Adrian Levy & Cathy Scott-Clark
Rs 499 pp 536
On the morning of August 14, 1995, I stood at the market outside my ancestral home in Seer village in Kashmirs Anantnag district. Villagers had gathered, and spoke in grim voices: How could they do this? This is inhuman, unheard of. The previous morning, Pakistani militants from Harkat ul-Ansar had beheaded Hans Christian Ostro in the neighbouring village of Vael Nagbal. Ostro was a young Norwegian training as a kathakali dancer in Kerala before he headed on the fateful trek to Pahalgam.
Village women collecting firewood had found Ostros body, his head severed and the name of the Harkat front Al-Faran written on his belly with a knife. Five years into the insurgency and counter-insurgency, Kashmiris were familiar with brutality. But the manner of Ostros killing shocked us. Five others trekkers two Americans, John Childs and Don Hutchings, a German, Dirk Hasert, two Brits, Keith Mangan and Paul Wells had also been kidnapped on July 5, 1995. Childs had escaped three days later. The kidnappers demanded the release of 21 Pakistani and Kashmiri militants, including Masood Azhar, the son of an influential Deobandi cleric and an ace propagandist for Harkat ul-Ansar.
Four months later, the government announced that the Al-Faran team led by an Afghan war veteran Hamid al-Turki, who had kidnapped the tourists, had been killed in an encounter with the army. An arrested Pakistani militant had confessed that the militants had murdered the four trekkers and buried them in Anantnags remote Magam village. With time, the five trekkers were forgotten.
The Meadow, a remarkable, thorough work of investigative journalism by British journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark peels off the layers of deceit, falsehoods, and manipulation to reveal the startling truth of what really happened to the hostages. After hundreds of interviews with families of the hostages, diplomats, policemen, bureaucrats, intelligence officials, and former counter-insurgents in Kashmir, the authors reveal that the hostages were not killed by Al-Faran or Harkat, but by Nabi Azad or Alpha, a dreaded counter-insurgent who operated from the mountain villages of Anantnag and worked with the anti-militancy Special Task Force (STF) of Kashmir Police, intelligence agencies, and the Rashtriya Rifles of the Indian army.
Scott-Clark and Levy show that all along, the central government and intelligence agencies knew about the whereabouts of the hostages in a remote mountain valley in Warwan. The government, meanwhile, continued telling the press, foreign diplomats and families that it knew nothing and was trying its best to find the hostages. Scott-Clark and Levy recreate the secret talks between Rajinder Tikoo, an inspector general of Kashmir police, and an Al-Faran negotiator. Following negotiations, the latter agreed to free the hostages for a mere Rs 1 crore.
The prolonged hostage crisis served a strategic purpose: to show the western powers that Pakistan, the epicentre of terrorism, was behind the insurgency in Kashmir. Both Tikoo and the tenacious detectives of his department realised that the government did not want to save the hostages.
Kashmir Polices detective squad, however, followed their investigation till the end. The end game takes them to the lair of Alpha (Nabi Azad) in Shelipora village of Anantnag. Alpha, on behest of his handlers in the army and intelligence, had made a secret ceasefire deal with Anantnags top Harkat commander Javed Bhat alias Sikander, who had organised the kidnapping following orders from Pakistan. Most members of the Al-Faran, including its leader Hamid Turki, were killed in an army ambush in Dabran village in Anantnag in November. By mid-November 1995, Sikander held the hostages. He was tired, and ready to end the crisis.
But then Alpha was contacted by his handlers in intelligence and STF, with orders to approach Sikander with a deal to keep the crisis rolling," the authors write. Sikander handed over the five hostages to Alpha for R4 lakh. The detectives sent a report: Sikanders men handed over Paul, Dirk, Keith and Don to Alphas renegades in the third or fourth week of November ... Sikander has given up. Al Faran is finished. Embarrassingly, India controls the hostages.
The detectives pursued the case till they got an eyewitness. No one could risk the hostages being released and complaining of collusion, having seen uniforms and STF jeeps, possibly hearing things they understood. We led them into the trees, a good, hard walk behind the lower village. I remember that the snow was heavy and deep. And there they were shot," the eyewitness said. The date of murder was December 24, 1995.
Basharat Peer is the author of Curfewed Night