Next year, the Indian Railways enter the 150th year of their existence. From the first 34 kilometres between Bombay and Thane in 1853, the railways have come a long way, crisscrossing the country over 62,000km and carrying 11 million passengers daily to become the world's second largest network.
By 1880, the Indian Railways boasted of 9,000km of track linking the west, east, south and north and connecting key population centres. This was to have a profound impact on India. In 1885, the first session of the Indian National Congress was held in Bombay. In no small measure, the presence of railway lines helped Indians from across the length and breadth of this country get together to decry British rule.
Historians have argued, and with ample justification, that one of the key actors in the birth of Indian nationalism was the railways as it brought together the different peoples of India. The railways took Sikhs to Madras, Tamilians to Jamshedpur and Delhi, Marwaris to Calcutta and Biharis to Bombay. The railways helped these peoples, settled miles away from their native lands, forge an Indian identity above all other identities.
It is hardly a coincidence that certain parts of India did not get the railways and would thus not be part of the growth of Indian nationalism -- for instance, Kashmir and much of the Northeast. Even today, this fact remains. And we also know that some of India's strongest secessionist movements today are in these areas while those areas connected by railways have gradually accepted the Indian identity after Independence.
Now let us consider Kashmir. India has tried in vain for over 50 years to help Indian nationalism strike roots in the Kashmir valley, but with little success. The tragic fact is that most Kashmiris in the valley would be happy to see the last of India. Alas, after thousands of innocent lives, including women and children, lost and billions of rupees spent, New Delhi is still no closer to winning the hearts of the Kashmiris than it was before.
Yet, India will not let Kashmir go. It is a fact of realpolitik, of geopolitics and the nature of states that territory is never ceded willingly. A state has to fail or suffer dramatic reversals for that to happen and India, with an improving economy, is neither foundering nor floundering. Most Kashmiris realise this. So does Pakistan, but given its internal politics, it cannot stop supporting the militants unless comprehensively defeated. Thus the situation in Kashmir is a stalemate, and innocents suffer.
The fact is that New Delhi needs to go beyond territory control to winning the hearts and minds of the Kashmiris to comprehensively defeat Pakistan. It needs to plant Indian nationalism in Kashmir even as the people continue to identify themselves as Muslims and/or Kashmiris. This is a very difficult task, but not impossible. For it, New Delhi needs to do something dramatic, something different. The Indian Army cannot do it.
All India needs to do is look beyond the Himalayas. Reports have come in about how China is planning to build a railway line across Tibet, which will link Beijing to Lhasa. No doubt there are protests from the Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama and sundry others who fear that ethnic Chinese will swamp Tibet, but these have not deterred China. Beijing knows that even if the railway line cannot forever destroy Tibetan hopes of freedom or international support for their cause, it will at least link the region to mainland China and enforce greater economic integration, which may lead to greater political cohesion, if not total unity.
Now what on earth stops the Indian government from coming up with such a project? India's expertise in building railways is among the best in the world. Why can't a broad-gauge railway line be built from Jammu to Srinagar, up to Leh in Ladakh, and looping back down to Shimla; a line that links Srinagar and other key cities of the valley to Jammu, Shimla, Delhi, and further south; a railway line that can chop hours of the travel time over roads that wind their way over the Himalayas. A railway line that can take Kashmiris right down to Bangalore to learn about infotech and Indians into the heart of the valley to visit and invest in the underdeveloped state.
If strategically this would help Indian troops reduce their dependence on the overused highways, which are susceptible to landslides and inclement weather, economically it would boost tourist traffic, the bedrock of the Kashmiri economy, and push investment. One could go on and on. No doubt building the line will be a very difficult task, but surely it will not be more difficult than the present task of policing Kashmir and guarding, not very successfully, innocent lives in scores of villages.
The battle against terrorism, as countless strategists and military generals have said, is not just a battle over territory, but over the hearts and minds of the Kashmiri people, especially the youth. It can never be won simply by trading bullets and lives, but must move beyond to win the people. Clichéd as these terms may be, they remain a reality. After 13 years of battling the terrorists, New Delhi has made little progress because it still believes in a bullet for a bullet, death for death. This has to change.
Yet, this article is not just a plea for a railway line. It is about an 'idea', about a project that can help change the situation in Kashmir, transform the nature of the battle, and alter the subject of daily headlines. It may be a railway line or something else, but it needs to get us out of the present routine of killings and more killings, of condemnation and the tragic and useless India-Pakistan rhetoric on Kashmir (since clearly both countries care little about the Kashmiris themselves).
If China can do it, why can't India?
Published in Rediff.com Sounds like good idea!