Letter from Kashmir — From the March 2018 issue

The Great Divide

Traveling by rail through India’s disputed north

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Like most things in Kashmir, the Baramulla railway station is surrounded by barbed wire, Indian Army bunkers, and frost-tipped mountains that, at sunset, look bloodstained and haunted. When I walked into the station in July 2016, I was stopped by a group of Indian soldiers armed with AK-47s who demanded to know what I was doing in Baramulla, a town just thirty miles from the Line of Control that has divided the disputed region between India and Pakistan since 1972. I told them I was a journalist, working on a story about the construction of India’s first rail line into Kashmir. They waved me through. “The train is a very good project,” one of the soldiers told me as I walked onto the platform.

At half past noon, the 10:50 southbound to Srinagar announced itself with a long baritone whistle. Hundreds of passengers rushed off the cars as the soldiers prodded them with wooden batons. I found a spot by the door. As the train began to pick up speed, a group of young boys jumped aboard, blasting Punjabi music from their phones.

A southbound train departing from Baramulla station, the beginning of the line in northwestern Kashmir. Photographs from Kashmir by Sara Hylton. This project was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

A lanky twenty-year-old named Sayeed Ahmad crouched beneath a window. Ahmad, who was from the village of Budgam, had spent the day picnicking with his friends. Like many young men and women in Kashmir, he regarded the Indian Army as an occupying force. He described how, every Friday after prayers, he would pelt the soldiers with stones. “They beat us,” he said. He took off his light-green polo to show me a scar on his shoulder. It looked like a purple worm. “We are forced to take up the gun.”

“We want liberation from India,” said his friend, twenty-two-year-old Sameer Ahmad. The train shook and the windows began to rattle. “Pakistan is the best. They are our Muslim brothers.”

Many of the younger Kashmiris on the train were born in the Nineties, as thousands of Pakistanis were slipping across the border to join militant groups such as the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front and Hizbul Mujahideen. At one time, there were more than sixty such organizations, some fighting for an independent Kashmir, others insisting that the region, where some ninety percent of residents are Muslim, become part of Pakistan. Unlike their parents, who grew up in a time when the leaders of Kashmir’s separatist movement were proponents of nonviolence, this generation has been inspired by young fighters who share posts and videos calling for armed resistance to Indian rule. “Students here, they will take up a gun instead of a pen now,” said my translator, a twenty-five-year-old photographer named Khurshid Ahanger. They’ve grown up seeing India “through the barrel of a gun.”

As our train crawled toward Srinagar, I huddled near an open window to catch a breeze, watching the emerald fields swirl in the distance. A young boy dressed in white leaned out the window. “I feel like a king here,” he told me with a shy smile. He’d moved to Kashmir with his family from Uttar Pradesh, a Hindu-majority state. (Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came into power in 2014, there has been a marked rise in the number of attacks against Muslims in India. According to Amnesty International, at least ten Muslim men were publicly killed over a three-month period last year.)

We pulled into the Srinagar station. Mothers on the platform were fanning flushed babies. Young boys attempted to climb on top of the already full train as the conductor blew the whistle. Army officers beat them back with batons.

“Every time it’s like this,” a soldier said to me as I got off the train.

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lives in New York City. This article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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