Monday, June 25, 2012

The Meadow: India’s own little dirty war

Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, The Meadow, Penguin Books India, Delhi, 2012, pp xxvi + 510; Rs 499, ISBN 978-0-143-41875-7.

At several junctures of this profusely documented and rapidly moving narrative, the reader would worry about getting lost in a welter of detail. This story about the abduction of six western tourists in Kashmir in 1995 has for long been waiting to be told, since it is one where closure has not been achieved despite all these years. One among the six escaped to safety within days of being taken captive, recklessly plunging out into a directionless void. He was spotted by a helicopter patrol of the Indian security forces and could easily have been picked out by a marksman on board as a terrorist intruder. But something that day worked for him and he was rescued in a state of near mental and physical collapse. Another among the six, picked up by the kidnap team in the frustration occasioned by this escape, was after over a month in captivity, killed in a manner reminiscent of a medieval rite of vengeance. The other four dropped soon afterwards into a limbo of public inattention, as fatigue seemingly overwhelmed the search and more urgent security imperatives cropped up.

This book, named after the picturesque spot in the Kashmir valley where the first abductions took place, features a complex cast of characters, variously motivated. Many of them, though sworn to mutual enmity, are compelled to talk terms for the immediate objective of securing the freedom of four men caught in a conflict not of their making. There are others who remain in the shadowy fringes, and appear in the story through proxies serving a variety of covert agendas. Once that purpose was served, the four hostages became literally, the men who knew too much. Letting them live would have been a potential risk to the secret identities of the off-stage players. Like thousands of “disappeared” Kashmiris, Don Hutchings, Paul Wells, Keith Mangan and Dirk Hasert will probably enter the history books as “collateral damage” in the contest of wills between two neighbouring states with a history of implacable hostility, where inflicting pain upon the other was an end that justified itself.

Though it begins with the promise of unravelling the event that “changed the face of modern terrorism”, this book settles quickly into an unhurried account of three couples from different parts of the world -- Don and Jane, Keith and Julie, and Paul and Cath -- preparing for their separate journeys to Kashmir. At roughly the same time, John Childs, a design engineer for a weapons manufacturer in the U.S. was setting out on a business trip to eastern India. Being a sworn adherent of the philosophy that every expense an employer is willing to incur should be utilised for maximum benefit, he hatched the plan of staying on a few days more for trekking in the Kashmir Himalayas.

Javid Ahmad Bhat, from Dabran village in Anantnag district of Kashmir, was marked out as a young man with a future by early academic achievement and the qualities of leadership displayed on the cricket field. Radicalised by the farcical elections to the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly in 1987, Bhat decided when full fledged insurrection broke out in 1990, that the Kashmiri had to deepen his commitment to his faith and meet force with force. He crossed over to Pakistan soon afterwards and went on to Afghanistan for specialised arms training. By 1992, he was back in Kashmir with the nom de guerre Sikander, as the commander in Anantnag district of a militant cell answering directly to handlers across the border. 

The following year, he was told as the militancy seemed to be splintering, that he would have to integrate his operations with another unit that handlers across the border had named the Harkat ul-Ansar or “Movement of the Victorious”. Sajjad Shahid Khan or the Afghani, a senior guerrilla leader from Pakistan’s Pashtun belt, arrived in Kashmir early in 1994, trekking up into the forests east of Anantnag, seeding cells along the way while exploring the terrain as an operational base. He had been assigned to take over as military chief in the Anantnag sector, and despite early reservations, Sikander gladly subsumed his unit under the Afghani’s command. They had an old mutual associate, in Nasrullah Mansoor Langrial, a guerrilla from Pakistan’s Punjab province, who had trained alongside Sikander in Afghanistan before crossing over to Kashmir along with him in 1992.

Langrial had plunged headlong into a series of militant actions on arrival in Kashmir. But virtually coinciding with the Afghani’s arrival in the valley, he was captured in an Indian army operation. His release was the first major cause around which the Afghani and Sikander tested their newly forged military partnership. A pitched engagement with security forces in a neighbourhood of Srinagar was staged from which the two barely managed to extract themselves alive. Following this, an Indian army officer, Major Bhupinder Singh, was abducted and held hostage for Langrial’s release and executed when the “enemy” refused to negotiate.

As their protégés embarked on this sequence of futile and strategically reckless actions, the mood among the Kashmir jihad’s handlers across the border began distinctly to darken. Principal among the strategists was “Brigadier Badam” of Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), identified throughout the book only by the nickname he picked up with his fondness for gulping almond-flavoured milk as a substitute for the alcohol he had given up during the Afghan jihad. Maulana Fazlur Rahman Khalil, the senior Islamic cleric and mentor of the Movement based in Karachi, was summoned and asked urgently to send an envoy into Kashmir to whip the militants back in line.

