‘Finding the truth in Kashmir is very difficult’
A recently released book “The Meadow: Kashmir 1995 — Where The Terror Began” by British investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark took four years of dedicated research in New Delhi, Kashmir, Pakistan and in Britain, the USA, Norway and Germany. Creating ripples internationally as well as in political and security establishments in New Delhi, the book demystifies the 1995 Al Faran kidnapping of six westerners in the Pahalgam hills of Kashmir. Among other revelations, the book concludes that the four westerners were killed by forces loyal to the Indian Army.
Previously honoured with ‘Foreign Correspondents of the Year’ award in 2004 and ‘British Journalists of the Year’ award in 2009, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark have co-authored three books in the past, including the much-acclaimed “Deception, exposing America's covert abetting of Pakistan's nuclear programme”.
In an exclusive interview with Majid Maqbool, the authors talk about the behind the scenes story of the kidnapping, attempts by unknown establishment figures to sabotage the negotiations with the kidnappers, and how a failure to probe injustices done and justice denied in Kashmir is a stumbling block to change.
What prompted you to write this particular book on the kidnapping of foreigners in Kashmir?
We have been working in Kashmir (and across South Asia) as writers and foreign correspondents, for The Sunday Times and then the Guardian, since the era of the kidnappings, and followed events that unfolded in J&K.
We covered all sides: Pakistan’s intervention in Kashmir, it's backing of the armed struggle and it's subtler steering of the political scene, as well as its increasing use of jihadi fronts farmed in the Pakistan Punjab, Karachi and Muzaffarabad, who started off in Kashmir but then took off to Africa and Europe. We reported a brutal war in J&K, the crushing of the armed azadi movement, and how in this state of constant emergencies, where any and every means were used, the law (and moral judgments) were set aside.
We covered massacres, rapes, disappearances – of an entire wedding party –and cold-blooded killings in J&K perpetrated by the security forces and also by militants, Kashmiri and foreign. We witnessed Pakistan's adventurism in the Kargil heights, and we also gradually saw how all sides lost their humanity in a melee that did not better the conditions for the Kashmiri people caught in the middle of it.
How was the 2005 earthquake a turning point in terms of access to information previously unavailable and access to border areas that were till then unreported?
Things changed after 2005 when the earthquake opened up vast areas of the Valley. For the first time, lawyers and reporters were able to travel freely everywhere, and closed off communities began to share what they had been through. Out of these accounts came the first tangible evidence of unmarked and mass graves. An open discussion about the Disappeared in Kashmir took flight too, with activists having warned that as many as 8,000 Kashmiris could have vanished, many from official custody. We reported the security force view that in the graves were combatants and that the missing had resettled over the LoC, and we traveled along the non border to report villagers’ accounts of having been compelled to illegally bury the dead – that arrived by the Leyland truck load, many of whom were innocent local boys.
By 2008, it became clear that the issues were likely inter-related, leading to the first credible reports on the missing and the unlawfully buried, the scale of which gave some clue as to the full horrors of what had taken place in this non-war. How much had Pakistan thrown into the Valley to set it on fire? How far had India gone to quell the insurgency? The price appeared unconscionable. Tens of thousands dead, injured, scarred and missing – including many thousands of police officers and soldiers - in a process with no closure or external mediation, a non war that has become the greatest not talked about international affair in the world. The newly impoverished Western governments, with greedy eyes on Indian markets, have been rebuked for raising Kashmir, and, accordingly, have buttoned their lips.
However, in Kashmir people are talking. The graves issue proved cathartic and even the SHRC climbed aboard, its police investigators validating the research, which in turn emboldened remote communities to speak some more. Witnesses, agents, renegades, police officers, civil servants—all began to talk in this new glasnost. They also began to reflect on one of Kashmir's most puzzling missing case: the al-Faran episode. In Kashmir there are plenty of appeals by mediators and experts for reconciliation – the ‘moving on’ lobby. But they insist that this happens without discovery. The moving on lobby wants to draw a line under the crisis, and step forwards.
Nowhere in the world has absolution been possible without discovery. And this is also true of the al-Faran case. People we tracked down were relieved to nail the truth so that they could set it aside.
