This riveting book reminds me of the best of western journalism, which in its heyday produced works of contemporary history, for it unravels every complex detail of a tragic and misunderstood story. The ability of journalism to produce works like these is something I had forgotten in the cacophony of sound bites and unsubstantiated opinion that characterises our reporting of Jammu and Kashmir.
Beautifully written, The Meadow deals with the kidnapping and murders of a group of foreign tourists, American, British and Norwegian, by the Al Faran militants in 1994. Their families’ painful search for them lasted for an inordinately long seven years, and was given up in 2000-01; their quest for the truth, you could say, never really ended. The Meadow is a tribute to that ordeal.
As we all know, the Kashmir insurgency began with the kidnap of then home minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s daughter in 1990, who was released in exchange for the release of five militants. Whether this experience emboldened militant groups is a moot point, but several kidnappings of foreign tourists followed. The reason for Al Faran’s taking six foreign tourists hostage, The Meadow says, was to secure the release of Masood Azhar from the custody of Indian security forces. They failed in this endeavour but Pakistani militants finally succeeded in 1999, when Azhar was released by the BJP-led NDA government, in return for a plane full of Indians hijacked by Pakistani militants to Kandahar.
The chapters on Azhar and Kashmiri militants are a valuable addition to the current literature. Indeed, the book is unsparingly illuminating in its descriptions of the narcissistic and sub-human motivations of Azhar—who gained the title of emir by lying about how he acquired a bullet in his leg—and his father, as well as of the ISI (in the person of the risibly named Brigadier Badam).
The authors show in detail the terrible dilemmas of those involved—victims’ countries, Indian agencies, militant Kashmiri youth.
I do have a serious problem with the book. By implication, The Meadow suggests that Indian agencies were complicit in the murders of five of the six men who were kidnapped (one American managed to escape), but the story is actually one of bungling and rivalry. What Levy and Scott-Clark do showcase in excruciating detail are the dilemmas of those involved, from the governments of the hostages’ countries to the Indian government and intelligence agencies, and Kashmiri youth who engaged in the insurgency. Several passages made me squirm, and if I do have a criticism it is that they did not ask hard questions about what governments can do in such a situation, in view of their capabilities.
Nevertheless, their point is well taken, that politics intrudes too often in cases such as these, where the sole concern should be rescue. A point they do not make themselves, but which most Indians will manage to take from the book, is that we are not honest, either with ourselves or with our people, about what is within our power and what is not. It is no secret that rescue operations are often botched up by the inability of agencies to work in tandem, not only in our country but in far more developed ones, but our officials often have a tendency to huff, puff and take offence when a simple confession of difficulties and obstacles would be more acceptable.
Levy and Scott-Clark are more understanding of the dilemmas that led Kashmiri militants to propaganda and deceit, for reasons that I find easy to accept. Young lads driven by what they conceive to be a greater cause are unlikely to see the evils of seemingly small deceits or to anticipate the havoc these can wreak upon a hapless society. Instead, they leave the reader to deduce the connection—through their descriptions of the painful silences that the victims’ families encounter in their search for the trail of their relatives as the kidnappers moved them from place to place.
The only people to emerge untainted in the story are the victims’ families, whose search is the narrative on which the other accounts in the book are pegged. That is as it should be. As an Indian, I am truly sorry for the needless pain they had to suffer in their search; surely, this could have been avoided.
(Radha Kumar, a former interlocutor on Kashmir, is a trustee of the Delhi Policy Group)