Kashmir: The Legacy Of E.Switzerland
January 30, 2047
My plane lands in Srinagar, a month before the Winter Olympics XXIX (XXVI was pushed to 2031, and then later cancelled, on account of what later came to be uncharitably called the Russian Flu) kicks off in the independent city state of Kashmir. The last time I was here was 3 full decades ago. It is now unrecognizable. In the hour I spend going through Immigration, customs and baggage collection, I see zero armed soldiers or airport security. There is free movement of people everywhere. In and out of the terminal. In and out of the airport compound. In and out of parking lots and arrival areas and bus stops and car rentals. I have stepped into an alternate universe where Kashmir has taken its epithet, the Switzerland of the East, very literally.
My host, Syed Abdullah, greets me with a hug and leads me to his car. I am taken aback by his unremarkable appearance. This is the architect of the most stunning humanitarian and statecraft miracle in history? We start the 30 minute drive to the central railway station of Srinagar. I voice my astonishment at the arresting change in the airport, the roads, the security checks, the orderliness. He waves away my comments. ‘It is as distant a memory as the idea of horse carriages, coal burners and dysentery is for modern Europeans. Like my father used to say, the future is both here and far away. Right now that future is the Olympics.’
We drive past numerous welcome signs for Olympians and international tourists. The roads are wide and straight, with spectacular rugged mountainous terrain stretching away on every horizon. I stop looking for things that are no longer there, the checkposts, the army trucks, the hundreds of young men sitting aimlessly by the roads, and focus on things that are there, the cafes and bakeries, the landscaped highways, the odd funicular slowly making its way up a steep mountain face, groomed and ungroomed pistes shaved down the sides of slopes like errant buzzcuts. But mostly, the signs for the Olympics venues, the giant dome visible across the flat valley, the helicopters surveying the surrounding Pir Panjal ranges for avalanche risks and rockfalls. We park the car at the station and enter the platform.
There’s a sense of almost mystical nostalgia surrounding the hosting of this edition of the Olympic Games in particular. 2047 is the centenary of India and Pakistan’s independence from the British empire. What’s more, the IOC decided on Kashmir as the 2047 host on March 2040, the centenary of the Lahore Resolution where the All-India Muslim League led by its charismatic leader Jinnah formally called for the creation of an independent state of Pakistan, a word formed from the 5 northern provinces of India including K for Kashmir. This princely state would get caught up in a territorial, ideological, and religious war between two immature, emotional, and nuclear-capable giants, for close to 80 years. Odysseus never had to deal with Scylla and Charybdis actively fighting over him. I ask Syed if he places an emotional significance on how these dates have lined up so perfectly.
‘The Indian subcontinent in general, and Kashmir specifically, has had no shortage of seismic events in each month of each year of the 20th century. There is no date for the Olympics that we wouldn’t have found a profound centenary connection for.’
The corners of his mouth curl in a teasing smile as he admonishes me for misplaced sentiment.
‘We create the significance.’
I must have looked chastised, he is quick to clarify.
‘All meaning is created in the mind, I’d have it no other way, it only says we care enough about these things to manufacture meaning. And then let fate take credit for it.’
It is an oddly fitting turn of phrase. Nobody deserves more credit for the fate of Kashmir than Syed Abdullah. Like so many children born in Kashmir in the months following September 1982, he was named after the beloved Sheikh Abdullah, who had fought more than anybody for the autonomy, freedom and prosperity of the Kashmiri state. That’s where the similarities stopped. Unlike so many children born in the 80s and named after Sheikh Abdullah, Syed left. He did an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad, a prestigious B-school in India and joined an investment bank in New York. He then got a PhD in Finance from the Chicago School of Business, strengthening his libertarian and free market convictions and contacts. There was a fierce patriotic strain that defined him, just as it defined most young men from Kashmir. But his bore a different slogan. Where others wanted Kashmir to be free. He wanted Kashmir to be rich.
I’m surprised to note he isn’t popular. The station is fairly crowded, but nobody pays him any heed. He isn’t unpopular either. He’s simply unknown. Not what I’d expected from someone who’s arguably a revolutionary and premier statesman, bringing peace to a region that has only ever considered that an option in the afterlife. Invisible hand beats angry fist, every time.
The sleek train pulls into the platform, part of the Swiss Astoro fleet. The first modern locomotive in Kashmir, brought here 20 years ago in 2027. It was initially used for the long distance line laid between Srinagar and Leh, before that section was updated with later models running on gauges that were sturdier in flood waters and landslide-prone slopes. These two phenomena arguably kicked off the frenetic set of events that resulted in the Kashmiri city state.
