Since 2002, the Indian government has been constructing its first-ever rail line through its disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Prime Minister Modi has declared the project to be a national priority for India and has stated that, when complete, the railway will “win over the hearts and minds of the people of Jammu and Kashmir” through development.
In July 2016, Maddy Crowell and Sara Hylton traveled to Jammu and Kashmir to trace the tracks of India’s first-ever rail line through Kashmir. The plan was to start in Baramulla, the “gateway of Kashmir” that is just a few hundred kilometers from Pakistan and ride the train for 154 miles back to New Delhi, speaking with Kashmiris who rode the train daily. They wanted to see whether the new rail line made them feel closer to India as Prime Minister Modi promised, or whether it was just a ploy of the Indian government to keep Kashmir in its grip.
But on July 8, the day they rode the first segment of the train from Baramulla to Srinagar, an Indian Army officer shot a young militant named Burhan Wani, the alleged leader of Hizbul Mujihadeen. The 22-year-old militant was an internet sensation for young Kashmiris and inspired the azadi or freedom movement mostly from social media.
Wani’s death set off some of the worst fighting that Kashmir had seen in decades. Young men and women took to the streets to pelt stones at Indian army officers. In a single night, over 30 were shot dead. By the end of the summer, nearly 200 were killed, and thousands blinded by pellets from shotguns that Indian army officers used to disperse crowds.
The question of whether the train would bring Kashmiris closer to India became irrelevant in less than an hour—all trains were suspended indefinitely, along with local businesses, internet, cell service. The streets were on lockdown.
They ended up taking a car out of Kashmir at 12:30 AM and re-boarding the train in Jammu, where they got a very different side of the Kashmir story. In Jammu, Wani was no longer a martyr but a “terrorist.”
By the time Crowell and Hylton returned to New Delhi in late July, the situation had escalated. India and Pakistan were making gestures towards war. Seventeen indian soldiers were killed in a surprise attack on an army base in Uri, and India retaliated by conducting “surgical strikes” against Pakistan.
But despite international pressure to resolve the Kashmir conflict, little has changed. Kashmir still remains one of the most militarized zones in the world, and the hope is that through this story people will gain a better understanding of how Kashmir remains trapped in a “forever war.”