Hum kya chahte? Azaadi! (What do we want? Freedom!) - a popular chant in Indian-Occupied Kashmir

In 2002, the Indian state launched a “high-priority" national project to build the first rail line that would connect India’s capital city, New Delhi, to Baramulla, a city on the northern tip of Indian-occupied Kashmir. The 345 kilometre Jammu-Baramulla line, also known as the “Kashmir Railway Project,” has been under construction for the past 16 years and is yet to be completed. Larkin (2013:329) writes that infrastructures “are objects that create the grounds on which other objects operate, and when they do so they operate as systems.” In the case of the Jammu-Baramulla line, the ongoing construction of the railway infrastructure is one part of a multi-pronged strategy that seeks to enable a particular mapping of the region. For India, the rail infrastructure is a means to further consolidate itself as a nation-state: building material infrastructures on Kashmiri territory facilitates the blurring of boundaries between the independent state of India and the occupied territory of Kashmir, which the state claims is an “integral part of India”. For Kashmiris, however, the rail line is another manifestation of a brutal occupation that constantly penetrates and haunts their territory. The Indian occupation has turned Kashmir into the most militarized zone in the world — where there is roughly one armed Indian soldier for every 20 civilians.

Photo Credit: Early Times

The occupation’s roots can be traced back to the Partition of 1947, when the two states of India and Pakistan emerged along religious divides as the subcontinent gained independence from British colonizers. At the eve of independence, Kashmir was India’s largest princely state and was ruled by a Hindu Maharaja even though the population was majority Muslim with a small Hindu (Pandit) minority. Initially Maharaja Hari Singh did not accede to either India or Pakistan, but the rise of local resistance against him and the arrival of several thousand Pathan tribesmen from one of Pakistan’s provinces into Kashmir led Singh to accede to India on the condition that the Indian state would help him defend his territory. While Singh claimed that his accession was “conditional on the will of the people being ascertained as soon as law and order was restored,” his decision was immediately disputed by Pakistan and led to the first Indo-Pakistan war only two months after independence (Kazi 2007:47). A ceasefire was supervised by the United Nations and several resolutions were put forth urging the governments of both Pakistan and India to hold a plebiscite that would help determine the will of the Kashmiri people. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru promised that he would hold a plebiscite, but over the next few years several justifications and legal mechanisms were used to completely rule out a plebiscite. By 1956, Indian jurisdictional authority over Kashmir had basically become permanent (Kazi 2007: 46-47).

Kashmir was thus ironically occupied by India while the rest of the continent was experiencing waves of decolonization as it gained independence from the British. Kashmiri scholar and writer Mohamad Junaid (2013:172) explains how the occupation of Kashmir is at its core a struggle over land. He writes in Death and Life under Occupation: Space, Violence and Memory in Kashmir that, “since the occupation is ultimately the occupation of space, the strategies the occupying power uses to sustain occupation are primarily spatial in nature.” The state’s domination over Kashmiri mountains, rivers, cities, towns and villages thus becomes a prerequisite to domination over the Kashmiri people, who have been been engaged in a clear armed struggle for freedom (azaadi) since 1989. Salamanca (2010:3) writes that infrastructures “create connections and disconnections among places and people, thus redefining spatial relations in physical and economic as well as political terms.” Since the objective of the occupation is ultimately the acquisition and control of land, material infrastructures are weaponized as tools that aid the occupying state in outlining and reinforcing its claims over a given territory. In other words, the construction of infrastructures, and the subsequent appropriation of territory through these infrastructures, is a means to establish a visible and lasting, if not permanent, presence on that land. Establishing control over Kashmiri territory, sometimes through overt militarization, sometimes through state-sponsored development and sometimes a combination of both, gives life and longevity to an unfinished colonial project that has no apparent end.

