(The continuous blockade of the National Highway linking Kashmir with the rest of the world in spite of the best efforts of the Border Roads Organization calls for an alternate link)
The continuous landslides taking away portions of the road has virtually cut off Kashmir by surface from the outside world. The tragedy is that it is the only link allowed at present! It would be worthwhile to recapitulate valley’s ancient links with the outside world. Historically, valley of Kashmir has always remained nestled in the bosom of the Himalaya which gave it protection from external marauders. Most of the routes from the valley to the outside world crossed high mountain passes. Historically, there have been seven routes to the valley. The Bannihal Route; the Haji Pir Route; the Jhelum Valley Route; the Havelian Route; the Pir Panjal Route; the Tos’Maidan Route; and the Tragbal-Burzil Route. The most frequented shortest mountain route was through Poonch via present Loran and Tos’Maidan. It was very highly guarded route and had two very strong forts of Lohar and Kot in Loran which housed a strong posse of Kashmiri soldiers. Even Mehmud of Ghazni in spite of laying siege to the forts for almost two months could not dislodge them and had to return from here. Alberuni who accompanied Mehmud wrote about Kashmir in his memoirs by gathering information from various travelers passing through the area. Mughals used the present Mughal Road route via Dubjan, Aliabad Sarai, Pir ki Gali, and Bafliaz. This route was also used by most of the Kashmiri kings during ancient times to mount their forays into the Indian mainland. There is an interesting story in Rajtarangni about King Mihirakula who threw down a 100 elephants in a gorge near Dubjan. While returning from an expedition to mainland one of his elephants slipped and fell into the gorge. The cruel king liked the shrieks of the elephant so much that he ordered throwing down of 100 elephants. The place is still called the Hastvanj!
Kashmir’s foreign rulers after Mughals, Afghans, Sikhs and Dogras used mostly the Jhelum Valley Route which did not involve any mountain passes and went along the Jhelum River and connected Baramulla to Domel, Muzaffarabad, Abbottabad and Rawalpindi. The Banihal Cart Road was constructed by Dogra Maharajas around 1890’s but was used only by the Royal Family. It was thrown open to public in 1922. This road used to remain closed during winter due to heavy snowfall. Even the Maharajas used the Jhelum Valley Road during winter. Apart from routes connecting Kashmir to Indian mainland, there were other routes connecting Kashmir to Chinese Turkistan and Central Asia through Zojila and Karakoram passes and Kargil-Skardu route along Indus.
The partition of the Indian sub-continent by the British creating the two countries which was accompanied by a war between India and Pakistan over the possession of Kashmir closed all routes to the valley except the Banihal Cart Road. This remained the only physical connection of the valley to the outside world. Incidentally, the partition virtually drowned the Kashmiris’ movement for freedom which they had started almost after four centuries of external slavery. Kashmiris were never a willing party to the formation of the State of Jammu and Kashmir which was clobbered together by Dogra rulers. Ladakh was annexed by the Dogra General Zorawar Singh and Kashmir valley was sold to them by the British for a paltry sum of rupees seventy five lakhs. Robert Thorp who pointed out this British cruelty in his book, “Kashmir Misgovernance” had to pay with his life! Had Kashmiris succeeded in their freedom struggle before partition they would not have formed part of the State of Jammu & Kashmir which the erstwhile Maharaja acceded to India! Well, all that is history now.
The most distressing thing is that the Indian Government after having succeeded in making State of Jammu & Kashmir as the part of the mainland even though conditionally, has failed to provide a dependable surface connection to the valley for last 70 years! Keeping this physical connection open has been a herculean effort. Every winter the road gets blocked almost after every couple of weeks or so. This winter has been an absolute nightmare! The road has remained open hardly for few days in between snowfalls and rains. The main problem has been continuous mountain side slides taking away in many places entire stretches of the road. The cause of the slides is supposed to be extensive blasting resorted to by the engineers for widening the road. Reportedly there is a plan to make it a four lane highway. In the process, we have even last the earlier two lane road!
Over past some time there is talk of extreme emotional alienation of the people of Kashmir from India. Even people like Yeshwant Sinha have claimed that India has emotionally lost Kashmir. This will be further compounded if there is physical alienation! There is urgent need to ensure an all-weather road connection to the valley. It is not a difficult proposition. The most ideal way would be to build a road over the Chenab River as the Chinese have done in Gilgit-Baltistan area of Pakistan Administered Kashmir as part of the (CPEC) China Pakistan Economic Corridor. It may be a very expensive preposition but is worth undertaking. There is need to involve some international agencies undertaking such projects. It may be mentioned that the existing road became passable round the year only after Jawahar Tunnel was built by German Engineers in early sixties of the last century. So the best thing is to get immediately some foreign road and bridge construction firms, may be even Chinese, involved in the project and ensure an all-weather motorway. It is not difficult. Here, one would like to reproduce the Border Roads Organization motto seen on Leh road. “Difficult can be done now! Impossible may take some time!” So please go ahead and do the impossible!
Mohammad Ashraf, I.A.S. (Retired) (Former Director General Tourism, Jammu & Kashmir)