Kashmir’s bus ride to peace

Muzamil Jaleel
17 April 2005

Also in openDemocracy's debate on India & Pakistan, articles by Antara Dev Sen, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Navnita Chadha Behera, Rajeev Bhargava, Gurharpal Singh, and Maruf Khwaja.

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For fifty-eight years, a long, high bridge has been the most visible symbol of enmity between India and Pakistan. The “line of control” divides it, as it cuts through the disputed territory of Kashmir and its people alike. A few metres away, a mountain rockface also slices between India and Pakistan.

After decades of high tension, including three wars, the two countries had found it impossible to split the three brick piers of the sixty-metre bridge. Not long ago, this area was a death-trap; a minefield with soldiers hidden inside bunkers on either side, frequently exchanging bullets and shells. No passerby on this part of the 115-year old road would have survived even a few steps.

Today, the soldiers of India and Pakistan exchange pleasantries and sweets. The bridge, rebuilt and painted white, has become a site of celebration and reunion for Kashmir’s hundreds of divided families. This focal point of the line of control (LoC) – in a region made even more tense during the last fifteen years of violent conflict between the Indian armed forces and Kashmiri militants seeking independence or union with Pakistan – is, suddenly, a place of hope.

The buses that carried forty-nine passengers between Srinagar (India-controlled Kashmir) and Muzaffarabad (Pakistan-controlled Kashmir) on 7 April 2005 were the first to cross the LoC since 1947. The reopening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road connecting the two capital cities is the first tangible confidence-building measure initiated by the respective national governments in New Delhi and Islamabad, the first crack in Kashmir’s equivalent of the Berlin wall, the first fissure in south Asia’s iron curtain since the 1947 partition divided British India into two nation-states and left the status of Kashmir unresolved between them.

The first passenger to walk across from Pakistan-controlled Kashmir at 2 pm on 7 April 2005 completed the epochal journey with a kiss. Zia Sardar knelt, crouched and placed his lips on a land he belonged to but had never touched. As he stood up, his eyes were moist with tears. “The biggest aim of my life is fulfilled”, he said.

Choudhary Akhtar followed Zia Sardar across the bridge. “I can’t control my emotions. I can’t believe my eyes”, he said. “It is a dream. Let me look around. Let me see’’. An elderly man, Sharif Hussain Bukhari, then walked in. “I am coming after much more than your age”, he said. “This day has come after fifty-five years’’. The entire family of Bukhari, a retired high-court judge, still lives in Kreeri, a small north Kashmir town. “I have looked forward to this day for decades.”

Fareeda Gani, a writer living in Muzaffarabad, said: “I was born in Srinagar and married off in Azad Kashmir. This is my land and it pains me that I had to wait for three long decades to make this journey. I hope that this is the beginning of a new era and that no border ever stops us meeting our own people.”

The Indian soldiers who had restored the road, cleared the mines and laid the new bridge were jubilant to be part of a historic peace effort. “This work has been special”, said Lieutenant-Colonel Maninder Singh. “We feel we are healing the wounds. It is like putting stitches in the wounds of the psyche of people separated for a long time.”

After a five-hour journey, it took exactly seven minutes for the thirty men and women from Pakistani Kashmir to walk across the bridge. As they did so any residual elements of hostility dissolved in a massive outpouring of raw emotion and love. The passengers were greeted by a welcome tune from Indian army bagpipers, garlands of flowers, sweets and hugs, and a handshake from Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, chief minister of Indian Kashmir. Then, the nineteen passengers from Indian Kashmir crossed the LoC in the opposite direction to a similar warm welcome.

Each of the passengers had a tragic story of families separated from their loved ones. Mohammad Abdullah Bhat and his wife Ghulam Fatimah had travelled from Srinagar. Bhat had spent decades hoping for a reunion with his two elder brothers who had been stuck across the border in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir in 1947. In 1988, Bhat had married his 16-year-old daughter Akhtar to his nephew Afzal in Muzzafarbad in order to renew the fading bonds.

“We had never seen him (Afzal). I thought this is the only way to keep the relations alive”, Bhat said. “We bid her (Akhtar) goodbye thinking the relations between the two countries will improve and we will see her again soon”. Bhat said that he had no idea what was to follow that period of relative peace. “She could never come back. And when the troubles started in 1990, even the letters from her started drying up. I thought she will not even hear about my or her mother’s death in time. Thank God, this peace bus has given us an opportunity to meet with our loved ones. We are excited.”

Kashmir’s hopes

The peace-bus passengers on 7 April were on a journey into history, in search of their families and reconciliation with their past. For India and Pakistan, the event was about the future, a momentous confidence-building measure that was designed to break a vicious cycle of cross-border animosity. But on all sides joy and hope were tinged with fear, and a historic day had been preceded by violence and apprehension.

