11 March, 2014
"Head-Lights Off; Body Lights On"
We are in the domain of the Ace of Spades, the 25th Infantry Division of the Indian Army. It is a three hour drive from Jammu to Rajouri, and this perhaps in the most prominent roadside sign you will see along the highway. Words painted in terse block letters mark the iron gates guarding military camps, all along a route that has long been known as the Mughal Road.
A drive like this would have been a breeze in any other Himalayan river valley, but this is J&K, a magnet to assorted, armed fanatics from across the border. If you happen to arrive at one of these gates at night with the wrong lights on, chances are that you will be shot first and asked questions later.
Having been warned not to travel after sunset, we had out in pre-dawn darkness, driving through un-seasonal rains, along the Akhnoor plains and the Chenab river-valley, and over hills overlooking an endless chain of sodium vapor lamps that mark the Indo-Pak border.
As the rains eased and darkness gives way to dawn, army trucks lumbered along the highway, dropping ROPs - Road Opening Parties - soldiers in parkas and assault rifles trudge up and down the roads. Places with evocative names keep coming up -- Sundarbani, Kalighan, Naushera and Bafliaz.
The Ace of Spades is only the most recent in the long list of army divisions that had passed through these mountains and valleys. In 1587 Jalaluddin Akbar went down this road to conquer Kashmir. He left behind large gardens and new townships. The Mughal army that accompanied his son, Jehangir, made its mark in a different way – it built a fortified Serai, and named it after the emperor’s royal intestines!
The story goes that that in the early 1600's, Jehangir, was on his way back from the Kashmir valley to Delhi when he suddenly passed away. Years of being an opium addict and an alcoholic had finally caught up with him. In any case the power behind the throne was his 13th wife, Empress Noor Jehan. Given the precarious state of Mughal succession planning, this lady decided that the only way to survive the inevitable power struggle was to act as though her husband were still alive until they reached safer areas. So on the banks of the Rajauri Nullah, she had the body eviscerated, buried the emperor's decaying innards at Chingus Fort, propped his body on a caparisoned elephant, and carried on in royal splendor, until they reached Lahore.
Today, big changes are afoot in a region that has been racked by an insurgency spread across two decades. Despite the heavy army presence, or perhaps because of it, new institutions are slowly coming up to match the rising expectations of a new generation. Prominent among them is the Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah University.
The university is eight kilometers off the Mughal road, and a leap of faith in more ways than one. Named after a local Sufi saint, this seat of learning seems to rise from the middle of nowhere, at the foothills of the snowcapped Pir Panjal mountain range. It was started a decade ago by a retired Kashmiri police officer with a Rs.20 crore donation from local shrines. With additional public donations and government grants that followed, the university has been able to set up labs, hostels, classrooms and libraries.
The infrastructure and facilities does bring in local students in large numbers. Hostel food is not bad and cheering at cricket matches here does not attract sedition charges. However, in a state where parents are wary of sending their children to universities in distant parts of India, the biggest challenge is to attract – and retain – good professors. Local employment prospects continue to be grim.
On our way back to Jammu, a pink mini-bus zips past a hairpin bend. In hills and valley that have seen more guns and bullets than books or pencils, Simran Coach has a big banner quite different from those outside the army camps. It simply says, "O God Help Me".
Mughal Road -- http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Ancient-Mughal-road-is-a-new-big-tourist-site-in-JK/articleshow/22188250.cms?referral=PM
Wiki - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mughal_Road
Chingus Fort -- http://explorejk.com/heritage/chingus-fort/