25 September 2012
The murky events of Kashmir’s 1995 hostage crisis are well-documented in a new book, but still defy closure.
One of the satisfying things about being a reporter is the idea that once you have filed your story, you are free. No more wasted afternoons waiting for call-backs, no more re-writing intros, no more fretting over nuance and meaning. Push the send button, and it’s done. Move on.
That’s the theory anyway. As it turns out, there are stories that defy closure.
One of those, for me, involves the events described in The Meadow: Kashmir, Where the Terror Began by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, which deals with the kidnapping of six Western tourists in Indian-administered Kashmir.
A quick recap for those not burdened with my obsessions: The tourists – two Britons, two Americans, a Norwegian and a German – were taken hostage by a then-unknown Kashmiri militant group in July 1995. The kidnapping was claimed by a group called al-Faran, but that name turned out to be an alias adopted for this particular mission. Al-Faran, it turns out, was an offshoot of Harkat-ul-Ansar. The Islamist militant group was based in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, and had bases in Afghanistan, but its main focus and area of operation was the Kashmir valley, inside Indian-administered Kashmir. Some of those involved in the kidnapping in the name of al-Faran had also been involved in the kidnapping of two Western tourists a year earlier. But in that instance the Westerners were released, unharmed, within a matter of days.
In the Kashmir kidnapping most of the hostages were not so lucky. One American escaped and – it seems as improbable to me now as it did then – was personally rescued by the governor’s security advisor, who just happened to be in the area in his helicopter. The Norwegian was brutally executed, trussed up like an animal and then beheaded. The other four are presumed dead. Their bodies were never discovered.
Aside from John Childs – the American engineer who escaped – the hostages were not particularly worldly people, nor were they well-connected. The other American, Don Hutchings, was well-travelled. He and his wife, Jane Schelly, lived for exotic trekking adventures. But the two Britons, Keith Mangan and Paul Wells, were working-class men who had never been abroad. Dirk Hasert, the German, came from a similarly modest background. Hans-Christian Ostro, the Norwegian who died such a horrific death, had turned wanderer and seeker after his share of personal troubles, including divorce.Lack of urgencyI was a newly arrived correspondent for the Guardian in Delhi when the hostages were taken. It was my first big story, and for a time it was a huge story for British and American news outlets. I am mentioned in The Meadow – kindly – but I don’t know the authors and I had nothing to do with the writing of this book.
What we as reporters did not know then was that this hostage taking from the outset was a much more dangerous enterprise than earlier kidnappings in Kashmir, which had ended with the safe return of the captives. After years of violence in Kashmir, the kidnapping brought something new: adding the al-Qaida brand of extremism to a conflict that had revolved around self-determination and India-Pakistan rivalry.
Levy and Scott-Clark deserve a lot of credit for recognising the kidnapping, by now a half-forgotten episode in Kashmir’s long history of violence, as the start of that new chapter.
In the coming years, the names of some of the same militants linked to the kidnapping would crop up in connection with a succession of other violent acts – from the hijacking of an Indian Airlines jet-liner on a flight from Kathmandu in 1999, to the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, to the co-ordinated suicide bombings of the London transport system in July 2005.
Another thing reporters did not know for sure at the time, but strongly suspected, was the extent to which complacency and sheer cynicism guided the Indian authorities’ response to the kidnapping. Put simply: the kidnapping of the Western backpackers was good PR for the Indian government. Delhi at that point had not been able to fully persuade Western governments to its view that the armed insurgency in Kashmir had been hijacked by the Pakistani intelligence services. But those connections grew clearer when the kidnappers demanded the release of Masood Azhar, a Pakistani militant who had been in contact with al-Qaida. What better way to keep the focus on Islamabad’s sponsorship of Islamist militants than to have the hostage crisis drag on?
That strange lack of urgency remains one of my most vivid memories of the whole hostage story, and the most troubling. I can remember a conversation with an intelligence source in Srinagar who summed up the Indian strategy in two words: Buy time. What was never clear to me then was whether the Indian authorities genuinely believed their strategy would wear down the kidnappers and lead to the hostages’ safe release. Which leads to the alternative: did the various Indian agencies, the police, army, intelligence service, and politicians make a calculated decision to manipulate the hostage drama, risk the backpackers’ safety, and ultimately destroy their lives and those of their families, in the interests of that bigger game?