And what became clear as we put the pieces together was that while only six people were directly affected in this al-Faran case, and many tens of thousands have been victims of the Kashmir crisis (Hindus, Muslims, and members of the security forces), the numbers are not the story. Through this one case a reader gets to see much of the entire Kashmir imbroglio.
The Meadow is not 9/11. And 9/11 is not the start of the epoch of terror we are living through now. What the Meadow was, was a proving ground for new kind of terror: the beheading of a tourist, his body carved with the name of the group, the remaining hostages vanishing. JeM that came out of al-Faran/Harakt-al-Ansar would then polish this understanding of how terror could work, sending a British-born suicide bomber to attack BB Cantt, its members abducting and beheading Daniel Pearl, facilitating the London bombings, directing the shoe bomber and the liquid bombs plot. And elements within the Indian security forces would also come to understand the power of terror, exploiting the missing tourists to blacken the Kashmiri struggle and expose Pakistan, deploying renegades so that Kashmiris fought each other, using them as a cut-out to work alongside Harkat al Ansar, and ultimately dupe them.
Your book claims that a pro-government renegade Ghulam Nabi Mir alias Alpha, or Azad Nabi “bought” the four hostages from Al Faran and held them for months before killing them. The state authorities, despite knowing the location of the hostages, as the book mentions, didn’t want to rescue them. Why?
The hostages were pinned down in the Warwan Valley for almost 11 weeks, some in the authorities claiming, limply, it was because the valley was unapproachable. The close observation of the hostages was done so well, during this time, that analysts could see the sweat on their brow as they played volley-ball.
After the execution of Ostro, the Norwegian actor, the remaining hostages were moved out of the Warwan and commuted around the hills of Anantnag, a territory that was, by then, completely under the control of Azad Nabi’s fighters.
We discovered that the renegades led by Azad Nabi had also by then been instructed by some of their handlers to strike a deal with HuA. That ‘no-fire’ pact, which was sweetened with weapons and cash, passed from the renegade side to HuA, was designed to concentrate all resources on HM in the months leading up to the state and national elections. So important was it that Congress and NC big hitters sought out Nabi (who they paid lavishly) to stress to him how peace was to be made to prevail so that a vote was run “even if he had to march the voters to the polls with guns to their backs”.
The pact also meant that good intelligence on al-Faran was easily gathered and passed back, which is why the government had so many accurate sightings. Investigators also learned that the al-Faran team and its HuA shield eventually wanted to give up. They were freezing and hungry, and what was clear to them was that unlike virtually all of the previous kidnappings, in which India had released prisoners or paid cash and kind, nothing was being offered in this one. Every attempt by the police to talk down the kidnappers was externally sabotaged.
The J&K police wanted to end the crisis but others preferred to use it politically, instructing the renegades to take control of the hostages towards the end of November 1995, rather than see them released and a happy ending prevail that absolved Pakistan and Harkat.
During the initial negotiations with the kidnappers, how did their demands fell from releasing 21 to 15 prisoners, then to four prisoners, and ultimately to just one crore rupees?
The police negotiator Rajinder Tikoo – who probably does not agree with the book's conclusion – struck up a remarkable relationship with the al-Faran point-man who called himself Jehangir. And over 60 or 70 days, Tikoo, with little help and no support, on a radio and telephone, whittled the demands down, until they reached just four prisoners. He had been working under the assumption that in previous kidnappings many more prisoners had been released.
When Rubaiya Sayeed was kidnapped in 1989, five prisoners had been released, including a Pakistani militant. When Nahida Imtiaz had been abducted in 1991, a Pakistan-trained militant was freed. Later that year when an executive director of Indian Oil, K. Doraiswamy, was snatched in Kashmir, New Delhi ended up secretly handing over twelve prisoners, against the wishes of Kashmir Governor Girish Saxena, and despite the fact that the initial demand had been for only five. During the 1993 siege of the Hazratbal mosque in Srinagar, there was safe passage granted to at least seven Pakistan-trained gunmen, and a former politician from Bihar, P.K. Sinha was spring from his captors by secretly acceding to their demands for flack jackets and materiel.
Finally, as desperation set in, the gunmen agreed to a cash payment, to be made after the hostages were released and they themselves were over the LoC. That too was blown.
