Letter from Kashmir — From the March 2018 issue

The Great Divide

Traveling by rail through India’s disputed north

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Trains have long been intertwined with colonial ambitions in India. The British opened the subcontinent’s first railroad in 1853, a line from Bombay to Thane that hastened the export of goods to Europe. Though the railways were a commercial boon, they also provided, as the governor-general, Lord Dalhousie, wrote to London that year, “immeasurable . . . political advantages.” They “would enable the government to bring the main bulk of its military strength to bear upon any given point in as many days as it would now require months.” By 1900, the system had grown to become Asia’s largest.

Children waiting for the train at the Baramulla station

Indians, whose taxes had funded the creation of the railroads, soon began to see them as a symbol of British power. Mahatma Gandhi blamed trains for destroying local, self-sufficient economies. “Good travels at a snail’s pace,” he wrote in Hind Swaraj. “It can, therefore, have little to do with the railways.” But Gandhi’s concerns went unheard. By the time India became independent, in 1947, more than 30,000 miles of rail crisscrossed the country.

Half a century later, Kashmir would confront the same threat that Gandhi had articulated, this time from the Indian government. During the fourth war between the two countries, in 1999, Pakistani generals authorized a secret infiltration of Kargil, a mountainous city on India’s side of the Line of Control. With few roads and no rail line in the region, India struggled to send supplies and reinforcements. In just six weeks of fighting, the country lost more than five hundred soldiers.

Kashmir’s inaccessibility was a wake-up call for India’s then prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee. When he returned to New Delhi after visiting Kargil, he remarked, “We have not attacked any country in our fifty years of independence, but we have been attacked several times and lost our land. . . . We are determined not to lose our land in the future.” Preparations for a rail link in the Kashmir Valley began immediately.

In 2002, the Indian government broke ground on the railway, which it hopes will one day connect Baramulla, Kashmir’s northernmost city, to New Delhi. But despite being prioritized by Vajpayee as a “project of national importance,” construction has been plagued by a number of setbacks. For example, in 2009, a protracted dispute over gradients broke out between two private companies that had been commissioned to work on separate sections of the line. But the biggest delay by far has been due to the plan’s most ambitious feature, the Chenab Bridge: a mile-long crossing made of blast-proof steel designed to withstand both earthquakes and explosives. When completed, it will be the loftiest railway span in the world, stretching across the Chenab River at a height greater than that of the Eiffel Tower. Scheduled to be completed in 2009, the bridge is the only section of the railway still unfinished. The latest target date is summer of next year.

Undeterred by delays, Modi paid a one-day visit to Jammu and Kashmir in July 2014. Dressed in a creaseless light-blue kurta and surrounded by reporters, he stood before a steel train car strung with marigolds and inaugurated the railway’s latest link, connecting Katra to Udhampur. “Our aim is to win over the hearts and minds of the people of Jammu and Kashmir through development,” he said. The train whistled and the crowd clapped. “Soon Kashmir will be prosperous and peaceful.”

Map by Dolly Holmes

When our train pulled into the Srinagar station, two years after Modi’s speech, Kashmir did appear prosperous: crowds of people were arriving for the Amarnath Yatra, a Hindu ritual in which worshippers climb to the mountainous shrine of Lord Shiva. My hotel was just around the corner from Dal Lake, which is home to hundreds of Victorian boats, some with their own floating gardens. Shikara rowers sat by the shore, waiting to pick up tourists. When I reached the hotel, the owner offered me Kashmiri tea. “It’s all peaceful,” he said, before picking up the phone to inform another potential customer that the hotel was fully booked.

Around sunset, I met with a journalist in his fifties who has covered Kashmir for three decades. We sat barefoot in his office, sipping Mountain Dew.

I asked him what he thought about the new train. He was quick to draw a parallel to China’s rail into Tibet, which Beijing built in 2004 to gain control over its volatile region. “When the rail line is finished, Indians will feel they’ve vanquished their territory,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “Kashmiris will feel they’re still in India’s golden chains.”

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

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