispatched to Kashmir via Bangladesh on a fake Portuguese passport to address the 'Jihad Council' in Kashmir - when the Indian security forces promptly arrested him and put him in Tihar Jail, New Delhi .
Knowing that India had, in the past, released various top militant leaders when influential people were kidnapped by 'militants', Masood's affluent father, Master Alvi—a religious cleric himself belonging to Bahawalpur in Pakistan—then influenced the ISI to devise a specific strategy based on this premise. To set Azhar free, a party of militants under the mysterious name Al Faran , an offshoot of Harkat ul-Ansar (Movement of the Victorious), was dispatched from Pakistan with a well planned operation “ Ghar ”, the Urdu word for home—getting Azhar back to home.
Due to some strategic problems, instead of heading towards their originally intended destination , Anantnag, this kidnapping party, under the command of a Pakistani militant Abu Jindal, had been forced to divert to the ancient citadel of Charar-i-Sharief- holding the shrine, a wooded medevial settlement of fourteenth century Kashmir's patron saint or rishi, Shiekh Noor-ud-din Wali. According to the revelations of the authors, ahead of the kidnapping party, the shirine was already occupied by Haroon Ahmad alias ‘Mast Gul' also known as ‘Major Gul'- a Pakistani militant working for the then largest indigenous Kashmiri militant group, Hizbul Mujhahiden [HM] (p.99). The shrine was cordoned by the armed forces and the men from the various Indian intelligence agencies. In the early hours of 10 May 1995, two explodes rocked the shrine and the in-charge of the kidnapping party, Abu Jindal was arrested by the Indian Army, nevertheless, the HM commander Mast Gul and most of his men had slipped away. Finally, a party of militants succeeded in kidnapping the six tourists - of which one American prisoner escaped- from the upper hills of dense forests of Pahalgam valley, near the meadows. Although Al Faran demanded the release of 21 militants imprisoned in the Indian jails after the kidnapping, it was clear that their main aim from the very beginning was to just free Azhar.
The Meadow speaks of the unimaginable security conundrum in the Kashmir valley at the time. Its description of the Kashmir valley in the 1990s includes the episode of 20 January, 1990 , when the J&K police opened fire on worshipers at Srinagar and killed around five dozen civilians. The book also offers portraits of the people involved in the incident: the story, for example, of Javid alias Sikandar (the Persian name for the Alexander the Great), a cricketing enthusiast and talented pace bowler from Anantnag and a 'key accused' in the kidnapping who had been reading about radical German students who had taken up arms and formed the Red Army Faction in 1970, ‘turned a militant' in 1990, and for whom an uncompromising Islamic identity became the only way to confront India.
Indoctrination is, indeed, more dangerous than nuclear weapons; an idea can destroy or build nations. A conscious and well-strategised 'identity theft', which happened with all militants fighting in Kashmir, was to make them re-identify themselves not as Kashmiris, Afghanis or Pakistanis but a more homogenous body of Islamic fighters, who would respond to any call to perform holy jihad , whether in Kashmir, Palestine or Azerbaijan. Such 'defenders' of Islam would be committed to defending any Muslim suffering at the hands of any 'non-Muslim' (p.90). This notion of global jihad, then, was sustained by the idea of global Islamisation. The authors of The Meadow expressively recount how Kashmir travelled, during the last twenty years of turmoil, from the Sufi/Rishi and liberal human traditions to Islamic laws, referring, for instance, to “…the daughters of the nation, a fringe women's group lobbying for strict adherence to Koranic Law, demanding that women completely cover up. For centuries, Muslim women of all ages have walked with their faces uncovered in Kashmir …” (p. 133).
As the story advances, the more it twists and gnarls, expressing a naked truth of which even the people of Kashmir were not fully aware. The second framing narrative in The Meadow highlights the far from innocent role of the Indian state in Kashmir . The authors claim that far from being utterly clueless, the Indian security forces identified the hostages' exact location early on but chose not to act simply to prolong the adverse international publicity for Pakistan . It also elucidates how the Government of India prolonged its dealing with the militants in its attempts to convince the world that it was not just India but whole world which was affected by the Pakistan-sponsored war in Kashmir . The narrative spells out how the families of six abducted tourists were kept in the dark while the deal between the militants and J&K's then Inspector General of Crime was disclosed to the press in New Delhi by intelligence agencies. This move callously and knowingly aggravated the situation by putting the lives of the kidnapped people at considerable risk.