Indian troops at the Khanyar Bunker in Srinagar, Kashmir. Photo retrieved from:

The Indian state’s colonial project has a multi-pronged ‘counterinsurgency’ approach to tackle Kashmiri resistance, which involves not only the deployment of over half a million military, paramilitary and police forces to the region, but also an emphasis on ‘population-centric development’ efforts that are supposed to carry a “healing touch” (Staniland 2013: 937). The Jammu-Baramulla line is one of such ‘population-centric development’ efforts. In July 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to Jammu and Kashmir to inaugurate one of the railway’s links between Katra and Udhampur. Modi’s visit to the region was met by a day-long strike in Kashmir’s capital city, Srinagar. There, in a public speech, he declared, “it is my priority to win the hearts of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and this has to be achieved through development and their welfare.” Development rhetoric like Modi’s that revolves around "winning hearts” actually insinuates that the psyche of the occupied is yet another site that can be conquered, and that India can insert itself into the social imaginaries of Kashmiris, through infrastructural development. Such discourses of humanitarianism and corresponding projects that are supposed to connect Kashmir to India’s mainstream can be understood as attempts to normalize the occupation and to suppress and invisibilize resistance by deepening control over the region. Like Kotef (2010) explains in the context of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, not only do Israeli humanitarian efforts in places like Gaza fail to constrain violence, they function to accompany violence and moreover, to make it possible.

Similar to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the Indian occupation’s inescapable contradiction lies in the fact that even those development efforts that seek to “win over” the occupied people are inherently violent. Kashmiri anthropologist Mona Bhan (2014) explains how the Indian state has been constructing dams with the help of corporations to “heal mental and psychological wounds” by providing jobs to Kashmiris, particularly Kashmiri youth. They claim that doing so will help integrate Kashmir into India’s flourishing capitalist economy and will assimilate Kashmiri workers into “India’s productive work culture” (Bhan 2014:192). Bhan (2014: 192) contends, however, that “the construction of at least twelve dams in the J&K state to harness its water resources is as indubitable an expression of India’s illegitimate rule in the region as its extensive military hold over Kashmir.” Similarly, state-sponsored infrastructural projects like the Jammu-Baramulla line that physically cut through Kashmiri territory “consolidate patterns of fragmentation and inequality” by reinforcing the power of the Indian state and military (Salamanca 2010: 3). The railway and the humanitarian discourses of state-sponsored development, benevolence, and neutrality that surround it seek to pacify an occupied people who have been unwilling to accept anything but azaadi. The question of what happens to those who cannot be pacified, those whose hearts and minds are not won, remains unanswered in the state’s official narrative but is very obviously addressed on the ground in Kashmir.

In reality, Indian armed military, paramilitary, and police forces, who operate within what Indian author Arundhati Roy calls “infrastructures of impunity,” are stationed all along the railway line to regulate and control movement. The forces have been an integral part of the Indian state’s apparatus since colonial times and accordingly complement and strengthen occupational authority in the region. They are notorious for abusing the powers granted to them by the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act (1990), which empowers them to shoot even on the mere suspicion that it is necessary to do so to ‘maintain public order’. The law enables militarization in the region and makes possible the chronic violence that unfolds there on the hands of Indian forces. The securitized railway track provides Indian troops with yet another site where they can exert their power with impunity, contributing to further consolidation of Indian occupational authority over Kashmiri territory.

According to the Indian state’s official narrative, the rail infrastructure is supposed to enable mobility between Kashmir and mainland India. However, the looming threat of resistance to occupation means that the railway track must be securitized and constantly guarded. The Chenab rail bridge, an important section of the railway line which spans over the Chenab river and is set to be the tallest rail bridge in the world when it is completed, is being constructed with a special blast-proof steel to prevent its destruction from any “terror attacks.” The Indian state’s anxieties about Kashmiri resistance are evident in the numerous measures it has taken to enhance security and ensure durability of the railway, such as its militarization, “blast-proof” bridges, and disaster-resistant, elevated architecture. The infrastructure of the rail that is supposed to seamlessly assimilate Kashmiris into the Indian landscape exposes the “stark and pervasive reality of state violence” that permeates every part of Kashmiri life, even on trains (Duschinski and Hoffman 2011:46). Development, then, comes at the expense of the people in whose name it is being conducted.

