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Current Affairs ( 18 Oct 2008, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Kashmir: Manmohan Singh rolls in Vajpayee’s train; the dream of a united, integrated India brightens but snags remain

Vajpayee's train rolls in
By Iftikar Gilani

Kashmiris love trains and may soon hold a rail roko demanding greater frequency of services. Now, that's one demonstration Delhi would welcome

Three decades ago, my grandmother, while on her way to perform Hajj, asked her companion to take her to Delhi Railway Station. She just had to see a train. To any Kashmiri, the sight of a train clattering on rails was a wonder on earth. So, most visitors to Delhi from the Valley made it a point to make a trip to Delhi railway station to see a train with their own eyes. For over a century, Kashmiri labourers working all over India returned home full of stories about the iron horse.

Now, thanks to the vision and initiative of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the determination of Manmohan Singh, the railways are set to become a permanent fixture of Kashmiri life.

There is no overstating the role of the railways in integrating India. In fact, there is reason to believe that the railways had a bigger role than the civil services and Army in weaving India's various societies and cultures into a common fabric. Kashmir was the missing link for all these years. But, on October 11, all that become history when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flagged off the first train to leave the newly constructed Nowgam station. The train will initially ply between Srinagar and Anantnag and later connect the Valley with Jammu and thence, the rest of India.

It is widely believed that since secessionism in Kashmir is largely fed by rhetoric over "denial" and "marginalisation", the coming of the railways would effectively put the separatists out of business. Poor communication has always bedevilled Kashmir. Till the third quarter of the 19th century, the Valley was a road transportation hub for mule caravans moving from Amritsar to Yarkand.

After partition, the region was left with just one lifeline, and a rather tenuous one at that, the Pathankot-Jammu-Srinagar national highway. Not only does it get clogged up by snows and land slides, a large part of it is exposed to visiting Pakistani ordinance -- as seen in Kargil. This led to the implanting of a prisoner mindset in the Kashmiri people and led to the creation of mental distance between the Valley and the plains that only increased over the years. It also prevented the full exploitation of Kashmir's tourism potential. Air travel was the dominant form of travel into Kashmir because the other option, the Jammu to Srinagar, was a bumpy experience.

Lack of proper communications also prevented Kashmir's economy from benefiting from globalisation and liberalisation. Crops like apricot, apple, saffron, cherries and nuts have huge market potential provided they are transported cheap and fast to the mainland and from there to international markets. The flowers of Kashmir have the potential of making a big hit outside the state. So, the pining for the railways was not just a prestige issue, but an economic one as well.

Once the people begin to benefit from the economic gains of having a railways, they would feel more Indian than before. A fully integrated train service could would address the besieged mindset of the Kashmiris and empower them to give a thumbs-down to the secessionists.

Rail services in Kashmir were the brainchild of the British. In January 1886, the British Resident in the court of the Maharaja of Kashmir spoke of permanently stationing a British garrison in Srinagar as it was not possible to rush troops to the Valley on emergencies. The Dogra Maharaja met the British Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, and requested a contribution of Rs 60,000 for a railway project that could ensure better movement to the British troops. Nothing, however, came of this. By the time Vajpayee announced his government's commitment to the 345-km-long Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramula Railway Link (USBRL), in 2003, the people had grown quite cynical of such promises. After all, the foundation stone that he laid on a bridge on the River Jhelum, was the fifth since 1983.

Vajpayee declared the USBRL a "national project" and set a tough deadline for its completion -- August 15, 2007. The construction of the railway posed a huge challenge to railway engineers. But, by then, Indian Railways had accumulated vast experience in constructing impossible lines.

It was decided to divide USBRL into four phases and de-link operations from construction. Over the next four years, one saw tunnels being bored through mountains of great heights and some of the highest railway stretches in the world being laid. The Chenab bridge, for instance, is now recognised as the highest in the world placed at an altitude 35 metres higher than the tip of the Eiffel Tower. The work progressed under the protection of the Indian Army and the first stretch, a 55-km line between Jammu and Udhampur, was inaugurated on April 13, 2005.

