‘The Meadow: Kashmir 1995 — Where the Terror Began/ The story of a brutal kidnapping that marked the beginning of modern terrorism,’ by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark. Publisher: Harper Collins.
For sensitive Indians, reading ‘The Meadow: Kashmir 1995’ is like walking barefoot on a hot tin roof.
One might feel tempted to slide down one steep side into an inviting pool of outright denial, or roll off the other side and land on a haystack of extenuating theories, historical explanations, legal minutiae.
It takes a cool head to walk straight on the ridge of the roof.
For page after page, ‘The Meadow: Kashmir 1995’ pins the reader down to reality as experienced by a multinational cast of backpackers, made to trudge over mountain pass and trail on bleeding feet to an uncertain fate by a group of jihadis.
Every reader is bound to grieve over the plight of the hostages and the agony of their loved ones, who hover over the scene like hapless petrels. For the Indian reader, to the agony and horror is added shame, arising out of the knowledge that it takes
democratic India half a million soldiers to maintain control of Kashmir.
But it is not Indian forces alone that are responsible for the tragedy. The immediate causes of the hostage crisis were events taking place far away from the valley.
“Ever since the Soviets had begun withdrawing from Afghanistan, with refugees flooding into Peshawar, fearful of what would replace the Red Army, Pakistan had been secretly preparing, in the words of General Zia-ul-Haq, the country’s most recent military dictator, to ‘make something of Kashmir.’ Now the eyes of the army and the ISI had been drawn by the fortuitous events taking place of the other side of LoC (Line of Control). The local insurgency had just exploded there, with hundreds of thousands of people rising up in the Muslim-dominated valley.”
Our authors, Levy and Scott-Clark, follow this up with a quick survey of the history of conflicts in the divided subcontinent, often skipping the role of such major forces, such as the Bangladesh Mukti Bahini.
“The most serious conflagration came in December 1971, when Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had ordered an assault on East Pakistan, which ended after barely two weeks, with the Pakistan Army forced into a humiliating surrender at a Dhaka racecourse. Pakistan had never recovered from what it regarded as a deeply shameful moment in its young history, and ever since its military leaders and ISI had been searching for the right lever to pull so as to reassert themselves.”
Previously there had been sporadic incidents sponsored by the ISI, but they never built up to a flaming wave. Kashmiri groups had a habit of going their own way, calling for independence not just from India but also Pakistan, or, worse, sometimes agreeing to religious and political accommodation with India. In the eyes of Pakistani hawks, “whose ranks were now bloated with war-hungry Pashtuns and dutiful Punjabis, the Kashmiris, infused with their mountain ways and Sufi-inspired traditions — were insufficiently blood-thirsty. ’The Kashmiris were just too moderate,’ Masood Azhar wrote in The Voice of the Mujahid, ‘to mount the kind of total war that was needed if India was to be unseated’.”
Who is this Masood Azhar?
One of the contributions of ‘The Meadow: Kashmir 1995’ to the literature on terrorism is the light it casts on the rise of Masood Azhar.
Indeed there are two books within the covers of ‘The Meadow: Kashmir 1995.’ One of the two is about what the title says it is — the hostage-taking in Kashmir in 1995; — the other book is about the cause of the hostage-taking and its sequel, stretching from 1983 to the present day. This other book has barely been noticed by reviewers of ‘The Meadow: Kashmir 1995’; I propose to examine the second book first.
“In July 1995, high in the mountains of Kashmir, six Western trekkers — two Britons, two Americans, a German and a Norwegian — were seized by a group of Islamic guerrillas who demanded the release of twenty-one named militants imprisoned in Indian jails in exchange for their lives. At the head of the list was Masood Azhar, a portly cleric from Pakistan.”
Portrait of the Terrorist as a Young Man
Masood Azhar is the real protagonist of the second book-within-book. It was in order to secure the release of Masood from an Indian jail that the hostage drama was hatched in Pakistan. And it is Masood who is said to have developed the practices and rhetoric of global terrorism that were first tried out in Kashmir, and then executed with chilling skill in Pakistan, Britain and India in the years since.
“Masood’s early career mirrored that of Osama (bin Laden). Growing up in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province in the seventies and eighties, Masood, the spoiled son of a wealthy landowner, had lacked for nothing — much like the privileged young Osama… Educated in an Islamist hothouse in the frenetic port city of Karachi… Masood graduated to become the mouthpiece for a guerrilla outfit that would, like Osama, gravitate to Afghanistan to fight the occupying Red Army to a standstill.”
Levy and Scott-Clark paint an unflattering portrait of the terrorist as a young man.
Masood was short, obese, and in the habit of getting into, literally, tight holes from which others had to extricate him.
He is the product of a factory of jihadists, called Binori Town, a madrassa in Karachi where six-year-olds arrived from all over Pakistan to be “steeped in a deeply conservative curriculum steeped in the ethos of the Dark Ages.