Masood Azhar was the person chosen for this mission. Operationally inept , Masood had picked up a lasting physical disability from a friendly fire incident at the Afghan training camp he attended, after stepping out to relieve himself on a dark night and failing to speak out the password for re-entry. Azhar though, had a way with words. Born into a family of relative wealth, he was known, like the father who mentored him into his lifelong commitment, as a “no doubter”, who allowed not the faintest glimmer of scepticism into the aura of his fundamentalist faith. Azhar entered India on a false passport in January 1995 and after about a fortnight spent in idle wandering around the streets of Delhi and a visit to the Deoband Islamic seminary, arrived in Kashmir early in February. He addressed a council of the holy warriors in Anantnag, but then the Afghani -- seemingly carried away by his eloquence – persuaded him to address the Friday prayer in Anantnag’s principal mosque.

Azhar was reluctant at assuming a major public profile but gave in to the Afghani’s suggestion. They were spotted on the way and chased down by an Indian military patrol. A third member of the group fled to safety in the thick woods around, but Afghani remained with Azhar, knowing that his high value visitor from Pakistan could not manage the same fleetness of foot. They were both taken in by Indian troops amidst joyous scenes of celebration.

Furious at the turn of events, Brigadier Badam quickly sent word to Sikander,  who was by now consumed with guilt that a motorcycle mishap had prevented him being part of Azhar’s journey to Anantnag. Badam outlined a very straightforward operation titled “Ghar” or “home”. It involved a certain number of high value individuals being seized as hostages to ensure the safe release of Azhar, the Afghani and Langrial. Sikander was assigned two operatives to work alongside him, one of whom, Abdul Hamid al-Turki, or the Turk, he had special reason to worry about. Though a warrior with undoubted jehadi pedigree, having fought in theatres as far afield as Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan, the Turk was known to be impetuous and rather reckless, prone to acts of brutality that could alienate the silent support guerrilla operations depended on. But Sikander was not given much time to voice his own tactical preferences or pick the personnel involved. By February 1995, the kidnap team had already been briefed by ISI handlers and sent across the border. The initial directive was to pick up personnel from western companies engaged in engineering projects in Kashmir, notably in the hydroelectricity sector. Later, the mandate was altered to just snatching whoever came to hand.

From here on, there is a complex sequence of events that leads to the kidnap party, which had taken on the identity of Al Faran, arriving at the meadow where three western couples and the solitude-loving John Childs were camped early in July 1995. The moment the four men were seized, was one of incomprehension and some puzzlement, not terror. Their captors conveyed little sense of threat, merely explaining that they needed to take away the men for questioning regarding possible involvement in Israeli espionage. But then, the supposed interrogation just did not seem to end, and the three women who hung about waiting for their companions to return had to make the agonising decision of leaving the scene of the abductions and trudging down to Pahalgam town, where they made a complaint at the nearest police station.

The local police though had their  hands full with managing another possible flashpoint for violence. The Amarnath yatra, had been till the eruption of militancy in Kashmir, a low-key annual voyage of piety undertaken by a few thousands. But since then, it had been transformed into an annual contest of wills between the Indian security agencies and the more extreme militant units. The time of the abduction was especially bad, since militant groups had just set off bombs at Pahalgam, where the pilgrims began to gather prior to their trek up to a cave temple, and a Hindu vigilante group that had arrived in force to impose its will on the locals, had set off a retaliatory rampage against all Kashmiris they could lay hands on. With a potential security meltdown on his hands, the local police superintendent urgently messaged superiors in Srinagar, recommending that the trekking routes beyond Pahalgam be cleared of all western tourists and fresh arrivals be dissuaded.

His plea was ignored and this is the first of the mysteries of the official Indian response that calls for fresh scrutiny. On July 5, the German student Dirk Hasert and his friend Anne Hennig arrived in Srinagar and were told by all the officials they consulted that aside from the downtown area of the city, every other part of Kashmir was safe for the “holiday of a lifetime”.  The Norwegian Hans Christian Ostro, who emerges in these pages as an engaging and zestful personality, needed no such positive reassurance. Indeed, when following five months in Kerala steeped in learning kathakali, was warned that Kashmir was dangerous territory, he had admonished his dance teachers for being “narrow-minded”.

On July 8, when John Childs fled his captivity, feigning the desperate need for a nocturnal trip to the toilet, the leader of the kidnap ring had sent his men in frantic search. At some point, the directive was changed: any number of substitutes could be picked up. Hasert was the first to be snatched from the tent that he was camped in. A few hours later, Ostro was taken from a tea stall near Pahalgam. Unlike the others, Ostro was taken by force rather than subterfuge. He put up a fight but was overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

Immediately after his rescue, John Childs was debriefed by local security and intelligence agencies and put on a plane back home with almost unseemly haste. Here is another of the mysteries of the official security response. In recounting events from the time, Childs confesses himself still perplexed by that decision since he expected quite reasonably, to be asked to help in the aerial survey of the abductors’ territory to pinpoint their location.