Critics opine that nothing would be achieved by having a partial network because presently it is actually just a service within the Valley. It doesn't really take the Valley person to the world beyond Kashmir. It is at best a Qazigund, the first town after crossing the Banihal Mountains, to Srinagar. But this discounts the huge psychological impact of the project. Already, demands are being voiced for increasing the frequency of the trains. Some people are expressing their frank views on how much economical travel has become within the Valley. It's goodbye to traffic jams and hello to a clean environment.

Railways authorities say laying tracks between Udhamopur to Qazifund was a challenging task but not impossible after the Konkan Railway experience. The 780-km Mumbai to Mangalore link was on similar terrain. The USBRL track goes over 106 major and 227 minor bridges. More than one-fourth of the total Rs 12,000 crore outlay for the project goes into tunnel construction. The entire route has 81 tunnels of various sizes, one of them being 10 km long, the longest in the world.

The first 54-Kms. stretch connecting Jammu with neighbouring Udhampur was taken up by the Rajiv Gandhi government. The initial estimate was for Rs 56 crore. Eventually, it was completed in 2005 at a cost of Rs 450 crore. The Narasimha Rao government cleared the extension of the track beyond Udhampur in March 1995 and the Planning Commission was directed to allocate funds for the project outside the railways plan. The 25.2-Km Udhampur-Katra stretch was taken up by Railways in 1997. Given that around five million devotees visit the revered shrine of Mata Viashnu Devi, this could be the most important station.

The 137-Km-long Katra-Qazigund section is proving to be the acid test for the engineers. The challenge that this part throws up may be appreciated against the backdrop that so far only the tentative estimation of costs have been made. The line has to pass through hilly terrain with untenable geological formations, parts of which fall in Seismic Zone IV and the area has witnessed 11 major earthquakes between 1828 and 1980. "There will be 81 tunnels equal to 52 per cent of the total length -- one 10-Kms. long cutting through Pir Panchal to enter Qazigund and another of 7 Km. piercing through Patni Top", said one engineer.

It is this challenge that had apparently made Railways to invite IRCON and Konkan Railways Corporation to execute this part. While Konkan have got the initial 90 Km., IRCON has constructed the 47 Km-long Loaley to Qazigund stretch. Konkan offers enough inspiration to planners who are bending rocks to use for coach manufacture. But, the engineers believe the challenge in this stretch lies in handling the landslides.
-- The writer is a noted columnist on Kashmir issues



Past bloody, future perfect?

By Khursheed Wani


When Manmohan Singh inaugurated the 'railway in Kashmir' many hoped that the next logical step, 'railway to Kashmir' will help sew up the dream of a united, integrated India in the near future


Rail ek bahana hai, Kashmir wapas lana hai, was the headline in a prominent Urdu daily in Srinagar, a day before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived to get a feel of the ground situation after the 'resistance movement' got renewed lately.


The inauguration of the first train in Kashmir was more seminal than symbolic. After many weeks of protests over azadi which centred around the Amaranth issue and led to police battling separatists on the streets of Srinagar, the railway project provided the Prime Minister an opportunity to offer a 'gift' to initiate reconciliation.


Though a railway link between the Valley and Jammu had been on the drawing board for more than a century, it was the pragmatism of Atal Bihari Vajpayee that got it off the ground. In 2003, a year after successfully holding the first-ever clean election in J&K, Vajpayee announced that a railway line would be ready by August 15, 2007. Though there has been a year's overrun, the inauguration of a part of the whole project has sent a subtle message. New Delhi is now saying that despite the odd incident, it would seriously pursue the long-term development of Kashmir Valley. The political message of the event, too, was in sync with the Prime Minister's oft-repeated assertion that borders would not be redrawn or redefined.


This time, the Prime Minister's Kashmir valley visit had a broader context. In fact, the train became a metaphor for the peace process and its symbolic inauguration was actually an attempt to bring the dialogue back on track. The controversial decision of transferring 39.88 hectares of forest land to the Shri Amaranth Shrine Board, subsequently mishandled by the then Ghulam Nabi Azad-led coalition government, saw the state of Jammu and Kashmir divided on communal and regional lines. Even if a forceful agitation in Kashmir compelled the government to withdraw the order, a sustained reaction-agitation in the Hindu-dominated parts of Jammu forced the authorities to restore it again, though in a modified way.


