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The highway of hope

After years of politics, the Mughal Road will soon be a zippy highway to Kashmir. It will change thousands of lives. It will also shape politics, reports Neelesh Misra.See Special Coverage

india Updated: Nov 25, 2008 19:01 IST
Neelesh Misra
Neelesh Misra
Hindustan Times

Dreaming big comes easy to the tiny town – hardly a town, actually – on a gutted road on the fringes of India. The road, once used to conquer Kashmir, is doing strange things to people.

Mushir Khan, a 30-year-old shop owner in Bafliaz town and a distance learning student, has graduated in English literature from the Aligarh Muslim University. Now, he is preparing for a post graduate degree in economics from the Lucknow University.

Bafliaz is located on the lower Himalayan drive from Rajouri to Poonch town. The road in front of Khan's shop is the Mughal Road, the 84-kilometre stretch of the winding highway through the mountains that Mughal emperor took more than four centuries ago to overtake Kashmir.

Nomads and bravehearts have walked down the route since, many with herds of cattle and sheep, reaching Shopiyan near Srinagar in three days.

The road is now being made motorable. By 2010, the remote and cut-off western stretches of the state like Poonch and Rajouri – currently dependent on faraway Jammu -- will be connected seamlessly to the much closer Srinagar.

"This road will change everything for thousands of people. Education, jobs, tourists -- more money for people," said Khan, standing under rows of National Conference flags in the party's stronghold.

He is chasing the degrees to prepare for the jobs that he believes the road will bring.

The road will also bring the region closer culturally to the largely anti-India Kashmir Valley and wean it away from the pro-India Jammu – perhaps a New Delhi concern that could have delayed the project.

"We'll wear the pheran, use the kangdi (Kashmiri fire pot). I want to have wazwan (Kashmiri feast) in Srinagar," said Khadim Hussain Khan, 48, as he sat behind his shop counter in Bafliaz.

Cars with posters and flags passed by seeking votes on loudspeakers. The road is an issue in local elections, with the National Conference and People's Democratic Party (PDP) both claiming credit for the resumption of the project.

It has been on the drawing board since 1974, when National Conference patriarch Sheikh Abdullah proposed it, but was apparently lost in a tug of war between New Delhi and Srinagar and local political squabbling.

Successive prime ministers have promised to make it motorable. But there was finally some movement only when then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee expedited it during Chief Minister Mufti Mohamed Sayeed's tenure in 2005, when the project was valued at Rs. 190 crores.

Work was further delayed after concerns over damage to a wildlife sanctuary. It resumed last year after clearance from the Supreme Court.

The road starts in Jhelum in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, passes through Kotli, parts of Rajouri like Chingus, Nowshehra and Bafliaz, and then enters Kashmir valley at the 14,000-feet high Peer ki Gali to reach Shopiyan.

It is invoking dreams. A grandfather and grandson in the hillside village of Banihal know what it could do.

"This road will change our lives. This will bring jobs from Delhi to Kashmir. Markets will come up here, cars will run, it will be like a dream," said 75-year-old Abdul Sattar, with sunken cheeks and a long beard.

As a young boy, Sattar saw the kabaili raiders from Pakistan-held territory who attacked the state in 1947. He lived through the two decades of insurgency when militants walked openly day and night on these roads and people lived a life sandwiched between army soldiers and militants. Now he hopes to gain from the peace over the past two years after the end of militancy in the area.

But the life he wants changed the most in his 10-member family is that of the 18-year-old man standing next to him, his grandson Manzoor Ahmed.

"I studied upto the 10th standard. I could not study any more. We are poor, you see," said Ahmed, holding a bag over his shoulders. "Maybe I will get a job in the Valley. Maybe the road will change everything for me."

First Published: Nov 11, 2008 18:59 IST