Going Nowhere: Jassar Bridge
18 March 2013
An 1856 report on the imperative of laying the railway in Punjab dealt at length with the importance of Amritsar as a commercial entrepot. It highlighted the trade that passed through this city to Europe and Central Asia. Here were wholesalers dealing in Tibetan wool, Kashmiri shawls, Afghan fruit, both dried and fresh, carpets from Turkey and furs and skins from Turkestan, besides European finished goods.
At that time, the great knot of mountains that we know as the Karakoram-Himalayan system was not fully explored. Map makers and explorers were however venturing into towns like Gilgit and Ladakh and spurred by the fast developing railway system in the subcontinent there grew a fantasy. It was as eccentric and far-fetched as any dream could be. This was the dream to take the railway from the plains, through the defiles of the Pir Panjal Range in Kashmir and across the Indus gorge to Gilgit. Thence, so the dreamers envisioned, it would strike northward into the grim and tortured chasm of the Hunza River to reach Chinese Turkestan.
Twenty years later, with the topography of the Karakoram-Himalayan system better understood, the dream of Gilgit becoming the great railway junction to Central Asia quietly died on its dreamers. But even if that was not to be, it would serve good purpose to take the railway as far into the mountains as possible. And so it was that in 1890, Jammu was connected with Suchetgarh (northeast of Sialkot).
A few years later, the line running north from Amritsar crossed the Ravi River at the village of Jassar by an impressive steel bridge to Narowal and Sialkot. The horse caravans that plodded across the steaming foothills from Srinagar to Amritsar now halted at Jammu. There the goods were loaded into waiting railway wagons for the journey down country.
Come partition and the great network of the North Western Railway was cut by the new border. Jassar was one among four other places where the line stopped, the east end of its magnificent bridge barely a couple of hundred metres from India. It was, in effect, a bridge in Pakistan that went nowhere.
In the 1965 war with India, one of the great tank battles was fought for this crossing. Legend has it that as Indian tanks roared onto the bridge, a soldier strapped on a large amount of explosive to his body and lay in their way. The first unsuspecting tank drove over the hero and went up in a huge blast taking out a chunk of the bridge. The span collapsed and fell into the river.
The reality may be that the bridge was prepared for demolition in anticipation of an Indian putsch. Whatever the case, whether a hero who gave up his life to save the country an invasion or a smart demolitions expert who did his job well, the bridge was blown up for its central spans lay smashed in the languid brown eddies of the Ravi until the late 1970s. At some point after that the steel was removed and all that is now left of Jassar Bridge on the Ravi are four tub piers of excellent brick work.
The bridge holds yet another tale. On a rainy August evening in 1947, a train bearing Sikhs and Hindus from Sialkot was on its way to Dera Nanak when the driver stopped short of the bridge. Being a Muslim, he feared for his life were he to take the train across into India. Outside, stood a crowd of armed men. Two brothers, Sikh landlords of nearby Klasswala, stepped out of the train and called out. ‘We on this train are unarmed. Do us no harm. Permit us to pass on into India.’
There was no response. The terrified refugees waited a while and then began to disembark. Fearfully they walked across the bridge as the armed men kept their ground just fifty metres away. This train, whose number no one remembers, became one of the few to escape a massacre. No one remembers too what kept the Muslims from attacking the helpless refugees.
posted by Salman Rashid @ 8:28 AM,