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The good news from Srinagar

Allow me a little gloat. When the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus was first suggested — back in 2000 and then in 2003 — nobody believed ...

Allow me a little gloat. When the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus was first suggested — back in 2000 and then in 2003 — nobody believed it would actually happen. I remember calling a number of news agencies, including this paper, from 2000 on, asking for a feature on how the bus would work, and being turned down. The editors believed I was piping a dream that would never come true.

Well, now it has come true. And there are two reasons why. One, it happened because Kashmiris stood firm. Two, it happened because our government stayed the course, instead of giving up at the first signs of opposition. When the Indian government first suggested the bus, the Pakistani government was reluctant. It was only after Azad Kashmiris forced their leaders to tell General Musharraf that the bus had to be supported that the Pakistani government agreed. And though they grudgingly agreed to the service in principle, there were a number of hurdles to be crossed — the most dangerous of which was the deadlock over travel documents. Pakistan’s demand for UN-issued documents would have made the Kashmiris of Jammu and Ladakh, and the Pandits, deeply nervous; while India’s insistence on passports would have alienated Kashmiri Muslims still further, and given the militants a new lease of life.

Thankfully, most of those hurdles have now been crossed. But they have left us with a truncated service — the bus will run once a fortnight — and only one crossing point, instead of the several that were on the negotiating table, for instance, the Jammu-Sialkot and Kargil-Skardu routes, and five meeting points along the LoC for divided families and communities. The Jammu-Sialkot and Kargil-Skardu routes will be reopened at a later stage, we are told; it is anybody’s guess when this promise will become reality. In the meantime, Pakistan has rejected the idea of meeting points, though it was intended to alleviate dissatisfaction in Jammu, Ladakh and the Northern Areas at being denied shorter routes. It did not befit Kasuri, in most cases a perfect gentleman, to say Pakistan did not want to herd Kashmiris into barbed wire enclosures. The idea of meeting points came from Kashmiri civil society groups, and I was delighted that the government of India supported them. The proposal deserved more consideration from the Pakistani government than it got.

It is also a pity that the two governments have decided to begin with a fortnightly rather than daily service. Opening up the LoC could have an enormous — and favourable — impact on the political situation in Jammu and Kashmir. Kashmiris on both sides will look upon their governments more benignly for having fulfilled a long-standing aspiration; each side’s economy will get a much needed boost; and once the many communities and cultures of Jammu and Kashmir begin commingling again they might well find a solution that is acceptable to India, Pakistan and the people of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. Opening up official crossing points could also reduce the violence in Kashmir.

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Many in India rightly fear security threats to the bus service, and the potential for its misuse. Yet the likelihood that the bus service will improve security is greater than the likelihood of its misuse. An increasing number of countries — and groups of countries, such as the European Union and the Organisation of African States — have found that soft borders can help reduce violence and pave the way for lasting peace. For a start, the more official crossing points there are, the less the unofficial crossing points will be, curbing the black economies that generally develop in conflict-ridden areas to the benefit of armed and criminal groups, as both India and Pakistan know to their cost.

This, of course, means that there will be spoilers. The armed and criminal groups that benefit from Jammu and Kashmir’s isolation have already threatened to disrupt the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service. Worse still, they have begun to assassinate the civic representatives elected in the recent municipal polls in Jammu and Kashmir. Ten elected representatives have already been killed; this has led to an equal number resigning in panic, and publishing “apologies” to the militant groups for having stood for election.

The Pakistani government and civil society could have done more to push for an end to political assassinations in Jammu and Kashmir. Unequivocal opposition to these acts is still, unaccountably, missing at the public level. More distressingly, so is back channel opposition. Just recently, the Pakistani agencies used their influence over militant groups in Afghanistan to allow a violence-free election. Why not for Kashmir? This is a question that I hope our government keeps asking, not only of the Pakistani government, but also of the international community, whose pressure on the Pakistani government appears to have waned of late.

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True, the Hurriyat Conference has also not spoken out against the killings. On the contrary, their call for a poll boycott played into militant hands and went against the popular will in Jammu and Kashmir. But they are under threat. Abdul Ghani Lone and Maulvi Mushtaq both lost their lives to militants seeking to keep the Hurriyat under their control. The only people who can free the Hurriyat are the Pakistanis, but we don’t know whether they will.

In other words, there is still no clear agreement between the Indian and Pakistani governments to work together to end the violence in Kashmir. But at least the two governments have agreed to an indirect route to curb the violence through increased “people to people” exchanges. And think of this. Kashmiris have long held up a vision of the role their region could play as the place where Indians and Pakistanis put the hostilities of Partition behind them. As of April 7, Kashmir will be the only part of India and Pakistan which the two countries’ nationals can visit without passports and visas. Who could have expected this when relations between the two governments seemed to be sliding into acrimony? Strange, indeed, are the ways of our leaders — wondrous strange, and in this case, wondrously pleasing.

Radha Kumar is author of ‘Making Peace With Partition’

First published on: 17-03-2005 at 00:00 IST
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