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Review: The Meadow

The origins of organized political terror in the Kashmir Valley are usually pegged on the year 1989, when Pakistan-ISI-CIA funded jihadis trained for battle against the Russians in Afghanistan suddenly found themselves without a cause. The Russians re-crossed the Hindu Kush and went home; what was left on the plains of Kabul

books Updated: Jun 05, 2012 10:22 IST
K V K Murthy

The origins of organized political terror in the Kashmir Valley are usually pegged on the year 1989, when Pakistan-ISI-CIA funded jihadis trained for battle against the Russians in Afghanistan suddenly found themselves without a cause. The Russians re-crossed the Hindu Kush and went home; what was left on the plains of Kabul and the badlands of Pakistan's NWFP was a rash of unattached jihadi armies rejoicing under a bewildering profusion of acronyms, led by self-proclaimed leaders often at variance with each other, difficult even for an expert to disentangle. These inevitably spilled over into Pakistan's frontier towns, a frighteningly armed, lawless and dangerous nuisance.

But Pakistan had a man who thought he could divert these irregular armed hordes to a theatre where the vacuum of Afghanistan would be more than made up for, and with profit. That man was Brigadier 'Badam' (from his weakness for almond milk which he drank as a substitute for alcohol), and the theatre was the Kashmir Valley. Over the years these outfits, now trained armed and dollar-funded were infiltrated across the Line of Control to wreak whatever havoc was required to keep all the Indian security forces in the Valley gainfully and sleeplessly occupied, and the Valley in a state of permanent ferment.

In 1994 the General Secretary of the HuA (Harkat-ul-Ansar, Movement of the Victorious) Masood Azhar (who had travelled to India via Bangladesh on a Portuguese passport stolen in Britain) and a companion known simply as the 'Afghani' (but a key operative of the Movement) were captured by an Indian BSF contingent near Anantnag. Masood's father Master Alvi wanted his son back: Brigadier 'Badam' advised him (and thereby the Movement) that the only way to accomplish this was to 'kidnap someone important, preferably foreign. Make it an embarrassment for India.'

From that seemingly casual diktat sprang the most harrowing and tragic abduction drama in the history of terror mayhem in Kashmir. The operation took a little more than a year to mount, the execution entrusted to a specially tasked group of the Movement with the ad hoc name of 'al Faran' to deflect enemy attention from the Movement itself. The victims, as always in the clash of causes (even causeless ones) were innocent common folk; in this instance five foreign holiday makers from the US, the UK, Norway and Germany.

And authors Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark tell the story, the whole story for the first time.

For the average Indian, especially the urban mall- and pub-hopping kind for whom Kashmir is just a name, and who is only dimly and distantly aware of 'unrest' in the Kashmir Valley, and that through perfunctory news headlines or TV streamers this remarkable book might well be a chronicle of another planet. Nothing will quite prepare him for the all-pervasive tension, the raw bilious taste of constant fear, the air of permanent siege, the frightening ubiquity of security forces in uniforms of every description armed to the eyes, the irredentist war waged with the customary brutality of Islamic medievalism; and the beguiling sense of calm assiduously fostered by the government agencies for their own ends, hoping to wish away the subliminal menace, all of which finds vivid, graphic representation here. Indeed, nothing quite prepared the kidnap victims, or their wives and girlfriends, their parents and siblings in those other distant planets Europe and America.

The authors have drawn the human drama with heartbreaking detail: the sudden fearful ugliness in the almost Edenic 'Meadow' (a favourite trekkers' camping ground by the Lidder River in Pahalgam), the interminable nightmare aftermath of frayed nerves, of hopes seesawing, of despair just a thought or a word away, the haunting fear of the unthinkable. More than forty years ago the eminent historian Hannah Arendt coined a phrase in connexion with the Jewish Holocaust, 'the banality of evil': reading the personal stories of the victims and their families, and of their fated instrumentality as pawns in the maelstrom of sub-continental hostilities one might well paraphrase Miss Arendt's mot to read 'the banality of terror'.

The most striking feature of the book however is the wealth of incidental and circumstantial detail, the extraordinary greenroom dynamics behind the stage. It is evident that the authors have had access to sources quite beyond the reach of ordinary journalists; that doors resolutely and fearsomely closed to common folk have been opened to them, that people in the highest rungs of the security establishment with mouths that would put clams to shame have opened out as never before, and probably never again. To someone with a long memory there is a sense of déjà vu: one felt exactly this way in 1971 when Neville Maxwell's "India's China War" smote the Indian establishment. One knew then that Maxwell had seen and been told what no one else had, or was ever likely to again.

Here you see the innermost workings of the main security outfits in the Valley: the Army, the local administration in the person of the Governor and his Security Advisor, the Kashmir Police, the CID, the intelligence agencies IB and RAW. Here too are the offstage puppeteers, the Home, Defence and External Affairs ministries in Delhi; and if one thought that was some basket, throw in the hostage experts from Scotland Yard and the FBI, to say nothing of the diplomatic representatives from the embassies concerned and a press corps of newshounds out for a scoop unmindful of consequences to the hostages, and you have the perfect witches' brew of intrigue, misinformation, rumour, disastrous cross purposes, and maddening silence. The authors pull no punches in describing the intelligence turf wars between the various agencies, the cynical pursuit of one-upmanship even at the potential cost of innocent hostage lives, the race to get headlines through, the lethal leaks and counter leaks of vital information.

For the first time the outsider (meaning someone not in the Valley, and not in the security loop) sees the unbridgeable gulfs between the perspectives of the different services: the Army view, the IB and RAW views, the local police perceptions and priorities. And these are magnificently delineated in the dramatis personae: Lt. Gen. D.D. Saklani the Governor's Security Advisor, cold, aloof, army all over but fair and playing with a straight bat; Rajinder Tikoo, the IG of Crime Branch Kashmir, urbane, golf-playing, pipe-smoking, alumnus of St. Xavier's Bombay and competent as they come, pushed without warning, preparation or support into the negotiator's hot seat to keep a dialogue going with the kidnappers with nary a clue to the government's intentions or plans - or even knowing whether it had any.

For months Tikoo treads the tightrope with the abductors, playing them along, a cat-and-mouse game with every word, every inflection, every nuance a hair-triggered act of faith to keep the hostages alive one more day. One's heart goes out to him in his frustrations, in his loneliness - Saklani the army man wanted only to hear results, not be confronted with unpleasantness or stalemate, and there couldn't be much bonhomie between a soldier and a copper. His despair is palpable, his predicament intensely moving, as he sees every delicate move of his torpedoed by news headlines in Delhi giving the game away. In the frightening gamble for precious lives there was a leak leeching him of every hard-won tactical advantage, costing him his trust with the kidnappers; and worse, was hardening the latter's attitudes.

And all the while the crack teams from the western agencies watch in mute frustration, unable to

First Published: Jun 05, 2012 10:22 IST