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Not All Roads Lead to Kashmir

Rail station at Banihal, Indian Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir

After spending a day researching in the National Archives of India recently, I reached out to my friend, excited about what I found. Despite the clear military and fiscal advantages of the construction of a railway line leading westward out from the Kashmir Valley, along the Jhelum River to Abbottabad, the Maharaja’s Court, or Darbar, insisted on a much more dangerous and expensive line, leading through the treacherous Banihal Pass southward, connecting the state’s summer capital of Srinagar to its winter capital of Jammu. The engineer assigned to survey both routes in 1903, W. J. Weightman, slammed the Maharaja’s preference as “sentimental” and lacking “sound practical advice,” which supports the argument of my research that the emotional resonance of Kashmir has shaped its history.

My heart then plummeted when I checked the news and saw that there was a landslide on May 19th that struck a tunnel under construction in Ramban along the same route connecting Jammu and Srinagar, killing ten workers. This is at a location not uncommon to such tragedies, marked by its infamous local characterization as “khooni nallah,” or bloody stream. When discussing the tragedy with my friend, she helped me realize that when a historian witnesses historical forces in action, temporalities collapse, and continuities become clearer across this threshold of time. The national borders of this mountainous region may have changed, but the geographical realities have remained the same. It appears that the symbolic importance of this route continues to outweigh practical concerns today, just as it did during the era of the British Empire and its paramountcy over the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Outside the North-Western Railway Company and the British Government of India Military Department, Weightman found few allies among British political officers in his preference for the Abbottabad line. From the Resident in Kashmir, to officials in the Foreign Department, all the way up to the Viceroy Lord Curzon, British officials concurred with the Maharaja’s desires for a railway connection between his two capitals. Even when rejecting Weightman’s characterization of the Maharaja’s interest in the Banihal Route as purely sentimental, Louis W. Dane, Resident in Kashmir, and later Secretary to the Government of India in the Foreign Department, explained that the importance of the Banihal Line would be powerfully symbolic for the political integration of the state. This was despite the fact that most of the trade and traffic leading into Kashmir went through the far more gradual incline of the route running East-West along the Jhelum River. The Darbar, with their allies among British political officers, continued to issue surveys of the two routes in hopes they would provide sufficient justification for paving the way for a connection between Jammu and Srinagar.

Eventually, however, the geographic obstacles facing the proposed Banihal Route proved too much to overcome. Engineer after engineer, surveyor after surveyor, explained to the Darbar and British officials that the Banihal route would be extremely dangerous, difficult to maintain, and prohibitively costly. In a similar spirit, the Railway Company and Military Department championed the profitability and strategic benefit of the far easier Jhelum route to Abbottabad. As such, the plan to construct the Banihal route was abandoned, a conclusion which Dane saw as a “pity.”

To some observers, particularly the engineers, the Darbar seemed resigned to the circumstances. To more canny contemporaries, such as Dane, who knew the Darbar better, the Maharaja seemed to be playing the long game, stalling to prevent the construction of a line along the Jhelum connecting his state to British India, eroding his state’s autonomy amid the inevitable influx of travelers who would follow it. Because the line would need to be constructed in both British and Kashmir territory, the Railway would not begin construction on its line until the Darbar began work on theirs, as the former would be useless without the latter. Both sides settled into this stalemate for some time. The Darbar put up various objections, citing the need for more surveys of the route, with each survey increasing the estimated cost of the project. Finally, in 1907, the Darbar concluded that they did not have the money for such a route and did not desire to take a loan for it, despite Dane’s judgement that they possessed more than enough funds.

Railway companies nevertheless undertook surveys at their own expense to try to convince the Darbar of the merit of the construction of a link between Kashmir and British India. Lamenting that “the great handicap under which the Valley of Kashmir at present labours is its inaccessibility,” Forbes, Forbes, Campbell & Co., Ltd., conducted a preliminary survey of the routes in 1919, only to find that the cost of such a proposed project had again continued to rise in the meantime. As the report also foreshadowed, however, the ongoing Third Anglo-Afghan War demonstrated that air traffic would soon suffice for bringing visitors to the Kashmir Valley for their holiday travels. Though an air connection would not be adequate or profitable for economic connections in and out of the Valley, which caused it to suffer from a lack of economic development in subsequent years, the airway link satisfied the needs of the tourist interest in Kashmir that has so long dominated the Valley’s relationship with the outside world. As a result of the Maharaja’s successful stalling, the railway connection to British India was abandoned as no longer necessary. The Maharaja, so often maligned by British officials as an incompetent, conversely achieved his goal of either building a line between his two capitals or building none at all.

What the historical record shows us is that the considerations behind road construction go beyond mere numbers regarding trade and troop movements. The current construction of the Jammu-Srinagar highway through the Banihal Pass cannot be boiled down to such statistics or rational explanations, and the intangible motivations behind such a project have a much broader political complexity linked to efforts to promote state integration and unity. These efforts to penetrate the state into the high Himalayas can also be traced directly to the broader present-day mania for road construction in the region by not just India but also China. They are important efforts to support the national project by enhancing the central government’s control over regions formerly only loosely connected under its authority. This authority is not only exemplified in the promotion of economic development and state security, but also by promoting the idea of the nation in the minds of the region’s inhabitants. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, argued that the construction of colonial railways was a crucial step in cultivating a shared sense of Indian nationalism and civilization, and current efforts at road construction in these inhospitable regions can be located along this same historical continuity.

Mahnaz Ispahani argued in her study Roads and Rivals that though economic development and state security are commonly seen as separate issues, they are instead often intertangled. Using this case of road construction in Kashmir, I have built on this argument by adding that these frameworks also need to consider political considerations of the emotional resonance these roads can cultivate for the purposes of national integration. What this historical example also demonstrates, however, is that the geographical complications behind such route-building remain obstructive. The challenges posed by physical geography will continue to make contemporary road construction in the Himalayan region difficult despite advances in technology and the will of political imperatives behind it. The Banihal Pass remains as dangerous as it did over a century ago, as the recent landslide at Ramban has so tragically shown us.