War, Terror and Hate
‘Kashmir is one of the most poorly reported stories in the world,” says award-winning British journalist Adrian Levy, whose last two books were widely discussed across South Asia. Levy was in Mumbai recently to research his fifth book, on the 26/11 terror attacks of 2008.
Levy achieved fame in India for his 2007 expose, Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Global Nuclear Weapons Conspiracy, co-authored with his journalist partner Cathy Scott-Clark. That book was about how the US knew of and encouraged Pakistan’s clandestine programme to develop a nuclear bomb and hawk it to such countries as Libya, Iran, North Korea and perhaps Saudi Arabia—as well as attempts to hook Al Qaida.
Levy will tell you stories of how Maulana Masood Azhar, the Jaish-e- Mohammad leader, is a coward, and how the ISI as well as India’s RAW and Intelligence Bureau have “real heroes” in their ranks.
Levy’s fourth book, The Meadow, (Penguin, 2012), has caused a stir in India for other reasons. It’s a riveting narrative of the sensational abduction of six foreigners in the Pir Panjal mountains of Kashmir in 1995 by an outfit called al-Faran. It presents a disturbing story. It is not only about how dirty the war in Kashmir is, but also about the catharsis that policemen like Rajinder Tikoo experienced in their revelations to Levy. In a chapter titled ‘The Game’, Levy quotes a detective: “We slandered and manipulated. We placed words into someone else’s mouth to poison friendships. We created false fronts, fictitious outfits, to commit unthinkable crimes. We tapped phones, listened in to illicit lovers and blackmailed them. There was no moral compass. The Game had absolutely no boundaries, and this was something you only came to realise (sic) once you were no longer in it. And then you would stand back, sickened by what you had done.”
In the following interview, Levy speaks of ‘the Raj’ disposition of the Kashmir Police as a result of officers drawn from other parts of India, how Indian intelligence officers lose their morality, and of being “foodless, lightless, sleepless” in Pakistan.
Q Why this interest in India and Pakistan?
A I’m really not sure why. I come from a family of emigrants and my family diaspora is spread over the world, although some of them originated from eastern Europe and then migrated during World War II as refugees to the UK. Most of them were fleeing for much of their lives—from pogroms, injustices, wars, holocausts… A huge number of my family members died, perhaps the majority.
Which means, you had a very fragmented sense of belonging—in one way. And no one place is home.
Listening to those stories as a child, of incredible escapes and terrible deaths, the thing that really struck me was that the truth (and history) are the most thrilling things: they inform fiction too. But the truth is an exceptional and powerful thing: real drama, stories of pathos, fear, love.
I’ve heard these extraordinary stories as a child, of triumphs, and escape and death. And on reflection, that’s the reason why I have always sought them out from other people. You come from this flux, a turbine of running and settling and fighting, and it means you look for like-minded people.
Half the triumph of this job is knowing how to get somewhere, and then when you arrive, to listen and know when not to talk. The opposite of TV—where it’s all about the persona of the presenter. He barks away like a ringmaster, intimidating, harassing... and no truths emerge.
Q How were your last two books received?
A All the books have been received in different ways. Every book is a child, and no one child is the same [as the other]. Not even twins. The common denominators are that the books are based on a [lot of] primary source material, interviews with normally inaccessible people... as well as archival material and real journeys. The third book [Deception] came to us because the world had changed by then. Because 9/11 had happened, America’s war against terror and George W Bush had happened. We were listening to what was coming out of America—which, to most intelligent people with knowledge of history, defied logic.
What we could see from the start was the massive destabilisation, the evoking of waves of terror and instability. That, for me was the starting point of Deception—it was an acknowledgement of one simple fact. When the [US] decision to go to war was made in 2003, there was only one country in the world that undeniably had secret stores of weapons of mass destruction and was flogging them. That country was not Iraq, it was Pakistan. Yet America was flooding Pakistan with dollars.