The book says that most of the leaks about the negotiations with the kidnappers were splashed on the front pages of newspapers in Delhi, which forced the then Inspector General Rajinder Tikoo, the Crime Branch Chief, and negotiator with Al Faran, to move out of the scene. Who was making these leaks and what was their purpose?
The source of the leaks remained unknown but the leaks were frequent, pervasive and highly damaging and not simply the indiscretion of one drunk officer, as one journalist recently claimed. The opinion within the Governor’s office was that these leaks were politically motivated and came at a very high level that had clearances to access the material – most probably within the intelligence community – and that they sought to prevent a deal being reached.
How were the negotiations with the kidnappers sabotaged by Indian officials?
There were many levels to the sabotaging of talks. Firstly there was almost no real effort to spring the hostages until after Ostro was beheaded. Instead they were pinned into the Warwan, moving from village to village, at times. During the period, Amarnath pilgrimage was allowed to proceed and negotiations went on, with the security concerns concerning the pilgrims of course eclipsing the kidnapping. But through it all the police negotiators were given nothing to play with, nothing to dangle, no carrots.
These talks were then repeatedly exposed to public scrutiny, eventually leading to their collapse, as more and more classified information from them, was passed to newspapers, making it impossible for both sides to continue.
Why was the Crime Branch investigations into the incident closed without being presented before a court?
Death certificates were eventually issued to the families of the four missing tourists, which means the authorities recognized that the case was closed. And we know from the file that a date of death was approximated via police informers, as well as a location given as to where the bodies were likely buried. Due process was not then followed, and it is not clear whether that was for cavalier reasons or for political gain (or more simply a disregard for the law).
We tried to locate the original FIRs and even they could not be found as a clerk in Anantnag revealed that many original papers had been destroyed in a fire in a document store there, and of course arsonists also burned down the Crime Branch old HQ, destroying many of its paper files too.
While in captivity, were the hostages hopeful that they will be rescued? How were they treated in captivity by al-Faran guerrillas? Were the foreign hostages aware of the negotiations and the larger games played by the state and central security and intelligence agencies?
Difficult to tell. We have found reams of their writings, which show some remarkable things. The hostages had tried repeatedly to escape. Ostro was killed by Hamid al Turki, a foreign fighter in al Faran, for escaping too often. The al Faran team was then divided with some, it appears from the hostage writings, siding with the captives, as did villagers in the Warwan, helping them get their writings out and to the authorities, as well as assisting them in escape bids. It also seems clear that al Faran believed it could talk its way out of the crisis and had no idea that in reality no resolution was being sought on the Indian side. The hostages must have been aware of this towards the end of 1995, but we have no indication of it. The hostages also would have known they were being transferred from al Faran hands to renegades, which we can only speculate must have been terrifying.
The co-author of the book recently wrote in a piece that an important reason for writing The Meadow was that “it gave us the chance to highlight events over the past twenty years in the Kashmir Valley, a place that even today is still predominately thought of in the West as a stoner's paradise more than a conflict zone.” What other events in the past two decades of conflict in Kashmir, you would say, deserve to be extensively investigated and written about?
There is international silence over Kashmir. It is poorly reported on, and portrayed often in the international media as a complex, sovereign issue, stoked by Pakistan that has to be resolved by India. The wide-scale human rights abuses that have taken place in the Valley (with all sides guilty of them) have been rarely reported, whether that be Pandit claims or Muslim allegations – none get much space.
Partly this is down to our governments desire not to get involved, fearing that fragile relations with India that are potentially lucrative these days – would shut down. But it is also, I think, down to the lack of truthfulness in this precarious story. Finding the truth in Kashmir is very difficult, as there are so many distortions of it by all sides. Even finding one version of a name can be difficult at times, whether that be a village, street or family. The lack of consensus, the unavailability of maps and reference point, has created a conscious ambiguity that makes Kashmir hard to write about.
Western perceptions of the Valley were also changed dramatically by the al Faran episode. Kashmir morphed from a self-determination struggle, a muddle created by the retreating Empire, that India had managed, through blunt force to fan into a full-scale insurrection, into a theatre for a new kind of Islamist terror, incubated in Pakistan. So the event was pivotal, and understanding it is crucial.
