Light at the end of the Banihal Tunnel in Kashmir

  • Author travelled to Kashmir twenty years ago and several times over the last two decades, the last being in August 2021. He shares experiences, then and now Plus improvements in Roads.

Text by H V Kumar, Photos by Bhaskar Mandakapa/ Hariharan Kumar/ Siddharth Talageri.


The Lotus is Blooming - and the Nadru Yakni Tastes as Tangy as Before.

Nadru Dakhni is a favourite Kashmiri dish. Made out of Lotus Shoots, is grown in Dal Lake, Srinagar. 

Two decades ago, when I parked my car in the Shalimar Gardens in Srinagar, a taxi driver saw my car’s Mumbai number plate and came across to extend courtesies. He confided that he had left Mumbai for good after working there for several years because he feared another Partition was imminent-that of Kashmir breaking away from the Rest Of India – and he did not want to be on the wrong side, stranded in Mumbai with his family stuck in another country. So he came back to be in his own city living with his family. He also confessed that ordinary Kashmiris like him were closing their “Indian” bank accounts and transferring it all to their “own bank” J&K Bank.  


Those were uncertain days in the decade following the Hindu genocide of the ‘90s-every other day, there were protests, bandhs and killings. The owner of the houseboat I was staying at lamented the fact that he had to turn to daily wages as a construction worker to keep going. Signages everywhere proclaimed KMR (how they referred to Kashmir), no any mention of Jammu and Kashmir State or India. You were accosted by everyone with the greeting, “How are things in YOUR India?” Every time I got back to my car, I used to kneel down and peer underneath to check if anyone had strapped a bomb- since car bomb explosions were pretty commonplace those days. 


I have been to Kashmir several times since the winter of 2002.  The “Indian” tourist is courted for his spending power, but the smile on the face masks the hostility beneath. Be suave and reply with a straight face, Yes, Kashmir is Paradise on Earth, it evokes a wider smile and a sneer of superiority. It is a bit like India’s obsession with the Taj. If you travel across India might realize there is a lot more to India than the Taj.


The Kashmiri society was marked with contrasts-there are super-friendly people, there are some very unfriendly ones too. The tourist has to straddle both these worlds with care, avoiding causing any offence by discussing local politics or their aspirations to go independent or with Pakistan.


I have been to small villages where they proudly told me that 90% of the Hindus had been massacred or driven out. A friend who asked directions to go to a restaurant during the holy month of Ramzan was almost assaulted. You ask to go to the famed Kheer Bhavani Temple near Ganderbal, there is sullen silence, and every person you ask for directions shrugs his shoulders. A couple of years ago, when I went looking for the ruins of the famous Martand Sun Temple near Anantnag, every local pretended not to know about it, even when I was almost in front of it!

Lal Chowk, Srinagar. The epicentre of many agitations.

These are vignettes of society in the Kashmir Valley I encountered. But Kashmir is changing.

During a trip to the Valley a month ago, I noticed a remarkable change. No bandhs, no protests, activities underway notwithstanding the COVID19 lockdown. New cars, New shops, New roads, New energy. Army presence is lot less visible, the “encounters” keep happening, but they are localised episodes and rarely appear to evoke any reactions of the general populace. They tell me that they had a reasonably good tourist season this year, coming after 3 – 4 years (ever since 2016) of drought in arrivals of domestic tourists. 


You can still sense the sneer and the contempt they have for India and Indianness, and “Kashmiriyat” word is mouthed often in conversations. We did meet several who hint at independence or merger with Pakistan, and the constant haranguing on how the abrogation of Article 370 has taken Kashmir back several decades. Yes, they are worried about being overwhelmed by “outsiders” but haven’t we heard the same jingoistic voices in other regions of India too? 


One local panchayat member lamented that the discretionary funds granted to them earlier have been withdrawn, and how powers are now centralised with the Lt Governor or the Central Government. It was amusing how one of the disgruntled blamed the ongoing power outages on the Central Government “stealing” electricity generated by Kashmir-on further enquiry we found that electricity was being turned off as per a pre-defined schedule to re-locate electricity poles to facilitate road widening!


There is excellent mobile connectivity thanks to the Jios and the Airtels, and rarely is data turned off as it was before.

The New Banihal-Qazigund Tunnel marks the entry point into Kashmir. 

