Uri- Like a bridge over troubled water, the Kaman Sethu stretches from India to Pakistan controlled Kashmir (PoK), giving the town of Uri tourism potential and offering visitors a chance to come face to face with contemporary history and the heroes who made it happen.
The small town of Uri, about 70 km from Srinagar, has long been in the line of enemy fire with soldiers controlling access to the 220-ft Kaman Bridge that connects Kashmir Valley to PoK, just across the small river treated as the Line of Control between India and Pakistan.
But with tourists being able to walk up to the bridge, also called Aman Sethu (Bridge of Peace), things have changed.
Tourists, say locals, started coming to the town after the Bollywood film “Uri”, based on India’s surgical strike after an attack by four Jaish-e-Mohammed militants in September 2018 left 18 soldiers dead. The situation was tense at the time and the film was shot in Serbia.
The change since is visible. The number of visitors have been steadily rising since the bridge opened for tourists at the end of March. About 3,000 people visit each day and there is a view from the other side too.
Civilians on the other side can be seen taking selfies against the bridge under the strict vigil of Pakistani army snipers.
The gates were locked after India suspended the bus service between two parts of Kashmir in February 2019 when 40 CRPF jawans were killed in a suicide attack by JeM in Pulwama.
Locals employed at the tourist facilitation centre, set up with the help of the army, greet tourists eager to visit the Kaman post, about 18 km from the main town.
“There are many scenic spots on the way with breathtaking landscapes that enthral tourists. We hope the move by the Indian Army to open the bridge will go a long way in boosting the economy of this area,” said Imran Ashraf, who mans the facilitation centre.
After checking for documents, including a pass from the local police station, visitors head to the Khalin-Da-Khas Nalla, the river flowing between the two sides of Kashmir.
“We inform tourists about the dos and don’ts before they embark on their journey to the famous bridge. Many Uri residents also make the trip because they haven’t seen it.” According to Lt Gen Amardeep Singh Aujla, who heads the Army’s XV Corps, the decision to give the general public access to the bridge was taken so “people should know where our heroes gave their today for our tomorrow”.
Aujla was the one who opened the lock and walked on the bridge, from end to end. A path near the bridge, named Veerpath, has busts of Indian war heroes.
“After all, I have every right to walk on every inch of my territory,” Aujla said after his walk on the bridge. It had been damaged during an earthquake in 2005 when a mountain on the Pakistani side caved in and rebuilt by engineers of the Indian Army.
Three local guides, dressed in black and white, greet people and recount the history of the area, particularly the 1947-48 war through the heroes who played stellar roles.
Civilian heroes commemorated near the bridge include Zuma Mohamed, a civil porter of the 4th battalion of Kumaon regiment who was awarded the Vir Chakra for his service during the war, and Maqbool Sherwani, a National Conference worker who had helped stave off an attack by giving wrong directions to the raiders from Pakistan and stopped them from moving towards Srinagar.
Besides, there are busts of Maj Somnath Sharma, who was awarded the highest military honour, Param Vir Chakra, for his service to the nation in the war, and Brig Rajinder Singh and Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai who were awarded the Mahavir Chakra.
A huge ‘Akhand Bharat Varsh’ painting, carved out of stones showing Afghanistan, Pakistan as one, faces Pakistan army posts located across the LoC.
The army has also created an artificial bunker with toy guns and bullet proof vests for children.
As the buzz slowly builds up, Mehak Khursheed is among those who walked the bridge. She is a resident of Salamabad, somewhere between Uri and the Kaman post. “We had heard a lot of stories about Zuma Mohammed and Maqbool Sherwani. But today after seeing their busts, my heart fills with pride that our local heroes have been honoured by the army.” She Is looking forward to more jobs and economic prosperity.
“Many hotels will open up and restaurants will come up. I am keeping my fingers crossed and hope that this becomes one of the favourite tourist destinations,” she said.
According to Fayaz Ahmed, a village sarpanch, opening up of the Kaman post is the first stepping stone to success of the area. “Now I hope that other areas in the region which include some religious places will be thrown open for the public.” The Kaman Sethu in this corner of Kashmir Valley was obviously not on the radar when Simon and Garfunkel wrote their popular song. But this bridge, it certainly is a “bridge over troubled water”.
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