Over 18 years spent reporting in and out of J&K there have been so many incidents, bear traps, massacres, committed anonymously, directly, obliquely – and we have looked at some of them. The unmarked graves issue has received an enormous amount of attention worldwide. But this one episode from 1995, the al Faran incident, while only affecting a handful of people, became the portal through which the wider world saw Kashmir, and that’s why we zeroed in on it.
Cathy Scott-Clark further writes that “the lack of oversight and accountability, through the judicial and parliamentary systems, which were often held in abeyance, led to massive abuses of power in J&K: rapes, murders, abductions, torture, disappearances. And seldom has a guilty party prosecuted or put on trial...” Do you think in the absence of justice, there will be any progress towards resolution, or “moving on” for Kashmiris, as some Indian journalists and analysts seem to suggest in their recent commentary?
Wherever there has been absolution and reconciliation, it has been predicated on discovery. In South Africa, Spain, and many Central and South American countries truth is leading, slowly, to reconciliation. It is a painful process. In some places it is happening right now as in the case of the fascist’s forced adoption policy in Spain where official in the Church and state have been resisting demands – but slowly they are capitulating.
Kashmir must be the only conflict zone in the world where academics and officials propose the opposite: a clean chit, where drawing a line under the truth, and forgetting about it, can help the State move on. While there cannot be a trial for every body dumped, or an accounting for every militant kidnapping and killing, or for every Pandit claim of being forced from homes and businesses, there has to be a broad and detailed truth-telling that encompasses acts criminal and conspiratorial – or there will never be closure.
The unmarked graves issue is one that demands resolution. Until it is properly mapped and understood, who is to say who is right? Are these the bodies of armed men gunned down in battle – and if so, why were they buried secretly and in such large numbers, by villagers compelled to do the task – and say nothing about it. Was it merely laziness – that so many died no one could be bothered to log the deaths? Or are the innocent also buried in these graves, as some claim: the missing and abducted. There is only one way to find out and resolve the issue.
The claim you hear in government circles these days is that truth suits no one – other than Pakistan. Every bite of truth will profit a neighbor keen to exploit it. Although to be frank, Pakistan is right now grappling with its own truths having nearly succumbed to terror, economic collapse, and political deadlock – and having no clear strategy as to what to do post US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The one thing that is clear is that resolution in Kashmir is based on the resolution of far broader regional issues. There will be no time given over to truth until there is a greater understanding of the regional crisis especially concerning a future government in Kabul.
What has been the response of Indian media and government authorities regarding the revelations made in the book? Do you think there will be a proper investigation of this case now and many other cases of disappearances that have taken place in Kashmir over the past two decades?
One journalist wrote that if the allegations are true they are "a feather in the cap of the government." It seems as if the hawks want to reclaim the episode as an example of hard power.
I hope there is a full inquiry although the truth suits no one. The SHRC has made a start. We commend them. A search could be made, a new one for the bodies which I think now could be found. A full list of potential sources, witnesses, investigators and protagonists could be drawn up and scrutinized. This would have to be done independently and perhaps even in-camera. But is there the political will to do this? At the moment I am not sure and I fear that what will happen will be localized, disruptive and potentially unhelpful.
Other than putting more facts before people, hitherto unknown or ignored, what purpose does your book serve?
There has been no closure for the families of the Western missing. And perhaps excavating the truth of the demise will also reveal something about how the Kashmir conflict has been managed too. I do think the book has revealed something of the truth about the Kashmir imbroglio, the cost to all sides, India and Pakistan, and what has been done in the name of winning.
What India ‘gained’ from all of this was to create a visceral image of Kashmir in the West as a cradle of terrorism rather than a paradise Valley. However, as many senior police and intelligence officers conceded, what was lost in all of this war and gamesmanship was humanity
From your research for the book over the past years, was there anything more you would have liked to be included in the book but did not make it to the final draft that was published?
I have files of information and taped interviews – enough to fill another book perhaps!
Lastupdate on : Sat, 26 May 2012 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Sat, 26 May 2012 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sun, 27 May 2012 00:00:00 IST
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