The restoration of land transfer order as also the alleged economic blockade of the Valley subsequently brought the Kashmiris back on the streets. All through August, thousands of people protested on the streets. They marched towards Muzaffarabad, attended the funeral of a slain Hurriyat conference leader or demonstrating before the United Nation's Military Observer (UNMOGIP) office, the anti-India demonstrators showed no signs of let-up.


When separatist leadership announced 'Lal Chowk chalo' programme for August 25, the authorities cracked down. The severest-ever curfew was imposed throughout the Valley with strict instructions to the security forces to observe shoot-at-sight. Some two dozen were killed and more than 500 injured during the period of curfew. For the first time in the history of Kashmir, the newspapers could not hit the stands for a week due to unprecedented curfew restrictions.


A lull in September due to the holy month of Ramadhan ended on October 5, a week before the arrival of Prime Minister. Once again, the authorities imposed a curfew on the entire Kashmir valley to thwart the separatists' plans to renew processions. A two-day curfew was clamped, whereas the separatists had called for only a day's protest. Clearly, the government was taking no chances. The curfew was lifted only when the separatists asked the people to resume their routine work.


An impression circulating in the Kashmir Valley is that the PM's 'train gift' was linked to the initiation of a political process and setting the state in election gear. Four days before the PM's visit, the five-member team of the Election Commission led by the Chief Election Commissioner, A.Gopalaswamy, had assessed the situation in the valley. The conflicting assessments of the CEC and the PM came to the fore on October 14, when the poll schedule was withheld for Jammu and Kashmir indicating the deferment of the elections.


The 'train in Kashmir' is a prelude to original 'train to Kashmir' project conceptualised to integrate Jammu and Kashmir more with India than ever before. From introducer IK Gujral to Atal Bihari Vajpayee who infused life in the Rs 5,500 crore projects by liberal funding and making it time-bound, the flagship railway project had always been on the priority list of New Delhi.


From the tedious task of land acquisition to the import of rakes through the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway on specially designed trucks, there were many slips between the cup and the lip. Even more unforgettable is the July 2004 killing of IRCON engineer Sudhir Kumar Pundeer and his brother who were kidnapped by militants from a south Kashmir site. Despite these hiccups the project rolled on.


The separatists may put forward an argument that the railway in Kashmir is more targeted to help security forces than the ordinary people and the plan is a replica of China's integration mechanism adopted in Tibet.


But the fact remains that the partial accomplishment of the project was due to the support offered by the common people. The railway project gave birth to a new crop of contractors who engaged hundreds of local labourers to supplement the outside manpower. The flow of money through the railways can be sensed in the areas adjacent to the railway tracks and the stations. Signs of affluence are writ large on the edifices that have come up there and the lifestyles of the people.


But for a design lacunae, which resulted in tunnel seepage and alignment problems in some of the bridges, the deadline could have been met. Manmohan Singh got a nice collection for his personal photo-album, what with colourful scenes of the flagging off at Udhampur and Nowgam. The complete rail connection would remain stuck at least for another decade in the treacherous mountains between Katra in Jammu and Qazigund in the Valley.


If the outrageous youngsters in Kashmir are pacified in the days to come and the Valley situation is normalised, the Kashmir train would, at best, become a tourist attraction and a facilitator of greater economic prosperity. This, therefore, is the mother of all CBMs.

-- The writer is The Pioneer's Srinagar correspondent



Railways? OK, but azadi first

By Azam Inquilabi


Manmohan Singh would be deluding himself if he thinks that the Kashmiris will forget about self-determination -- now is the time to take things forward


Kashmiris, as a part of the global civil society, would like to be as prosperous, happy and free as any nation in the world. By nature they are peace loving and want to excel and surpass other nations in activities relating to education, information, trade and commerce. Alas, despite all their innate urges to achieve distinction in temporal activities, they find themselves helpless and hapless due to the continued state of uncertainty caused by the political upheaval within and the unrest that has overwhelmed the surrounding neighbours--India and Pakistan.


