On the morning of 5 September 2020, a small group of friends and relatives helped 18-year-old Rafiq Ahmad Khatana get ready at his family’s rented room in Kuthpora village of Shopian.
Mr. Khatana was getting married to a woman in Thanamandi town in Rajouri district, around 160 kilometers from Srinagar.
Originally a resident of Reasi in Jammu division, Mr. Khatana’s family had migrated to Kashmir some 15-years back. They ended up working for an orchardist in south Kashmir’s Shopian.
On that day Mr. Khatana put on a dark brown suit he got stitched for the occasion and boarded one of the three vehicles orchard owners had arranged for his marriage party.
Separated by the mighty Pir Panchal mountain range and around 100 kilometres of newly carpeted road, Mr. Khatana knew his would-be-bride was waiting. The marriage party took Mughal Road to reach Thanamandi via the picturesque Peer Ki Gali Pass.
However, the excitement faded as Mr. Khatana’s convoy was stopped at Hirpora check post, around 15 kilometres outside Shopian town. Police personnel manning the checkpoint directed them to produce a written travel permission from the Divisional Commissioner’s Kashmir office in Srinagar or the District Commissioner’s (DC) office in Shopian.
“We tried to reason with the policemen posted there, but they didn’t listen at all,” said Mr. Khatana over the phone. “Even after knowing it’s a marriage party they didn’t let us pass.”
Finally they drove back to Shopian town to get the permission, which they were told is mandatory for travel on Mughal Road in view of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
It took Mr. Khatana more than an hour to get the permission and reach back to the Hirpora check post. This time they were allowed to go but Mr. Khatana’s ordeal had only begun.
After just a 30 minutes’ drive, they were again stopped; this time at the Army manned checkpoint in Dubjian. “There, our Aadhar cards were checked and our details were noted down in a register,” said Mr. Khatana.
The process took 20 minutes and they were allowed to pass. But when they crossed Peer Ki Gali, the highest point at Mughal Road, Mr. Khatana’s car was again flagged to stop.
“There was almost a two kilometre long line of vehicles waiting to cross Poshana check post since morning,” said Mr. Khatana.
No one is allowed to pass Poshana check post without going through a rigorous registration process which involves each vehicle to pass in front of a camera. Every passenger has to answer a series of questions asked by an army trooper sitting behind a computer, typing in the answers—what is the traveller’s final destination, who are they visiting and why, have they travelled via the Mughal Road before and so on. Each passenger is then directed to face a camera displaying their Adhaar cards, front and back.
The Poshana check post is jointly managed by army troopers from 16 Rashtriya Rifles in the Jammu Division and the Poonch police. “For the next four hours I was not allowed to cross Poshana by a Sub-Inspector rank police officer. He didn’t give me any specific reason why I cannot travel,” said Mr. Khatana. “It was as if he was deriving pleasure out of our situation.”
After hours of argument with the policeman, Mr. Khatana and his marriage party was allowed to cross Poshana on one condition: they will leave their vehicles behind and walk. Helpless, they walked for 30 minutes before a private taxi offered to take them to the nearest town.
“There were five other grooms like me at Poshana waiting for permission to travel,” said Mr. Khatana. “I don’t know if they were allowed or not.”
Mr. Khatana doesn’t understand why a permission or the hectic process of entry and questioning is required to travel within the limits of Jammu and Kashmir.
Said senior Superintendent of Police in Poonch, Ramesh Angral: “The Army has to maintain data because of security issues. That is why some delay happens.” He denied prolonged traffic jams and inordinate delays on the highway were due to the checkpoints.
A Game Changer
Conceived in the late 1970s, Mughal Road was thrown open for public use by former chief minister Omar Abdullah in 2009. It was a historic moment for the people of the Pir Panchal region who were dependent on Rajouri-Jammu road for access to the outside world.
“This road helped us revive our lost connection with the Kashmir valley,” said Mir Shahid Saleem, 47, Chairman, Mughal Road Action Committee. “There are hundreds of Kashmiri origin families living in the Pir Panchal region. They were disconnected with their roots and relatives since their migration in 1947. Mughal Road gave them hope.”
A resident of Rajouri, Mr. Saleem feels revival of these connections between two Muslim majority regions has unnerved certain people. “They always wanted to keep us away from each other. That is why travelling on Mughal Road is made such a cumbersome process.”