Someone said to me that Pakistanis dreaded reading the book because even the title looked like it was a broadside on Pakistan, but if you read the book, the deception is America’s. The grand deception was a Western Deception, and the unlevel playing field that was created for India as a result, with Delhi repeatedly whipped into joining a Non-Proliferation regime. And America had allowed Pakistan to develop and sell weapons to hotspots around the world. America in that sense had created an ‘axis of evil’ (the phrase Bush used to describe Iran, Iraq and North Korea). We tried to nail that.
That story took a large amount of time and travel, a huge number of interviews, sewn together.
The Meadow came from that. By then, I had a lot of contacts in the intelligence and police, among diplomats in India, Pakistan, America and Britain, and Afghanistan. Which meant I understood a lot more about the jihad factory, what that came from, and how radicalisation had been used by General Zia to suppress land-owning Shias in Pakistan and execute a foreign policy of undermining India.
Here was the internal and external deployment of jihad, an Islamist flux that could be directed within the country—using sectarian fronts like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba, as well as externally, using Laskhar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, HuJI, etcetera. And Kashmir became a cauldron in 1989, one that was also a theatre for the clashing tectonic plates of India and Pakistan.
All this history, I thought, let me find a way to tell it. In 1995, one of the biggest jobs I covered as a foreign correspondent was the [July 1995] kidnapping in Kashmir. Then I abandoned the idea for many years because the war was so punishing—it was hard to get anyone to talk about it. I spent a lot of time there wondering how to get the truth. There are few provable truths in Kashmir. Even street and village names are not certain. Granite roads, markets were all destroyed. There are no contiguous maps, they were removed.
Q Very contentious...
A Contentious, yeah. But that’s not the worry for a researcher. Not to do things for fear of upsetting an authority would be [shameful]. The worry is finding the right way to get people to talk freely, talking to all sides. Then the earthquake happened in 2005. And everything changed. Access to villages along the LoC was opened up. The people became emboldened, the stories of mass graves began to rise... the renegades had largely vanished , the war was at its lowest ebb, people were now meeting with nascent civil rights groups. That created a sea change.
Q And living history began to emerge.
A This is not about what’s right or what’s wrong. We know how Pakistan created a bogus war and hogtied the azaadi (freedom) movement. We know how India reeled and responded, but in the midst of all this terror, how did the people live? Some of it, I understand. The West is responsible—the nascent Al Qaida is our creation.
Q And Afghanistan?
A Yeah, we did it in the 1980s, creating that funding train. America did it, then did it again two decades later, creating a new hard-faced political identity for Islam. You can see this in the Valley. Look at how Kashmiri women began to increasingly wear the hijab in a way that’s uncharacteristic of the local community. The hijab is their response to terror—a panic room to hide inside in a conflict where unreported rape and molestation (on all sides) is endemic.
All these things led to researching The Meadow, the conflicting forces that are creating that society. The incident of the abduction became the peg to do just that, [tell the story].
I read a blog by someone about The Meadow; a nerve had been touched. He called the book ‘colonial’, said it was preoccupied with the golden lives of six Western [kidnapped] people, etcetera. But the book is an intended play on post-colonialism.
The Empire created the Kashmir crisis, yes, and then it repeats itself in other guises. Here, in Kashmir in the 1990s, you have a largely Muslim police force being ruled over by Hindu imports [in the form of police officers] from the South and Punjab. There were mutinies within the Kashmir Police, where they used guns against each other, and Muslim officers and Kashmiri IPS-cadre officers were called ‘Pakistanis’ by these blow-ins from Delhi. They, in turn were known as ‘The Raj’!
Q Did you know when you started probing the abduction that you would come up against such ugly secrets of the intelligence set-up in India?
A No, I had no idea.
Q How did you get the officers to talk?
A We first met in the 1990s. Mid-war. You go back and back and back. Nobody tells you much, then you meet families, then you build trust, you go to the communities, and then they tell you more and more. You go to the officers, and then you eat with them, breathe with them, and I found that it was actually cathartic [for some of them] who were eager to tell the truth.
