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‘We need the railway and azaadi in J&K’

PM Manmohan Singh will inaugurate the yet-to-be-completed 345-kilometre train link connecting Kashmir with the rest of India today, reports Rashid Ahmad. The rail link.

india Updated: Oct 11, 2008 00:35 IST
Rashid Ahmad
Rashid Ahmad
Hindustan Times

Across the meandering route of Kashmir's new railway, there are signposts of tragedy: villages that witnessed death, rural expanses where blood was spilt in gunbattles, town squares where the young and jobless now desperately wait for a better future.

In the Valley of discontent, this is not the journey of a train - this is the story of Kashmir.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will on Saturday symbolically inaugurate the yet-to-be-completed 345-kilometre train link connecting Kashmir with the rest of India, billed as an engineering marvel.

But the journey across the mountains also runs along landmarks of the unfinished business of the blood-laced region: justice, and closure.

The entire 345-kilometre stretch is yet to be built.

The train inauguration comes after a summer of deep discontent that witnessed unprecedented protests against Indian rule.

"We need the railway as well -- after azadi (freedom)", said Mohammad Ismail Bhat, an elderly resident at Wanpoh village, the first train station, outside the separatist hub of Anantnag, 50 kilometres southeast of Srinagar.

He called it "historic" - especially because it has brought jobs to 50 local men.

The village witnessed the first communal clash between local Muslims and Pandits in March 1986, rare in then-peaceful Kashmir.

The clashes shook Kashmir. They culminated in a cycle of events that changed the destiny of Kashmir: imposition of governor's rule, elections widely perceived to be rigged, and an exodus of youth to Pakistan for militant training.

By 1990, someone else was leaving the Valley - hundreds of thousands of Pandits, Kashmir's Hindu minorities, fled after death threats and attacks.

The Ompora railway station overlooks a neighbourhood of Kashmiri Pandits who stayed back.

"We did not leave our places. We wanted to live and die with our Muslim neighbours," said local resident Manohar Lalgami.

"It (train travel) is cheaper and will save time," said Gulzar Ahmad Bhat, a college student of the nearby Botahar village.

Farther away on the track is Bijbehera, the town where 50 persons were killed and dozens of others wounded in firing by paramilitary soldiers on October 22, 1993. People were protesting the siege of Hazratbal shrine by the army to flush out militants.

"I still remember the incident. It was horrible to see BSF men directly targeting the unarmed residents," said resident Abdul Aziz Bodha. At Awantipora, the third station of the railway track, railway engineer Sudhir Kumar Pundeer was kidnapped and killed with his brother in June 2004.

Railway employees fled the project and work stopped for three months.

At the Kakapora station, pro government gunmen kidnapped and shot dead seven civilians in the nearby village of Ratnipora in May 1997.

Near the Pampore station, pro-government militants headed by Papa Kishtwari-a prominent renegade-allegedly kidnapped and killed 32 civilians in the town between 1995 and 2001. He is currently in jail facing trial.

On August 16 this year, 70-year old Nadira Beewi of Bagh-e-Mahtab, a neighbourhood near Nowgam railway station, lost her 42-year-old son Javaid, a cameraman with a local news cable TV news channel, to bullets from paramilitary soldiers as they clamped down on a separatist protest.

Javaid is survived by his 35-year-old widow and three sons aged 10 to 15 years.

"To hell with the train. Can it bring back return my son in it?" asked Beewi, tears in her eyes.

First Published: Oct 11, 2008 00:24 IST