““Masood Azhar gained a reputation for his “oratory prowess and religious fervour.” But he was not a fighter, unlike the “three graduates from Binori Town (who) had undergone basic training, supervised by military instructors borrowed from the Paksitan armed forces and the ISI, and paid for by the CIA, before being sent through the Khyber Pass to do battle with the Red Army. By the time Masood was fifteen in 1983, one of the three Binori Town graduates had been martyred in Afghanistan, another had vanished, presumed dead, while the third had become a famed warrior with the nom de guerre of ‘Saifullah,’ or Sword of Islam.”
When Masood was selected to follow on the footsteps of such distinguished alumni, he quailed, for he had “always been an indoor child, preferring the company of his mother and siblings to the tough neighborhood boys…Since becoming a teenager he had been desk-bound, and had grown used to the creature comforts of Binori Town, preferring a rickshaw to walking , and growing fat on plates of tender nihari, the spicy meat stew that many Pakistani’s regard as their national dish.”
Much of the value of “The Meadow: Kashmir 1995” is in the accumulation of details on the process of Masood’s rise to the top of the jihad machine. In life, unlike romantic poetry, the handsome and the daring are the first to be mowed down in battle. The brilliant and the audacious are all cannon fodder in a system that has in its recesses safe pockets in which to preserve its ideologues.
“Overweight and short of breath, Masood failed to make it through the forty-day basic training. But as the young man had been sent with the personal blessing of Maulana Khalil, Saifullah could not return him to Karachi uninitiated in battle, so he dispatched him to the frontline anyway. Needing to relieve himself in the middle of the night, Masood emerged from the dugout where his unit was sleeping and forgot, in the darkness, to utter a password to the guards. Believing that Soviet-backed Afghan forces were mounting an ambush, they opened fire, and Masood received a bullet wound to the leg. Saifullah was horrified, and had arranged for Masood to be stretchered back to Karachi…The calamitous story was reported to the ISI, whose agents still recall reading it incredulously.”
This unheroic exit from frontline jihad turned into a golden opportunity. He had acquired a limp, which he embroidered stories. He was given the desk job of editing the Sadai Mujahid (Voice of the Mujahid) magazine, which became a smash, selling
tens of thousands of copies every Friday. Looked up with awe for his inspiring words, time and again he was rescued from nasty corners by comrades who put his safety above their own.
A Template for Terrorism
Smuggled into India via Bangladesh, he was picked up by Indian forces almost immediately on arrival and imprisoned. His comrades dug a tunnel for him to escape, but he was too fat and got stuck midway. The comrade behind Masood got shot. He was, however, pulled out by Indian jailers. His followers then proceeded to hijack an Indian Airlines plane and successfully negotiated his release. From this point, Masood spreads his wings. Levy and Scott-Clark uncover entirely new connections and the text needs to be quoted in full:
“The fate of Masood, and the bloodshed and intrigue that engulfed the six Western trekkers, would shape much of the epoch that followed. In the mountains of Kashmir that summer, Masood and his gunmen experimented with the tactics and rhetoric of Islamic terror, unveiling to the world extreme acts and justifications that were at the time new, but would soon become all too familiar.
“Finding and squeezing Western pressure points, testing foreign governments’ sensibilities and resolve, this hostage-taking would enable Masood and his men to refine their methods before they combined forces with Osama’s al Qaeda, soon assisted by the black-turbaned Taliban, when they came to power in Afghanistan in 1996.
“It would only be a short leap from the kidnappings in Kashmir to the suicidal assaults in New Delhi, Srinagar, New York, Washington, London and Mumbai in which many thousands would die or be injured. Three months after 9/11, Masood’s men struck in India, their brazen raid of the parliament in New Delhi broadcast across the subcontinent, just as the Twin Towers had been seen falling around the world on live TV.
“In 2002, Masood’s bodyguard and one of his British recruits adapted tactics honed during their Kashmir kidnapping to abduct Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter, and to film his horrific beheading. Masood himself, like Osama, slipped from public view, becoming a shadowy eminence grise. In 2004, he welcomed several British Pakistanis to the land of their forefathers, and in the terrorist training camps of north-west Pakistan he helped them plan for the mayhem they would unleash in London in July 2005, when four near-simultaneous suicide bombs went off in the heart of the heaving capital, killing fifty-two and injuring more than seven hundred.
“In 2006, another of Masood’s British projects manipulated jihadi recruits from the West to mount a complex plot to bring down multiple airliners over the Atlantic with liquid bombs smuggled abroad in soft-drink bottles. Two years later, in November 2008, Masood was again in the background as Pakistani militants made an assault on India’s financial center of Mumbai…leading to the deaths of 164 holidaymakers, businessmen and residents. Many more plots in the U.S. and U.K. were narrowly thwarted by those nation’s respective governments, saving untold lives. By the time Osama bin Laden was run to ground in Abbotabad, many others from Al Qaeda’s top table had perished too, apart from Masood Azhar.
