When he inaugurates a small section — a 25-km link between Udhampur and Katra — of the long-awaited railroad to Kashmir this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi should reflect on India’s failure to take its railways to the far-flung corners of the country. That China is now preparing to extend its railway into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir should stir Modi to recognise the significance of the railways for India’s national security and factor it into the rail budget to be presented to Parliament next week.
The railways were at the heart of modern India’s territorial construction. The railways were also critical in securing the undivided subcontinent against external powers and defending its vast frontiers. The Raj extended its railways in the late-19th century to the Bolan (Quetta) and Khyber (Peshawar) passes in the North-West Frontier, as Russia brought its railways to the Amu Darya to the north of Afghanistan and Germany sought to build a railroad from Berlin to Baghdad. The Raj also built a railroad to the northeastern frontier in Assam by the last decade of the 19th century.
In the post-Independence period, New Delhi’s appreciation of the importance of railways in promoting national unity and frontier security began to diminish. The partition of the subcontinent and Delhi’s inward economic orientation helped blur a strategic conception of railways. Making matters worse, the provincialism of the railway ministry’s political leadership in recent decades played havoc with what was one of the world’s greatest institutions. Having gained political control of the ministry, Modi has the opportunity to put the Indian Railways (IR) back at the centre of the nation’s strategies for development and security. He must also revitalise India’s impressive tradition of building railroads in other countries.
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If India neglected one of the world’s largest rail networks inherited from the Raj, China has dramatically expanded its railways as part of a strategy to deepen internal and external connectivity. Last week, Beijing announced plans to build a railway line across the Khunjerab Pass, which links the Xinjiang province in western China with PoK. The project is part of a proposed transport corridor from Xinjiang’s Kashgar hub to the Gwadar port on Pakistan’s Makran coast and integral to Chinese president Xi Jinping’s ambitious Silk Road strategy.
The Indian reaction has focused on the fact that the Khunjerab railway runs through PoK and whether Vice President Hamid Ansari, who was in Beijing a few days ago, objected to the project. This formalism, however, misses the main point. China has been raising its profile in PoK ever since it built the Karakoram Highway four decades ago. Since then, India’s protests have made little difference to the realities on the ground. The problem for India is not about China operating in disputed territory. The challenge is about responding to China’s extraordinary railway projects that are transforming the geopolitics of India’s frontiers.
Over the last decade and a half, China brought the South Xinjiang Railway to Kashgar, an ancient town with deep links to the subcontinent; it built the impossible Tibet Railway to Lhasa and plans to extend it to the border with Nepal and Bhutan. It also has plans to build a railway line between the Bay of Bengal and Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province north of Myanmar.
MODI, THE BOLD?
India’s answer can’t lie in more protests to Beijing. Delhi must focus instead on rapidly modernising IR, extending it to the border regions, and moving it across the frontiers to neighbouring countries.
In Jammu later this week, Modi must outline some ambitious goals and make them part of the rail budget. He could promise to complete, on a war-footing, the railroad to Srinagar, which was first mooted way back in 1898 by Maharajah Pratap Singh. He could commit the government to expand the rail networks in the northeastern region. Equally important is a vision for expansive railway cooperation with the neighbours. India can easily improve rail connectivity with Bangladesh and Nepal and extend the rail network into Bhutan. He could offer to work with Pakistan in upgrading the shared rail networks.
Modi might even imagine India building a railroad from Varanasi to Kathmandu and from Rameshwaram to Talaimannar in northern Sri Lanka. Only a bold transborder vision for the railways can help India cope with China’s Silk Road initiatives in the subcontinent.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor of ‘The Indian Express’