The “blast-proof” Chenab Rail Bridge which is still under construction. Photo credit: Financial Express

While it can be contested whether or not the Indian state has been successful in winning over the hearts and minds of Kashmiris through construction of the Jammu-Baramullah line, evidence shows that the rail infrastructure has repeatedly been targeted by Kashmiri protestors. The mobility that the railway is supposed to enable is disrupted every time there is a hartaal (strike)the most dominant form of political action in Kashmir that involves complete shutdown of shops, schools, businesses, offices and banks —  which triggers curfews and halts train services. In the summer of 2016, for instance, when Indian troops killed the young Kashmiri guerrilla commander Burhan Wani, train services were suspended for days as protests erupted all over the valley. Fearing more protests on Wani’s death anniversary in the summer of 2017, train services were halted once again. As recently as May of 2018, train services were suspended for “security reasons” in the aftermath of clashes between Indian troops and Kashmiri protestors. A railway official explained that, “the railway department is acting on the advice of police,” and that railway had previously “suffered huge loss after coaches and railway stations and lighting systems were damaged in stone pelting during demonstrations.”

The very infrastructure that is supposed to incorporate Kashmir, both conceptually and physically, into India’s mapping, actually exposes the fragility and temporariness of the Indian occupation. The brewing threat of azaadi constantly keeps the Indian state on edge. The state’s claims that that the rail infrastructure is for the Kashmiri people are rendered hollow by its own securitization efforts along the tracks — whether that be the deployment of thousands of troops to guard the trains or the construction of “blast-proof” bridges. Clashes between Indian forces and Kashmiris all over the valley produce hartaals, which subsequently lead to curfews and railway closures. Ultimately then, the original state narrative that infrastructural development can win the hearts and minds of an occupied people becomes highly questionable. For Kashmiris, there is, “a constant battle between memory and forgetfulness; India wants them to forget and move on; they want to remember” (Geelani 2014:32). Hence, the Indian state’s hopes that laying down rail tracks that connect New Delhi to Baramulla may compel Kashmiris to excuse the violence of occupation remain unfulfilled.

As these complex dynamics underscoring the construction of the the Jammu-Baramulla line exhibit, infrastructure is anything but neutral. In Kashmir’s case, the infrastructure of the railway is a spectacular display of Indian power and a site that hosts Indian troops who are protected by the law. In addition, the Indian state also attempts to obscure the intensity of the occupation’s inherent violence through impressive architecture and narratives of benevolent state-sponsored humanitarianism in order to carve out a sense of normalcy for a situation that is anything but normal. However, the Kashmiri people’s relationship with Indian-sponsored infrastructure is certainly not shaped by mere celebration or passive acceptance, rather it is marked by resistance. The spectacular nature of the rail and its material presence throughout the region has also inevitably transformed it into a target for Kashmiri protestors. In these ways, the rail infrastructure itself can be understood as a contested site of violence as well as resistance. As long as the Indian occupation continues, the Kashmiri struggle for liberation, for azaadi, will also remain alive, even on train tracks.

Works Cited

Bhan M (2014) Morality and Martyrdom: Dams, Dharma, and the Cultural Politics of Work in Indian-Occupied Kashmir. Biography 37(1): 191-224.
Duschinski H and Hoffman B (2011) Everyday violence, institutional denial and struggles for justice in Kashmir. Race and Class 52(4): 44-70.
Geelani G (2014) Kashmir: the forgotten conflict. Race and Class 56(2): 29-40.
Junaid M (2013) Death and life Under Occupation: Space, Violence and Memory in Kashmir. In: Visweswaran K (eds) Everyday Occupations Experiencing Militarism in South Asia and the Middle East. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 158-274.
Kazi S (2007) Between Democracy and Nation: Gender and Militarisation in Kashmir. London School of Economics and Political Science Gender Institute.
Kotef H (2010) Objects of Security: Gendered Violence and Securitized Humanitarianism in Occupied Gaza. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 30(2): 179-191.
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Salamanca OJ (2010) When Settler Colonialism becomes “Development”: “Fabric of life” roads and the spatialities of development in the Palestinian West Bank, Birzeit: Center for Development Studies, Birzeit University.
Staniland P (2013) Kashmir since 2003: Counterinsurgency and the paradox of “normalcy.” Asian Survey 53(5): 931-957.