2025 saw an unprecedented level of infrastructure work in Kashmir, massive hydroelectric projects, networks of transmission lines, and the transportation backbone for logistics. All over the world, ice caps melted, glaciers retreated, and weather patterns became more chaotic. Fresh water’s commodity value increased more than oil and at some point even silver. The timeline of events suggests almost that the prosperity of Kashmir today is a direct consequence of its water-monopoly in a world ravaged by climate change. That conveniently ignores the more sinister fact, now relegated to obscure statistics journals and pamphlets of speculative history, that India and Pakistan had taken the world closer to nuclear war than ever before as a direct consequence of climate change.
The mighty Indus originates in the Tibetan highlands, flows through Kashmir, and irrigates the fertile plains of North India and Pakistan. In 1948, India held an advantageous position up-river and cut off supply to Pakistan. The powderkeg was finally put to relative rest when an agreement was signed in 1960, where Pakistan would get rights over the 3 western tributaries, and India the 3 eastern. The treaty was mediated not by the UN, or the major superpowers of the time, but the World Bank, a fact that Syed noted pointedly as a young boy reading about the events. 90% of Pakistani agriculture depends on the Indus, and Kashmir commands the ability to simply #cancel cultivation season.
In the late 2010s, on the back of 3 consecutive famine years, and the alarming cycle of dry months with flash floods from the water tower of the world in the Himalayas, India and Pakistan each intensified their secret and independent hydro projects to regularize their respective supplies. The dams were no longer about power, what use was a water heater without water? With every failed crop, every flood, every late monsoon, tensions escalated. A minor border brawl. An armed incursion. Violation of airspace by reconnaissance aircraft. It came to a breaking point in 2022, when an Indian proto-installation was attacked and taken over by militants that India’s intelligence reports insisted were backed by Pakistan. An aerial bombing of a Pakistani hydro-project led to a general alert of nuclear war. Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan kept the lines of communication open while maintaining a cryptically belligerent toughness to the local media. The Indian media predictably bared its fangs on behalf of its leaders, berated its leaders for pacifism on behalf of its population and riled up its population on behalf of its advertisers. At its most dangerous point, the media circulated a fake report by the Pakistani ISI claiming India actually had no nuclear capability, with India’s most widely viewed news debate program ending with the chillingly ominous statement ‘there’s only one way to find out! Show them!’.
‘With the benefit of hindsight, that was a fortuitous moment’ Syed admits. He was then the chief economist at the World Bank, the organization he’d resolved to join as an idealistic 13 year old. ‘At the time, climate change was important but not urgent, water was urgent and important, wars were urgent but not important, and what took up all the air time was politics, neither urgent nor important. But then a climate-caused nuclear war over water? There was no quadrant for that. I’ve never seen funding pledged and deployed so rapidly in my life.’
He is being modest. This wasn’t a fait accompli. With World Bank funds come a host of conditions. Foremost among the demands would be peace, disarmament, and MoU’s, all of which were beyond the pale for leaders perched precariously over mobs baying for blood. Syed managed to push the funding through without any conditions. They would come later, he insisted.
‘Were you bluffing?’
‘Did I mean to slap on conditions later? No I didn’t.’
‘So you were bluffing.’
‘No, I just believed it wouldn’t ever come to that.’
It never did. The infrastructure work began in earnest by an international agency whose protection was guaranteed by both the warring countries. In turn it guaranteed to both countries the thing their senseless war was ostensibly about. Water. With the appropriately gradual reduction of saber-rattling, the threat of nuclear war was silently removed. Syed never let on that he had no intention of ever springing a condition of peace. He just acted relieved when it happened anyway. It’s funny how optimism never looks naive when recalled in a rear view mirror.
The infrastructure project was just the start. Syed had bigger plans. Like ribs attaching to the vertebral column, the ambit of the main transport and energy network was expanded laterally, spouting tentacles connecting the hinterlands of Kashmir.
‘The word Balkanization has been thrown around ever since the British Raj left. Religious grounds. Language. Caste. Geography. Pakistan and East Pakistan were but the first steps in what was feared to be a protracted exercise in Balkanization. Andhra, Telangana, Jharkhand, Nagaland. Kashmir. But the Balkans weren’t under imperial or colonial rule. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empire, at least as it was in South East Europe wasn’t an imperialist power. If anything, we needed to look to other colonies. After Algeria, the Congo is the largest country in Africa. Independence from Belgium coincided with the Congo Crisis and a series of wars of secession punctuated with genocide.’