The Intelligence Bureau (IB) of India played the game brilliantly. They infiltrated the Pakistan camp, turned it around and divided it. But they lost their humanity in the middle of all this, resulting in loss of the high moral ground, and anyone who did not have power was a casualty, like the six nebulous foreigners who were not children of the Home Minister, nor executives of Indian Oil Corp, and they were sacrificed in a much larger game.
These six were allowed to die to satisfy a political agenda. And the man who was at the centre of it all, Masood Azhar of the Harkat-ul-Ansar and Jaish-e-Mohammad, was later released [by India] when [Indian Airlines’] flight IC 814 was hijacked in 1999.
On that plane though were, coincidentally, very important IB officers, people with connections to the National Security Guard and Prime Minister’s Office [of the time].
And Rajinder Tikoo, former Inspector General of Police, who was the interlocutor between the Government and the militants in the 1995 kidnapping, was continually undermined. Later, he realised that while he was winning, others were ensuring that he lost. Tikoo never really recovered from that experience. A lot of people involved in it have waited for that door knock.
But why would India hobble the case? The reason was to prolong the hostage crisis, the Rao doctrine [of then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao], to highlight Pakistan’s involvement wherever, whenever... the longer the crisis continues, the longer India gets to internationalise Kashmir in the way it wants to. It was cruel and clever.
The book also attempts to show how these elements coalesce—you get the first real idea of rising Islamism—the idea of militant Islam, the grammar of a war, the beheading of Hans Christian Ostro in 1995 and the 2002 beheading of Daniel Pearl [by Azhar’s men].
Q How did you research the books?
A I’ve interviewed hundreds of people…even in Tihar jail’s most high-security cells, and people wanted to talk, asking me why no one had come before.
If you don’t ask questions, go the extra mile, search out people you fear, you may get it wrong.
The same is true of Islamists like Masood. He is nothing like he is projected: this all-powerful, deeply evil demagogue, ‘unfortunately’ held by India, tortured. But the more you get material that Pakistanis had concealed, the more you come across stories of fallibility, of greed. Masood Azhar was never tortured by Indians, for example. They only took him into the right room with the smell of torture all around him and he started to sing. I’ve interviewed the interrogators who questioned Azhar. And he betrayed the Afghani, his brilliant, brave sidekick and military commander. The Afghani was tortured and he did not break down. He was betrayed by Azhar.
In The Meadow, all of this comes together, how foreign agents of terror sowed the seeds of war and how India botched its response. What would follow is an attack on India’s Parliament, the London bombings of 2005, the liquid bombing plot of 2006—all of them involved Jaish-e-Mohammad acting as a conduit. Draw a line from The Meadow to Mumbai 2008. But it is a line that also weaves its way through State-inspired terror in Kashmir .
Q Tell us about your detention in Pakistan after Deception was published.
A I was invited to Pakistan by senior figures in the Musharraf government who had been heavily criticised in the book. I waited and negotiated and wondered, but after much cajoling, agreed—only to be pulled aside upon my arrival in Islamabad and jostled into a detention centre.
I, however, had two phones on me, one concealed and in my bag. They found one and not the other, which I used to alert everyone I knew of my detention. Many of my former contacts in the Pakistan government ignored me—not daring to cross the ISI. They kept saying, “Look, I’m really busy.”
They included some of the most senior office holders in the Pakistan Peoples Party, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N) and its break-out faction, the PML(Q). Eventually, after several days, one took the risk and made a fuss, which, in tandem with a leak to the press about my (foodless, lightless, sleepless) detention led to my being released. I still could not leave, as the same red notice stood against my name on the exit list which had me flagged as a ‘terrorist’.
However, someone I cannot name in immigration took pity on me and directed me to Karachi, where a contact got me through. One year later, Musharraf fell, and I was back in the country with Cathy, where, finally, our ‘terrorist’ status was lifted.