IN THE SUMMER OF 1995, six trekkers were abducted by armed gunmen in the mountains of Kashmir, a few hours walk from the tourist town of Pahalgam. Just days after the kidnapping, one of the men, an American, had managed a daring solo escape, raising hope all around. Five weeks later, it all took a grotesque turn when the headless torso of Hans Christian Ostrø, a young Norwegian, turned up in a forest glade, the words “al-Faran” carved on his chest in letters 10 inches high. The search for the other four carried on for most of a year, but the two Britons, the American and the German were never found.
From the start, this was a story that gripped the imagination of the Western press. This shocking—and rare—brutality against foreign tourists played a critical part in shaping the international perception that Kashmir was in the grip of ‘Islamic terrorism’, a broad brushstroke that would soon be deployed to smear a range of diverse, complex issues.
The dogs of war had been unleashed in the Kashmir valley following the outbreak of the 1990 rebellion against Indian rule. The Indian military remained singlemindedly focused on crushing the armed insurrection and beating into submission an increasingly restive population that was asking for no less than azadi, freedom. The news of the beheading came as a timely distraction from the ongoing bloodshed in that benighted valley. Al Faran—a group unheard of before this incident—successfully drew attention away from the 6,000 people who were killed in Kashmir that year. Officially described as the body count of ‘terrorist-related’ incidents, the death toll was really the outcome of a ruthless military offensive by India, but one that was played out under wraps. Ostrø’s mutilated body, and the anxious, endless search for the other men, rapidly stanched a growing international acknowledgement that what Kashmir was witnessing was an uprising against India.