We are interrupted by our cue to disembark. We get off at a beautiful town arranged like a semi circular necklace around the crystal waters of Wular Lake. From here a rugged line cuts North across the mountains through a series of winding tracks, bridges, and tunnels to Skardu, the last big resort before Askole, my final destination. Askole was a remote village used by the few climbers who received a permit to summit K2. Now it is a popular ski destination with more than 10 cable car lines. Our train to Skardu isn’t for another hour so we go for a stroll around the promenade on the banks of Wular. The Tulbul project started on this lake was one of the key disputes that led to the escalation of conflict between India and Pakistan. Just across the hill on the other side, I am told, used to be the start of Pakistan administered Kashmir. A stone’s throw. And too many stones were thrown. I steer the conversation back to where he had left off.
‘Why didn’t Pakistan maintain its right to ownership of the name India? After all, that name is from the river Indus, encountered by Greeks and Persians traveling through Pakistan. What claim does Tamil Nadu and Mizoram have to the name India? If anything, the partition should have resulted in 2 countries, the Islamic Republic Of India, and the Democratic Republic Of India, like Congo and Korea, reflecting not the ideology of the people but of its leaders. How could you Balkanize India/Pakistan on the grounds of religion when the second largest Muslim population in the world is sitting in India? For decades after independence, every time Hindu minorities in the 2 Pakistans suffered, there was an inevitable backlash on the Muslims in India.
Syed is not religious. He worships Adam Smith and Dave Ricardo and Friedrich Hayek, he says. Mostly, he worships trains. He is now the CEO of GHRC, the Great Himalayan Railway Corporation, a conglomerate infrastructure behemoth that literally changed the face of the earth.
‘We built over 3500km of standard gauge rail lines, all electrified. There are 350 stations open to passengers, 400 tunnels over 500km. The Skardu tunnel alone is 55km long. Japan and France became the poster boy rail technologies for all of the 3rd world, but we had no use for their focus on speed, efficiency and capacity. We needed reliability, sturdiness and quality of service. A very brave man would argue against our decision to go straight to the engineering teams of Switzerland and Norway.’
Phase 1 built the network in the original Kashmir valley. Phase 2 extended the network across the Great Himalayan, Zanskar, and Ladakh ranges to connect Leh. Phase 3 was called the Granite Triangle, and built two connections north from the Valley and Leh towards Karakoram in what used to be Baltistan. Phase 4 then sent capillaries into Gilgit, uniting the 4 great ranges of Asia.
Listening to him speak, one might think he’s a career engineer and technician, but he’s an investment banker and economist. His great success in revolutionizing the geopolitics of this part of the world, the most fractious in recent history, came not from moving men, materials, and information through electrified vehicles but money through special purpose vehicles. After the financial crisis of 2008, most people expected exotic synthetic derivatives and other fancy financial instruments with 3-letter acronyms would fade away passively or be regulated out actively. This never happened. Not really. After all, the crisis only exacerbated the issue of a mismatch between places where money was plentiful and places where investment opportunities were plentiful. Syed got on this bandwagon early, working on instruments that simulated a borderless world, the sort of efficient free market in the abstract dimension of money that classical economists were still trying to realize in the concrete dimension of goods and services.
Past Baramulla the train continues. Beyond the 1972 Line of Control and into the region that used to be called Azad Kashmir, a territory of Pakistan. There are no lines, no borders, nothing except lush fields, glacial lakes, and snow capped mountains with a bright red train chugging along like the hookah-smoking caterpillar from Alice In Wonderland. The parallel with the dream-like quality of this journey isn’t lost on me.
Numerous towns dot the rugged terrain where once only ibex and ravens dared. High up on the peaks are perched futuristic looking cabins where once only eagles dared. Climbers and backcountry skiers get on and off at the many stops the caterpillar makes. The plateau we’re snaking through is over 4000m high. That means skiers get off the train and immediately clip on their skis and skins to start their climbs. On the way down they ski all the way down to the station. We pull into a station just as 2 skiers nonchalantly make a hockey stop right at the edge of the platform, snap off their skis in one motion and get on the train like a business traveler talking on the phone and getting on an escalator at the airport. They stash their skis at the frequent wooden racks between compartments. The racks are heated and the boots, skis, jackets and gloves are all bone dry in a couple of minutes. They help themselves to a coffee from the vending machine, warming their hands and catching their breath.
Skardu? I ask.
Nah, too crowded. The Australian replies with a laugh. ‘Just the next stop, knock off another couple peaks before finding a bed.’
The beds are also owned by the GHRC. This is a spectacularly underrated component of the capitalist city state. The real estate driven hospitality industry that the rail network birthed now employs 146,000 people across 200 brand new self-sufficient communities that house and feed millions of tourists every day. It is the single largest cash flow generator of the company. The amazing thing is, that was the plan all along.