First word from the kidnappers came as a telephone call to Yusuf Jameel, a senior journalist based  Srinagar’s press enclave. The price demanded was simple: the release of twenty-one prisoners held in India, with Azhar, the Afghani and Langrial at the top of the list. D.D. Saklani, a retired lieutenant-general of the Indian army who was then the top security advisor to the state administration, had personally been on the helicopter patrol that rescued Childs. When a direct line of communication opened up with the kidnappers, he chose to entrust the negotiations to Rajinder Tikoo, Inspector-General of Police for the Kashmir range. Tikoo was hesitant, but could not turn down an order from the man at the top of the security hierarchy. Saklani gave nothing away and allowed Tikoo little leeway: “You’re a good conversationalist. You go your own way, and try to drag it out as long as possible”.

To begin with, there seemed little scope to drag things out. Tikoo’s first conversation with the terror ring’s representative was surly and ill-tempered. The clock was ticking and the first executions of the hostages, he was told, would take place within hours. Tikoo adopted a tone of bluff good humour: this was not a marketplace bargain over the price of vegetables, it involved complex government decisions, he pleaded. He seemed with his tone, to have won at least some measure of trust from his interlocutor. The kidnappers were evidently nervous and unsure about when they should raise the stakes.

Parcels meanwhile kept getting passed through intermediaries, mostly located in Srinagar’s press enclave: a hazy black and white photograph first and then five days later, an audio recording of the five hostages appealing for their release.

Over the following days, Tikoo took his conversations with the kidnappers into the realm of theology and spirituality, repeatedly underlining the virtue of compassion. The intermediary he was addressing seemed indulgent. But just over a fortnight into the abduction, he was startled to receive an unscheduled call, with the familiar voice of his interlocutor sputtering in rage: “You have violated your word and you will be blamed for the consequences. You want their deaths on your hands? How stupid do you think we are?” Tikoo was alarmed but was told nothing about the cause of the anger, except that there had been an Indian army raid.

Rushing over to Saklani’s office, Tikoo was told to calm down while he determined what exactly had happened. The explanation offered after about an hour was that the army had conducted a raid as part of normal operations and discovered a suspected terrorist safe-house. It had been evacuated by the time the raid party arrived, though it was later discovered to have been the site from where the first telephone call to Tikoo was placed. There was no ill intent there, just a failure of coordination.

Tikoo was unconvinced. A few days later, Al Faran released a photograph which purported to show two of the hostages, Don and Keith, injured in the army raid. Anxiety levels spiked but Tikoo found the photographs unconvincing and read them as a means of warning off any further rescue bids and building pressure for an early resolution. Tikoo was a patient man who worked in considerable uncertainty. He could give nothing away and could never be sure when the kidnappers would just determine that further conversations would be futile. But he moved on. At one point, he managed to extract a commitment from the kidnappers that they were willing to bring down their prisoner release list to four. This was conveyed in strictest confidence to Saklani, but carried almost in a triumphal tone as top news story in the following day’s newspapers. The kidnap party was furious and Tikoo once again thrown into turmoil over unseen hands controlling the pace of events. But through the first half of September, Tikoo continued his delicate conversations over telephone, dealing with frequent rages and accusations of bad faith. There was hope in the intermediary’s seeming willingness to stick with an agreed schedule for each of their conversations, by now conducted over radio rather than telephone.

Tikoo was by now beginning to see signs of fatigue in the adversary and had turned the conversation around to a possible ransom. By September 17, he had a figure: the kidnappers were willing to settle for a crore (ten million) of rupees.

He had little time to bask in the glow of this triumph. Early the following day, as newspapers in the national capital were being dropped off, he had a call from a colleague in Delhi, informing him that the city’s largest newspaper had a frontpage report on the ransom deal. Tikoo rushed to Saklani’s office to demand the source of the leak, which he knew would be a deal breaker. Saklani promised to find out but discovered little. In a state of nervous exhaustion by now, Tikoo asked to be taken off the case.

