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Hostages to Fortune The Meadow: Kashmir 1995 – Where the Terror Began
By Adrian Levy & Cathy Scott-Clark
(HarperPress 510pp £16.99)
On 4 July 1995, a gang of armed men abducted four Western backpackers from a campsite in Kashmir known as ‘the Meadow’. One of the hostages soon escaped, whereupon the gang abducted two more trekkers. Of these five prisoners, one was later found beheaded; the others are still missing.
Using an enormous range of first-hand testimony, Adrian Levy and Cathy ScottClark have pieced together a multi-stranded narrative of the events that triggered the seizure, the military and police response, the privations endured by the hostages, the abortive negotiations with the kidnappers, the impact on the hostages’ families, and the media circus that accompanied the whole affair. The Meadow also provides a definitive end to the story, which has remained unresolved for seventeen years.
While the timeline of the hostage drama drives the book forward, the authors are careful to place developments in context within the long-running insurgency in Kashmir, explaining how Indian security forces were ranged against several types of armed militants, including local Kashmiri separatists and various factions of foreign mujaheddin, often funded by or controlled from Pakistan. It was one of these ‘guest’ jihadi outfits that snatched the Westerners. The book then explains the apparent paralysis of the Indian authorities during the abduction by showing how strategic imperatives – known locally in Kashmir as ‘the Game’ – dictated that it was in the interests of the Indian government to let the crisis ‘run long’; the longer it went on, the worse Pakistan was made to look. More coldly, the same mindset also recognised that once a ‘moral advantage’ had been gained, it was not in India’s interests to relinquish it.
Effectively, Levy and Scott-Clark accuse the Indian authorities of making no attempt to resolve the crisis, despite knowing exactly where the hostages were from a very early stage, and despite the willingness of the increasingly frustrated kidnappers, who called themselves al Faran, to abandon all their original demands and take a modest cash sum instead.
Most chilling of all is the book’s revelation that, after five months, al Faran passed on the hostages to another insurgent group, who had been ‘turned’ the previous year and were now working for the Indians. By this point the Game also dictated that it was in no one’s interests to release the dishevelled foreigners: the permanent value of their disappearance was more helpful to India’s cause than their release by merciful captors, or even their rescue by brave Indians. The miserable, frozen hostages may also have seen and heard too much by then, and they were shot by their guards on 23 December 1995.
The book relies on a great deal of circumstance and inference to support this version of events. For example, the where, when and how of the hostages’ death come from just one informant. The authors are generally much stronger on accusations about ‘somebody, somewhere’ than they are on solid proof, though this is not unsurprising within Kashmir’s chaotic world of ‘traitors, proxies and informers’, where everything is deniable. What gives the book a compelling authority, however, is that its conclusions are corroborated from within the Indian establishment itself – from the Jammu and Kashmir
Read online: www.literaryreview.co.uk police’s own files, amplified by the suspicions of several senior officers central to the drama, who have contributed interviews to the book. What we have here is not anti-Indian chowk chatter; it is a meticulous, cold-case investigation based on a mountain of official paperwork, revitalised by a key layer of new testimony. Levy and Scott-Clark have dared to follow the pitiless logic of a very dirty war, and have shown where it can lead.
As an investigation The Meadow is detailed and focused; as a book, though, it is a tad confused about itself, repeatedly mixing banal and serious material. Is it hard reportage to be read as history, or an extended Sunday supplement piece about the impact of terrorism on its otherwise unremarkable victims? It even boasts, as announced on its cover, to have traced the beginnings of ‘modern terrorism’ to events in the Meadow that summer. This is scarcely tenable, and the book spends little effort trying to justify the claim, apart from listing the subsequent crimes of Masood Azhar, the Pakistani Islamist radical whose freedom the hostage takers tried unsuccessfully to secure.
Furthermore, as if unaware of its own subtitle, the book thoroughly chronicles two previous (also unsuccessful) attempts by the parent group behind al Faran to spring Masood Azhar by kidnapping Westerners. The beheading of one of the backpackers in 1995 certainly marked a new low in ‘religious’ terrorism, but the cover seems to ignore the authors’ central finding – namely that it was a maverick militia, nominally aligned with India, that actually killed the other four hostages. In fact The Meadow has very little to say about terrorism itself, and is much sharper about the moral corruption of nation-states involved both in fighting it as a matter of self-preservation and in promoting it to further national interests.
The Meadow is a gripping and often emotional read: the improvised notes secretly dropped by the hostages are heartbreaking, both in their desperate tone and in their ultimate futility. Few were read at the time by anyone able to understand them. Worse, no one ever came to rescue their unfortunate authors. To order this book for £13.59, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 9
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