Facilitating rail service within Kashmir Valley is a part of the economic activity here. People do approve of the plan to create rail connectivity within the Valley. Beautifying Kashmir by providing the amenities on economic, educational and social front is all right.


However, the process of beautification is regarded by the people as a camouflage used by New Delhi to neutralise the uprising in Kashmir. So, it was mockery of sorts to see the Indian Prime Minister arriving in Srinagar to inaugurate the train service amid curfew and shootings that resulted in the deaths of two youngsters, both breadwinners for their families.


Four months back, nobody would have even thought about the sudden volcanic eruption of sentiments over the efforts of the former Jammu and Kashmir, Governor Lt.-Gen (retd) SK Sinha, to facilitate transfer of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board. Basically, the people, especially youngsters, were looking for an occasion to give vent to their pent-up feelings. Kashmir is a disputed area. Both India and Pakistan are contending parties to the Kashmir dispute and promised a plebiscite in Kashmir. The Kashmiri right to self-determination was guaranteed by the two UN resolutions, viz August 13, 1948 and January 5, 1949.


Due to UN dereliction, the Kashmir front situation became complicated and complex, to the extent of confounding the world. India reneged on its commitment to honour the UN resolutions. If a train service and economic packages of the size of Rs 24,000 crore are aimed to compensate the refusal of right to self-determination, then the Kashmiris have already rejected them and would reject such moves in future as well. We know the Indian betrayal (on UN resolutions) triggered off political cataclysm and upheaval in Kashmir. Kashmiris, through democratic modes of agitation tried their utmost to make India realise the exigency of a peaceful settlement of the Kashmir issue. They also kept Kashmiri aspirations in mind.


The Indian rulers tried to suppress the resistance movement of the Kashmiris using all means and methods of oppression. During the past six decades, thousands of Kashmiris were martyred by Indian soldiers. Thousands more were tortured in interrogation centres. Their maimed and mutilated bodies are testimony to the fact that India wants to enslave Kashmir using every form of repression and ferocity. Pakistan, as party to the Kashmir issue, has a role to play in neutralising the nefarious designs of Delhi's hawks to strangulate Kashmiris completely. Literally, a tussle is going on in Kashmir between Kashmiris and the surrounding powers that want to make a cat's paw of the Kashmiris for their national aggrandisement.


Therefore, the Kashmiris find themselves on the receiving end. Kashmir is benumbed and Kashmiris are looking aghast. They feel sceptical of Pakistan as well. Slogans of Atoot ang (Indian) and Shah rag (Pakistani) have crushed Kashmiri aspirations for azadi. Presently, the Kashmiris are serious in emphasising a subjective and assertive stand regarding the future dispensation of Kashmir. They are craving for the demolition of the Line of Control (the Berlin wall as they call it). They want reunification of the two parts of Kashmir. They are suggesting the installation of a single parliament through a genuine, democratic process patronised by the UN or the OIC. Eventually, the Kashmir Parliament would determine the nature of relations with India and Pakistan. Only then would lasting peace follow.


The people regard the opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road as a viable confidence building measure. But cosmetic trade won't work. There should be free movement of goods, people and ideas across the LoC (as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has already suggested in his official policy statements). This would persuade the Kashmiri militants to adopt a democratic mode of struggle for the realisation of their dream as freedom zealots. If India and Pakistan are serious about eradicating the ogre of violence from the Indian sub-continent, then both should be prompt in encouraging the democratic resistance movement of Kashmir, which could replace ultra-ism which the "hardliners" bank on.


It is time to rectify the wrongs and address the Kashmir imbroglio with political acumen and wisdom characteristic of a prudent statesman. Do not underestimate the resolve of the Kashmiris to take on the powers around. Try to befriend the Kashmiris by honouring their freedom aspirations.


Procrastination and transient measures are no answer to the crisis here. Let wisdom prevail on all concerned.

-- The writer is a Hurriyat leader