A detective squad in the Crime Branch of the police force – all native Kashmiris – had meanwhile launched its own operation, hitting hard at possible informants on occasion, going undercover and teasing out clues on others. With sustained inquiries, the squad managed to unravel the kidnap party’s first moves. Contrary to initial belief, the group had not gone up into the higher mountain reaches, but down into Pahalgam town, where it had sheltered in a well-known tourist resort for a while. Bit by bit, the squad then reconstructed the entire course of the party’s movements. By mid-July, the squad had begun to focus its search on the Warwan valley, about fifty kilometres south-east of Anantnag, a harsh wind-swept basin that is inaccessible for eight months of the year. With only one approach from the Kashmir valley which requires a trek up to an altitude of fourteen thousand feet, the Warwan had become a favoured transit point and shelter for foreign militants of various stripes. And there was one particular village there, Sukhnoi, which had been used by an earlier kidnap team. By the first week of August, the squad had figured out the rough coordinates of the hostages from the testimony of the villagers and itinerant cattle herders. It also had information of regular army patrols moving around the Warwan valley and wondered if a rescue attempt was feasible.

The reply from the security forces was simply that the village was impregnable and the hostages could be killed or caught in the crossfire if a rescue operation were mounted. By this time, the army too had possibly established the location of the hostages. Villagers informed the squad of frequent helicopter surveys over the Warwan and one occasion when the Norwegian Ostro had run out to shout and wave to the aerial patrol. Ostro seemingly had made three clear escape attempts and had since late-July been challenging his kidnappers, provoking them and undermining them at every possible opportunity. By early-August, he had worn his captors’ nerves thin. He was separated from the rest of the party and taken away by the Turk, seemingly with the intent to set him free at some point. On August 13, his decapitated body was found in a pine forest adjoining the road to Pahalgam.

Counter-intelligence was by now proceeding with full vigour. And the instruments of the Indian army’s operations were the “renegades”, or one-time militants who had broken with their outfits to form vigilante groups available for any cause. The Indian army had worked on the rivalry between the Movement and the principal Pakistan-backed militant outfit, the Hizbul Mujahedin, using the conduit of a renegade outfit led by Azad Nabi, or “Alpha”, a past associate of Sikander’s. As the harsh winter set in and the kidnap party was forced to abandon its relatively safe hideout in the Warwan, it was by all accounts, reaching the end of its tether. From the intelligence pieced together by the Kashmir police squad, Alpha seems then to have contacted Sikander to suggest a hostage handover to another renegade element, Abdul Rashid, or the Clerk, following which he could “take a break” and “regroup”. In the third or fourth week of November, the hostages were handed over for a sum of four lakh rupees. Days afterwards, Alpha managed to lure the Turk to a spot near Sikander’s home village, ostensibly for a conclave of militant commanders, where an army ambush lay in wait.

The elimination of the Turk and the army’s triumphal claims that Al Faran had been dismantled, fuelled renewed anxiety – and  speculation -- about the status of the hostages. But the army was not ready yet, to tell the full story, retracting spectacularly within days of this announcement, with the clarification that the Turk and his associates had been eliminated not in a hostage rescue operation, but in the course of a regular cordon-and-search. Contrary again to earlier claims, it said, Al Faran was still active, and had indeed added hundreds of fighters to its ranks to guard the hostages.

The Kashmir police squad believed differently. It was abundantly clear by now that the renegade strategy of turning the loyalties of key militant figures had fetched the army the prized trophy of the Turk. But the strategy had to retain its efficacy and its key executors protected for future deployment. As a witness to the renegade pact with the militants, Sikander’s elimination, the squad estimated, was just a matter of time. And that left only four remaining witnesses who would have reason to tell the story: Don, Keith, Paul and Dirk.

On December 24, 1995, according to an eyewitness the squad traced down, Alpha’s men led the four hostages into a thickly wooded area near the village where they were last held. They were shot and buried there. On February 17, 1996, Sikander was killed, ostensibly when a bomb he was assembling at a house owned by a militant colleague went off.

In a newspaper article written shortly after their book appeared to much critical acclaim, Levy and Scott-Clark speak of a radical change of mood on Kashmir, apparent on both sides of the Line of Control. Where at one time, the compulsion was to win at all costs, today there is a willingness to recognise the need for truth-telling, if Kashmir is to “move on”. For the wider public, memories of the early years of Kashmir’s insurgency have faded in this time and there has indeed been a mutation of the narrative, with the media now blazoning a story of a people willing to shut out the trauma of those years and move on to a future of promise. This book, which relies in ways both acknowledged and otherwise, on the revelations of the police officials who investigated the abductions, should serve as corrective for this dangerous delusion.

India’s motivation then was to portray Pakistan as the cradle of terrorism and global problem state number one. That narrative failed to win much credibility till after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. But now, with more countries and individuals willing to partake of the narrative, Pakistan’s future as a nation-state appears to be at stake. A catastrophic state meltdown in its immediate neighbourhood is clearly an outcome that the architects of India’s strategic response to the Kashmir militancy failed to anticipate. And a sober contemplation of the consequences should be sufficient reason to press ahead with the truth-telling process that this book inaugurates.

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