Budgam: More than 70,000 kms of a rail track which links the entire country could somehow never make its way to Kashmir. Now when it has, we take a look at what it means to the people of the Valley. Another interesting aspect to look into is track diplomacy. Read on...
An Object of Wonder
The entire rail track will take over a decade to complete, but for the people of Kashmir, it is already a mixture of excitement and wonder.
In a country with one of the world's largest rail networks, these are people who have rarely seen a train. But the wheels of change are moving slowly. As the trial run reaches Panchgam, an eager crowd gathers to welcome it. Many have walked for miles to see this coach. And for some, like 70-year old Mohamad Yousuf Wani, it's love at first sight.
He can't believe that anything on two wheels can be this large and accomodate hundreds of passengers.
A resident of Dogripura, Abdul Dar says, Kashmir has never seen a rail. It has come here for the first time and is supposed to be both fast and efficient. People are celebrating. Many of us have not seen a train before. Some people have not even slept in the excitement."
Children wave and stare, but it's eventually left to the parents to ask the curious questions.
A resident of Budgam, Abdul Hamid says, "People are wondering how does it run as there is steering wheel in the hands of the driver, how does it stop, when it moves in one direction the driver is there, then it moves in the opposite direction but how can the driver change directions."
For rail workers like Parshotam Singh, sometimes the crowd's excitement can get difficult to handle.
"Whenever there is a trail run, a huge number of people gather to watch. They have never seen a train before and they try and wave their hands to stop it, or sometimes stand close to the track. They think it's like a bus and will stop by waving hands," says he.
The line from Udhampur to Jammu has been operational since April 2005, and the part of the line from Anantnag to Budgam is to be flagged off soon. The Nowgam station, the biggest in the Kashmir Valley, is getting its final touches, and it is here that many are looking forward to their first train journey.
The economics and excitement aside, one wonders whether this train will ever serve a strategic purpose. Will it be able to bridge the psychological and political divide?
Throwing Open Kashmir
At present, the Kashmir Valley is linked by just one road - National Highway 1A, which is itself blocked for many days during winter. Will the rail link end Kashmir's geographic and political isolation? Political parties say yes, and no.
Chairman People's Conference, Sajjad Lone says, "There will be an economic impact, yes, but a political impact - no. Nothing short of political deliverance would compensate. Tracks and trains would not help. It has to be hardcore politics."
However, PDP President, Mehbooba Mufti says, "I forsee that with the train, we can take go to other places too. We will be centrally located and if we want to throw open Kashmir to the world and to Central Asia and other places, the train will help us do it."
Political analysts in the Valley say the link will have more subtle political and psychological effects, since it will make the Valley more accessible.
Vice-Chancellor Jammu University, Amitabh Mattoo says, "If you see a rail link as a symbol of channels of communication, it will have an impact in defusing the kind of vision that petty political actors have. It will open Kashmir psychologically and strategically."
Separatists like the Chairman of the Hurriyat Conference, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, see the line as a devious move to strengthen India's hold on Kashmir.
He calls it a planning of the Indian imperialism.
"This is India's cultural aggression. People of Kashmir are being ruled by India and they want freedom. They do not attach any importance to such works," says he.
However, his is not a position analysts take very seriously.
Amitabh Mattoo says, "It is absurd to believe to that rail link will be an Indian control. It will be economically strategic for the people of Kashmir. Kashmir will open up. If there are people who want to isolate the Valley, then they live in cloud cuckoo land. The Valley and its people deserve to reach out to the globe."
This rail link will be the begining in many ways, perhaps also the journey of the entire region towards a better tomorrow. For now, the people can only hope that the project does not suffer any more delays. The wait already has been far too long.