That is where Levy and Scott-Clark jump right in, and to my mind, produce some first-rate reporting on the ambiguous nature of the Indian authorities’ response to the kidnapping. The authors managed to get a number of the key players to talk. We learn how the authorities bundled the escaped hostage, John Childs, out of Kashmir and back to America, rejecting his offer to help lead security forces back to the spot where the other backpackers were held. We learn about the leaks which arrived just in time to blow up deals for the hostages’ release. The authors also raise a question which should have occurred to reporters at the time: what were the travellers doing in the middle of such a dangerous conflict in the first place? I wish, though, that the authors had more detail on how much influence was exerted by Western governments to try to win the hostages’ release. One of the last calls by the kidnappers to the outside world before executing the hostages was to the British embassy to demand a ransom payment, although the book doesn’t get into that.
- VerdictsThere are two other strands to the story. The authors go to some lengths to describe the lives of the hostages leading up to their trip to Kashmir, and also the ordeal of their wives and girlfriends left waiting for news. They also delve into the politics of militancy in Kashmir, and the unlikely rise of Masood Azhar – aka Little Fatty – as a leader of global jihad. The waiting game suffered by the wives and girlfriends of the hostages is covered in rich detail, although there is a fair bit of guessing about their inner thoughts. On Masood Azhar, who is now one of the most long-lived and dangerous al-Qaida affiliates at large after the death of Osama bin Laden, the authors have rather less to say about what turned him from the son of a local preacher from the Pakistani city of Bahawalpur into a dangerous militant.It’s the nature of these kinds of books, which rely on getting press-averse officials to open up, that those who do open up to the authors inevitably come off best. The book makes heroes out of relatively minor figures while leaving out other key personalities, both Indian and Western, who arguably had greater control over decisions and bear greater responsibility for the final tragic outcome. There is no sense at all of how Delhi responded to the crisis, and of whether the do-little response was a bit of local improvisation or a policy worked out in South Block. Was there any attempt to engage Kashmiri leaders, which might have delivered a PR coup for the separatist movement? Was Kashmir’s governor left entirely out of the loop? We never know, not from this book. Nor is there any indication that Western leaders were frustrated at India’s handling of the crisis, or tried to push for an early solution. Did they too view the hostages, their own citizens, as politically expendable?In Levy and Scott-Clark’s telling, Rajinder Tikoo, the hostage negotiator, was the honest cop struggling to save the hostages, only to be sabotaged time and again by a security establishment which blew up his carefully crafted deals. I’m sure Tikoo is very flattered by the portrayal. I had a number of conversations with Tikoo during the hostage crisis, and once managed to observe his discussions with the hostage takers. He struck me as someone with a deep sense of appreciation of his own talents. But the good cop/bad spy is a cliché, of course. I mention that cliché because I wonder if the authors also fell victim to another one: that the good guys are really the bad guys. The book’s final, stunning conclusion is that the hostages were killed by a pro-India group.There was certainly talk at the time that the entire hostage crisis was a stunt enacted by the Indian intelligence services, and the book does a good job of describing the messy, confused, and confusing response to the hostage crisis. It also goes into great detail about the murky nature of armed groups in Kashmir. But after ploughing through some 482 pages I’m not entirely convinced that the Indian security establishment really knew who or what they were dealing with during the kidnapping – let alone that they were the ones pulling the strings all along. It takes a long time for Levy and Scott-Clark to come to their conclusions, and they raise a lot more questions than they provide satisfactory answers for along the way. I’m not even entirely sure the authors were convinced themselves – their conclusion is buried by a mass of detail. In the end, that didn’t make much of a difference to my enjoyment of a meticulously researched, fast-paced book on the Kashmir hostage crisis. But I’m still looking for closure.~ Suzanne Goldenberg covers the environment for the Guardian from Washington DC, USA. She was previously based in Southasia and West Asia.