“He continues to thrive, flitting today between Pakistan’s borders and his old home in Punjab. Four of the tourists seized in Kashmir in the summer of 1995, whose abduction marked the beginning of a new age of terror, simply vanished. Their bodies were never found, and their case was forgotten. Until now.”
The Lessons of the Munich Massacre
At this point starts our Book Number One, the kidnap and hostage story, on which most of the post-publication discussion of ‘The Meadow:Kashmir 1995’has centered.
To students of counter-terrorism, Levy and Scott-Clark display a certain degree of naiveté. The claim in the book’s subtitle, that hostage-taking in the Gulmarg ‘marked the beginning of modern terrorism’ seems exaggerated, for the Gulmarg event in no way matched the notoriety and savagery of the Munich massacre at the Summer Olympics of 1972, or the worldwide shock of the Oklahama City Bombing that immediately preceded the Gulmarg incident and in which as many 168 lives were lost.
To place the Gulmarg incident as the cardinal point for the start of ’modern’ terrorism betrays a desire to play up the importance of the subject to which Levy and Scott-Clark were exposed at an early period of their journalistic career, and the notes of which they, admirably, clung to for 17 years. But they appeared not have followed the development of counter-terrorism techniques, accepted through the ages, perfected subsequent to the Munich massacre.
The first lesson that every counter-terrorism experts appears to have drawn from the attempt by the Bavarian squad to storm the Black September terrorists in which all eleven of the hostages were killed is that the negotiators must always play for time, seek to infiltrate into the ranks of the terrorists, or lure them one way or the other into ambushes, to drag out negotiations in order to have the terrorists betray their weak points.
Within weeks of the publication of ‘The Meadow: Kashmir 1995’, stories appeared in Indian print media alleging Masood was “the blue-eyed boy” of India’s then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, and that New Delhi had been playing off one militant group in Kashmir against the other.
If that is what Narasimha Rao succeeded in doing, he had indeed earned the title of ‘Chanakya,’ or the Indian Machiavelli that his enemies in the V.P. Singh camp gave him after his skullduggery in the St. Kitts affair.
Narasimha Rao has had a bad deal not only from the Gandhi-Nehru family, but has been left — like Smiley in Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold — with blame for everything that had gone wrong in India since the dismantling of India’s monster License Raj.
A Prime Minister in Delhi must have had even longer arms and defter fingers than those that the current occupant of the White House has in Afghanistan to be able to successfully manipulate splinter groups on the ground. If New Delhi was listening in on the negotiations with the terrorists by the first rung of Kashmir officers, it was just what Authority is directed to do in the post-Munich anti-terrorism textbook. It is amazing the Levy and Scott-Clark make no mention of the most successful rescue by the Colombian army of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 others — after six and a half years of feints, negotiations, offers of release of prisoners, botched raids, mediation by high-profile international figures, and every other trick prescribed in counter-terrorism classics.
This is not to say that the present reviewer condones in any way the barbarism practiced in Kashmir in India’s name. By one reckoning cited by Levy and Scott-Clark, the number of the ‘disappeared’ in Kashmir is “three times the number that vanished under Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile:
“On 2 July 2011, a Senior Superintendent of Police, Bashir Ahmed Yatoo, whose career had hitherto been distinguished mainly by his loyalty to the state, revealed the results of the first official inquiry into Imroz’s claim (Parvez Imroz, a courageous lawyer from Srinagar who in the face of death threats took on himself to track down the fate of the disappeared) before the State Human Rights Commission…. SSP Yatoo’s team said it had identified thirty-eight mass graves in north Kashmir, scattered through the pine forests and mossy mountain pastures. In them, according to eyewitnesses, lay at least 2,730 bodies. Of these, Yatoo said, 574 had already been identified as civilians unconnected to the insurgency, people who had been plucked from their homes, vehicles or workplaces by the Indian security forces and killed.”
Reading this puts me in shame and rage, just as sensitive Pakistanis must have been saddened and ashamed by reports of Operation Searchlight by Pakistan army units in Bangladesh in 1970. Publication of ‘The Meadow: Kashmir 1995’ has led to three cases being filed with the Human Rights Commission of Kashmir for fresh investigations into the mass graves issue. Most welcome, but history surely will not stop there. Who knows if the subcontinent will not witness more Bangladesh-style outcomes? At the time of Operation Searchlight, Pakistan was under army rule, with no way for individual Pakistanis to voice their dissent. It is encouraging that individual voices have begun to be heard in India about the trampling of democracy and human rights in Kashmir. One wonders if an Indian Summer can be far behind the Arab Spring.