‘We chose tunnels over passes because the transport line never needed to be profitable or even break even. It needed to feed the hospitality and energy assets. Climbers and hikers in the summer. Skiers in the winter. Roads shut down when the passes are snowed in, but the trains never stop. The beds are never empty. The lights are never off.’
GHRC is a special stock corporation funded by a variety of REITs, AIFs, hedge funds and PE funds. The revenue flows are diversified in transportation, water, energy, and most importantly, real estate. That makes it an attractive income instrument for large portfolio managers.
‘It just so happened we had a disproportionate hand in which particular large portfolio managers found it attractive.’ I remember these words of his from our phone conversation before I flew in to Kashmir, and I’d never attached much significance to them.
For a broad stretch of the valley, a road runs parallel to the train. It leads North towards Jaglot where it turns West towards Chilas, joining the grand Karakoram Highway, originally called the Friendship Highway built by China and Pakistan. The audacity of Syed’s move strikes me only now.
I state my accusation baldly. He can neither confirm nor deny, he says with a smirk. The large portfolio managers all just happened to coincidentally be handling investments on behalf of the 3 largest Pakistani sovereign funds. A fact they would find out only a decade later, 2 years after the projects stabilized, revenues skyrocketed, and the stakes ended up being the most valuable portion of the country’s portfolio in the wake of the bond market collapse of 2023 and the three consecutive rounds of downgrading of national credit ratings. For 80 years, two countries that had failed to agree on anything, had been led by Syed into each owning 50% of the greatest engineering project of the 21st century. What hundreds of transparent summit meetings, international arbitration councils, peace committees, social welfare movements and humanitarian aid organizations had failed to do, was instead swiftly accomplished by an overly opaque investment paper trail whose footprints got lost somewhere between the banking entity in Mauritius, the holding companies in the British Virgin Islands, the JVs with European infrastructure firms, and the securitization into investible assets.
When Kashmir was poor, it was too valuable for its freedom to be granted. Now Kashmir was rich, and it was too valuable for its freedom to be threatened. Like Andorra whose sovereignty was guaranteed by France and Spain, Kashmir’s was guaranteed by India and Pakistan. They both got rich, got irrigated, and got visa-free travel to the world’s newest Switzerland on a flight as short as 35 minutes. A string of blockbuster Bollywood movies filed into Kashmir in those first few years of the free Kashmiri city state, cementing the mantra ‘make love songs, not war’.
‘It’s still a dangerous place. People still die. It’s like Stendhal syndrome. The man who died of a heart attack in Florence because Botticelli’s Birth Of Venus was just too beautiful for him to handle? We get 20 of that every year.’ He gives me the most inappropriate grin. ‘And then of course skiers and climbers fall off things or into things or have things fall on them.’
There has always been wistful talk about converting Kashmir to the Switzerland of the East.
‘I felt the wistfulness wasn’t wistful enough. Why be a metaphor when you can strive for the real thing? After all, East Pakistan was carved out of Bengal, and it had nothing to do with Pakistan. They spoke Bangla, not Urdu like the North West. They had a long heritage of cooperative group cultivation of rice, unlike the honor culture herders and individualist wheat planters of the North West. They were lower caste converts to Islam unlike the proud Persian descent of the muslims in the North West. They were united not by the past or by identity or culture, but by a vision of a future.’
When Kashmir became a city state there were calls to rename it. Kashmir is thought to refer to the Lake of Kashyap, the sage from Hindu mythology who settled his people here. And as long as Pakistan doesn’t become Paistan, Kashmir will not shed that association either.
‘If Bangladesh was once East Pakistan, maybe Kashmir should also link itself with the country with which it shares no past, identity, or culture, only a vision of the future. East Switzerland. Nature, neutrality, and..’
He smiles at me, gesturing for me to add a 3rd word starting with N.
‘Neoliberalism’, I say hoping he does not ask me what that means.
‘I was thinking Nestle chocolate, but maybe yours is better. The Mercantile Republic Of East Switzerland.’
We arrive at Skardu. Walking to the hotel, we make plans to meet in an hour at the restaurant. There is much to talk about. Syed has big plans for the future
Excerpted from the diary of Eliot Colvin, with permission from the heir of his estate, Ms.Carrie Colvin. This was the last entry of Mr.Colvin’s diary. He disappeared from his hotel on January 30th. A video emerged 2 months later, believed to be of his execution at the hands of the international terrorist organization, the Russian Free State Fighters.