(The National Highway presently connecting Kashmir Valley to the outside world is in the throes of death and there is urgent need to find an alternative)
Kashmir valley remained cut off during the current winter a number of times. This was due to the closure of the National Highway connecting it with Jammu, the only land route presently available during winter. This is now a routine phenomenon every winter. Even during the time it is open it sometimes becomes very dangerous to travel on it as there are numerous slides. Even though the smaller ones are cleared within few hours or so the large ones take days or even weeks to get cleared. It is a continuous herculean task to keep Kashmir’s only lifeline open. This has been possible only through the efforts of the Border Roads Organisations whose men and machines are working round the clock.
A question arises as to why in this modern age of development Kashmiris are physically choked? Before one answers that question, let us examine the Valley’s historical routes to the outside world. It is a well-known geographical fact that the Kashmir Valley is a landlocked area surrounded by high mountains. While this natural barrier makes entry into and the exit from the valley difficult, it has historically been a protective barrier also. However, there has always been an easy inlet and outlet to the outside world. That is the route all along the River Jhelum downstream from the Valley. For centuries this has been the only normal access to the Valley in summer as well as in winter. Even during the Dogra rule this was the route used to go from Srinagar to Jammu and vice versa!
The other historical routes have been across the Pirpanjal range. The most famous is the route followed by the Mughals during their reign. This route has also been used by Kashmiris earlier to go to “Hindustan”! The other route in Pirpanjal which is the shortest one into the Valley is through Loran (Poonch) and Tosa Maidan. Mehmud of Ghazni tried to enter Kashmir through this route but was turned back by the Kashmiri garrison at Loran in the forts of Lohar and Kot.
On the North Eastern side are the routes through Gurez to Gilgit and across Zoji La to Drass and beyond. The Gurez-Gilgit route had a road built by the British to supply their garrison in Gilgit. The Zoji La route was the famous caravan route for trade with the Central Asia and China including Yarqand, Kashgar, and Sinkiang and so on. The Hajis from Yarqand used to go to Makkah through Kashmir. There was a Sarai of Yarqandis in Safakadal known as Kak Sarai where one could see lines of Bactrian camels (Double Humped) which used to come from Yarqand and other places. In fact, a large number of refugees from the Chinese Revolution in 1949 came from Sinkiang and Yarqand to Kashmir. They ultimately migrated to Turkey and other places. Some remained here. This route was a small branch of the famous Silk Route.
The freedom of the sub-continent from the British in 1947 opened up all areas to outside world but due to their misfortune, Kashmiris got both politically as well as physically locked up by this momentous event. One need not repeat the events which are in dozens of books but the reality needs to be stated that Kashmir’s free access to the outside world got totally blocked by the events of 1947. It was left with only one opening through the Bannihal Cart Road! No doubt this road has been upgraded and widened but an important section of the road is a virtual headache which cuts off the valley for days on end especially in winter. The ideal alternative would be to somehow open up the Jhelum Valley Road once again but unfortunately due to the uncertain and hostile situation between the two neighbouring countries that may seem a utopian dream. The dream could be realised if somehow Kashmir becomes a part of CPEC! Ultimately, India may have to become a part of the corridor for its own future economic reasons. Till that happens, the Valley needs dependable access especially during winter for its survival.
There are two alternatives which need to be put on fast track if Kashmir has to remain physically connected to the outside world especially during winter. The first is the Mughal Road and the other Simthan-Kishtwar Road. Mughal Road is an excellent road and needs only a tunnel under Peer ki Gali to make it passable throughout the winter. Similarly, Simthan-Kishtwar Road needs to have a tunnel for year round operation. Both the roads need to be declared as National Highways and upgraded. Compared to the money being spent on the present access, it is not a tall order! The only requirement is sincerity on the part of the State and the Central leadership to really and honestly ameliorate the sufferings of the Valley people especially in winter. Will they do so? That is the million dollar question and till that time the people in the Valley, due their own misfortune and the insincerity of their leaders have to suffer!
Mohammad Ashraf,I.A.S. (Retired), Former Director General Tourism, Jammu & Kashmir