Driving from Jammu to Srinagar itself is turning out to be a pleasurable experience compared with the nightmare of traffic jams, landslides and sundry disruptions of earlier years. Road widening is fast progressing, with lots of upgradations underway like bypasses through messy small towns. The journey that used to last indefinitely is now reduced to 7-9 hours.


One of the most significant achievements this year was the opening of the 9 km long Banihal-Qazigund Tunnel that now cuts out the painful climb up to the Jawahar Tunnel which becomes snowbound in winter occasionally. Quite an engineering marvel, the new Tunnel compliments the other 9 km long Chenani-Nashri Tunnel that became operational 4-5 years ago.


One would expect the entire Jammu-Srinagar highway to be fully 4-laned one to two years from now, banishing forever the nightmares that trucks and cars faced in the past.

Gurez Valley is welcoming tourists. 

Roads across Kashmir Valley are also being upgraded and the crucial Srinagar- Kargil highway will soon see the Zoji la Tunnel, which is slated for completion before end-2023. Soon, Kashmir will also be connected by rail to the rest of the country, and maybe in the next two years it will be easier to take a train journey from Qazigund to Baramulla through a countryside covered in snow-truly an Alpine experience in India!


There is palpable change in Kashmir, and both economic and social development is fast catching up. Roads are generally in excellent condition, power outages are a thing of the past.


The Gram Sadak Yojana appears to be implemented efficiently, I could see several new rural roads. The apple harvest season was starting, and unlike the turmoil two years ago, movement of commodities is happening smoothly. The fact that Jammu and Kashmir is among the top States in the penetration of the ongoing Covid19 vaccination programme is fairly indicative of the improved health infrastructure in the State.


I could do a RTPCR Test cheaper and faster than I can do back home in Mumbai, so Srinagar is quite on par with any other city in India when it comes to facilities -and probably more efficient too!  I read the announcement that the Government is asking Kashmiri Pandits to come forward to reclaim the properties they lost during the genocide of the ‘90s. 

Sinthan Pass (12,450 feet) divides Kashmir from Jammu region. 2014. 

One can see still Indian Army jawans patrolling the roads surveying for land mines and doing general surveillance, but one feels safe now unlike a few years ago when you could slice through the fear and uncertainty. No army jawan asked me why I was so irresponsibly touring Kashmir-in earlier years, they used to rebuke me for being stupid enough to visit a troubled region wracked by terrorism with disapproving words like “Don’t you read the papers how bad the situation here is” and “can’t you see us dying, do you want to get killed too?” and so forth. 

It is difficult to say if the worst is over for Kashmir. 

A new dawn for Kashmir Valley 

But it does appear that, for the casual visitor, there is near-normalcy despite the underlying social turmoil. Kashmir no more evokes fearful images of explosions, killings and disruptions, India is rediscovering the beauties of this region as more tourists visit the Gulmargs, Sonamargs and Pahalgams. Although the COVID19 lockdown does have impact, I can see common people going about their daily economic activities unperturbed.

Lolab Valley.

When our car broke down in a far-off corner of Western Kashmir, the efficient manner in which the local mechanics repaired it will beat systems in the larger cities of India. One can visit the farthest corners of Kashmir without fear and most locals are happy to see the tourists come back.


Tourism helps bridge cultural gaps and gloss over animosities-and economic revival could be one of the balms to heal the wounds of the long war in Jammu and Kashmir.


Author H V Kumar runs a very popular Facebook page on road travel. “There is nobody as expert as HV Kumar (HVK) on knowledge about Indian Highways and Automotive Transport. The magnitude and the detailing of precious and up to date information he has is mind boggling and absolutely unmatched.” To access FB page click HERE


To read all articles by author


Also read

1. Poonch album in Jammu region

2. Drive through Sinthan Pass (in Valley) to Kishtwar in Jammu region

3. Kishtwar in Jammu region during snow

4. Jammu, City of Temples

5. Surya Martand Mandir, Anantnag

6. Temples of Kashmir, you may not know of

7. Ancient Legacy of Kashmir

8. Handlooms of Jammu and Kashmir

9. Lalitaditya, the great Kashmiri King

10. Remembering Lal Ded, the Kashmiri Yogini

11. Mansar Lake near Jammu

12. Verinag is from where river Jhelum starts from a Kund

13. What happened in Kashmir during the 1990s

14. All you wanted to know about the Accession of J&K to India

15. 2017 article, Be Careful you are in South Kashmir now

16. Rajrishi Kashyapa

17. Silence on Kashmir’s Historical Identity


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