Mr. Saleem feels what Mr. Khatana and other travellers face daily on the Mughal Road is done deliberately to compartmentalize the two Muslim majority regions. “It makes no sense to ask a resident of, say Poshana, to first get permission from Divisional Commissioner Jammu (around 200 kilometres away) and then come back and travel to Srinagar which is otherwise less than a 100 kms away,” he said. “Why do we need permission at all?”
However, notwithstanding the politics, Mughal Road instantly became a new lifeline for the Muslim population of Pir Panchal region which quickly revived its decades old trade with the Kashmir Valley. Now a truckload of apples and vegetables from Shopian and Budgam reaches markets in Poonch and Rajouri on the same day. Fresh Kashmiri mounji’ haa’kh (knol khol) is a reality. Even students in the Pir Panchal region are now seeking admissions in Kashmir based colleges and universities.
“For us Kashmir is closer now,”said Aquib Wani, 22, a resident of Thanamandi who is studying law at the Kashmir University. “Earlier to reach Srinagar we had to first visit Jammu (about 144 kilometres from Rajouri) and then to Srinagar (297 kilometres from Jammu). Now it is just a six hours journey from Rajouri (192 kilometres to Srinagar).”
Recently Mr. Wani, too, was stopped at the Poshana check post for over two hours upon returning from the University of Kashmir in Srinagar.
“This particular check post is located in the middle of nowhere. There is no phone connectivity, no toilet facility, no rest rooms, nothing,” said Mr. Wani. “A simple six hour journey at times takes over 12 hours to complete.”
The delay caused at half-a-dozen check posts dotting Mughal Road adds to the cost of goods sent through this route. This has hit pockets of traders on both sides of Pir Panchal.
“Recently I sent three truckloads of apples to Jammu via Mughal Road. Two trucks reached after 28 hours; the third one took more than 36 hours. I called the driver and he said he was in a traffic jam at Poshana,” said Abdul Shakoor, 40, a fruit trader from Shopian.
Ideally it takes between 12 to 14 hours for a loaded truck to reach Jammu from Shopian via the Mughal Road.
“We may be responsible for traffic jams at Poshana to an extent because of the rigorous checking,” said Mr. Yadav, District Commissioner Poonch. “But largely it is caused by truckers themselves as they make three lines in an otherwise narrow stretch.”
Responding to complaints by civilians, Mr. Yadav said that “the process of registration and data collection is done to keep check on smuggling of narcotics through this route.” The Mughal Road, he said, “has become a haven for smugglers. Every now and then we arrest truckers carrying narcotics. We want to curb this menace.”
However, for traders like Mr. Shakoor, the Mughal Road is a lifeline as the traditional Srinagar-Jammu route is routinely shut, to repair damages owing to landslides, for days during the peak apple season.
“It proves detrimental for us as life of our produce is limited,” said Mr. Shakoor, “also, during winters only one-side traffic is allowed on the [traditional] highway.” But the constant frisking on the Mughal has put traders like him in a fix—truckers now refuse to take this route.
This has given sleepless nights to 29-year-old Mohammad Ishaq Bhat of Bugam village in Budgam, the Valley’s vegetable production belt. Mr. Bhat has been exporting fresh vegetables for the last 14 years.
Sending vegetables through the Mughal Road, said Mr. Bhat, “is expensive but quicker compared to the [traditional] route which remains crowded with fruit trucks, army convoys, and tourist vehicles.”
Additionally, new markets in Pir Panchal region and the Jammu Mandi, too, could be reached on time. “We deal in perishable items. Time is everything for us,” said Mr. Bhat. “But now it takes more than a day to reach Jammu at times via Mughal Road. This crucial delay makes our product useless when it reaches mandis.”
The taxi which Mr. Khatana and his marriage party had boarded after crossing the Poshana check post was stopped again at Chandimarh village, just 20 kilometres from Thanamandi.
“There a Station House Officer refused to let me go any further. He was rude,” recalled Mr. Khatana, who was allowed to proceed after intervention by some locals but with a condition: he would change into an ordinary dress and not travel as a groom and that he would not return for two days – else he would be arrested.
“It was humiliating but what could I have done,” said Mr. Khatana. “I had no option but to change my clothes.”
At around 11 PM, Mr. Khatana finally reached his bride’s house, but the smile he carried from Shopian on his face was gone. He spent the next two days at his bride’s home as ordered.
This story was first published in 2-9 Nov 2020 print edition.