The book reveals the reluctance of New Delhi to allow either the J&K Police or the Scotland Yard or the FBI to pursue independent investigations that could have ended the hostage crisis. Levy and Scott-Clark write “Anywhere else in the world, the fraternity of police would have shared intelligence and war stories. Here (in Kashmir ) everything was infused by politics, shrouded in secrecy and predicated by control” (p. 386).
A focal point in the gripping tale that The Meadow reconstructs is the brutal, wretched and unfortunate death of one of the kidnapped foreigners, Hans Christian Ostro of Norway , on August 13, 1995 , in upper ranges of the Anantnag hills. All my classmates then had discussed this tragedy - but remained unaware of the identity of the perpetrators. Bewildered, we had asked ourselves why this innocent Norwegian, whose life has little to do with the conflict in Kashmir , who had different dreams, was killed. “He was over-smart and was fighting,” answered the same boy who had broken the story of the abduction. This boy was Abbas Dar, a student from the locality where the body of Hans Christian Ostro was found. Later, we found that he had in fact joined militants and was fully aware of the identity of the abductors and of much else. This very boy, Abbas Dar alias Shaheen, was later killed in an 'encounter' with the security forces in Kishtwar near the 'Meadow'. It is in this ironic sense that his story - and mine and those of our classmates - were affected by the larger tale that Levy and Scott-Clark have now undertaken to tell.
Hans Christian Ostro was murdered. John Childs, the American hostage escaped, but here again the authorities just wanted him to hold his tongue and adopt a conveniently amnesiac stance. The remaining four abducted tourists were never found. Nevertheless, Levy and Scott-Clark's account bluntly exposes the 'real' fate of these foreigners who, according to later disclosures, were handed over to the militants who has surrendered and subsequently worked with the Indian Army and to the shadowy Indian 'intelligence agencies'. These forces allegedly 'bought' the four tourists from Al Faran for Rs.4 Lakhs - and then shot them in cold blood on December 24, 1995 .
As for Masood Azhar, though the Indian government refused to release him or any of the other imprisoned militant leaders in 1995, he was in fact finally released on the Christmas Eve in 1999 when an Indian Airlines flight carrying 178 passengers was hijacked and forced to land in Kandahar. The hijackers of this aircraft once again demanded the release of 36 prisoners from Indian jails and Azhar's name topped the list. It was this same 'released' Masood Azhar who was subsequently implicated in the spectacular and dreadful 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008.
To return to the terrain of Kashmir, Levy and Scott-Clark's book finally highlights how Indian government-sponsored 'surrendered militants' and security agencies created a reign of terror in the 1990s, killing hundreds of innocent civilians in Kashmir— where the 'official truth' is always a manufactured narrative— and burying them in mass graves. Several such myopic and grave mistakes by the Indian state are still part of the community memories of all Kashmiris.
Even in a generation that has not lived through the traumatic events of 1980s and 1990s, the memories of trauma are potent - and quite sufficient to provoke the Kashmiri populace to violent incidents such as 'stone-pelting' against the Indian security forces at a moment's notice. In this sense, The Meadow strongly questions the Indian claim to ‘finding a political solution' and explains how the Indian state in effect practices the counter-insurgency doctrine - “get them by the balls, and the hearts and minds will follow”. In this context, as I see it, the innumerable 'stone-pelting' events from 2008 and 2010, for instance, were not the sudden, 'flash' uprisings that they appeared to be but involved deep-rooted memories of the atrocities and terror of 1990s. Such events demonstrate that the earlier fears may have dissipated somewhat but an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion still remains. The brutal kidnapping of the 'western' hostages is clearly the tip of an iceberg. The region waits for more storytellers like Levy and Scott-Clark - including witnesses from within Kashmir .
Following the shocking revelations in The Meadow , Kashmir 's State Human Rights Commission has issued a notice to the state government to explain the 1995 abduction of the foreigners whose fate the authors of The Meadow relate. On August 13, 2012, The Hindustan Times from New Delhi reported: “The state police have told the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) in Srinagar that the master file of the case of six foreigners' kidnapping in south Kashmir in 1995 were gutted in a fire incident.” A 'convenient truth' indeed!
It is time the trust of the Kashmiri people is restored and 'getting them by their balls' is not a policy that can ever translate into peace. The need of the hour is to take account of the people of Kashmir and not only the territory.
( The author is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi and can be reached at ‘email@example.com').
The Meadow: Kashmir 1995 - Where the Terror Began
Penguin Books India . 2012. 510pp.
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