Islamic militants fighting for Kashmir’s separation from India had denounced the reopening of the road connecting the two parts of Kashmir as a tactic aimed at diverting the international community’s attention from the demands of their movement. Their three warnings to aspiring travellers had instructed them “not to trample upon the corpses of hundreds of thousands of martyrs” by boarding a bus that will become a “coffin”.

On 6 April, Islamic militants launched a three-hour attack on Srinagar’s tourist reception centre, where the Muzaffarabad-bound passengers had been installed for safekeeping before their journey. They then fired rocket-propelled grenades towards the bus during its journey. Under such pressure, nine passengers dropped out before the first bus departed, and two more disembarked after it had travelled only five kilometres.

This violent resistance by Islamic militants is the most radical signal of opposition to this major peace move between India and Pakistan. Behind it, however, Kashmir’s “bus diplomacy” evokes concerns in different political constituencies in India, Pakistan and Kashmir.

In Pakistan, religious parties like Jamiat-e-Islami are against the bus initiative, seeing it as a betrayal of the country’s traditional support of the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination. In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) oppose the reopening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road and movement across the LoC without the need to show passports and visas. In Kashmir, the hardline separatist camp led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani furiously rejects the move as an attempt to dilute the seriousness of the Kashmir dispute and the urgent need permanently to resolve it.

In light of these concerns, the reopening of the road link has a fourfold significance. First, India and Pakistan are allowing passengers to carry travel permits rather than passports across the LoC for the first time, a flexible compromise in respect of their traditionally rigid national stances over Kashmir.

Second, this is the first peace initiative between India and Pakistan where Kashmir is centre-stage not just at a policy level but in a tangible, practical way. This gives extra seriousness to the India-Pakistan discourse over Kashmir, one shadowed by the nuclear rivalry between the two states as well as their history of wars.

Third, the move directly addresses the aspirations of ordinary Kashmiris, providing them with their first chance to escape decades of forced isolation (even today, there are no phone links across the LoC) and begin creating links between themselves and the outside world.

Fourth, the opening of the Kashmir border offers the prospect of increasing trade and economic growth and creating employment opportunities for disaffected young people. The apple industry, the backbone of Kashmir’s rural economy, will receive a substantial boost if its products can be quickly and efficiently exported to Pakistan and beyond.

India’s and Pakistan’s fears

To give these aspirations an enduring foundation will require some in India and Pakistan to address and overcome their fears about the Kashmir peace initiative.

On the Indian side, there are four such fears. First, Indian security agencies worry that the reopening of the road will ease interaction between separatists on both sides of the LoC in a way that could develop into a security nightmare. They emphasise that Pakistan-controlled Kashmir is used as a base-camp and launching-pad for infiltration of militants as well as arms into the valley, so the relaxation of the LoC could backfire.

Second, elements on the Indian side argue that the road’s reopening will physically bond Kashmiris on either side and thus provide a psychological boost to the separatist ideology – a tendency reinforced by the fact that the majority of Kashmiris share a religious identity with Pakistan-controlled Kashmir as well as with Pakistan itself.

Third, the very need to reopen a road with Pakistan-controlled Kashmir in order to build confidence among people in India-controlled Kashmir is seen as a surrender to the two-nation theory that led to the religion-based partition of India in 1947, a theory that Indians always rejected.

Fourth, the agreement by India’s government to allow Kashmiris to cross the LoC without Indian passports is viewed as a shift in New Delhi’s traditional Kashmir policy: that Kashmir is an integral part of India and Kashmiris are like all other Indian citizens. New Delhi’s thinking (and yearning) in this regard was the foundation of its decades-long policy of the constitutional integration of Jammu & Kashmir within India; what will happen if it is now obliged to make real its regular promises to recognise Kashmir’s “special status”?

On the Pakistan side, there are three fears. First, the reopening of the route between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad will demystify Pakistan and break the myth of the “holy land”. A substantial constituency in Kashmir always had a romantic vision of Pakistan as the ultimate land of Islam which the partition of 1947 denied them. The romantic curiosity nurtured among many Kashmiris by fifty-eight years of separation will vanish once the veil is lifted.

The effects may be sharply felt. People on both sides of the LoC are Muslims, but they are also Punjabis, Gujaratis, and Biharis who share culture, food habits and even temperament with their Hindu or Sikh neighbours. “Punjabis can be Muslims, Hindus or Sikhs but when they get angry they swear the same way. They eat the same food and love the same music”, says one analyst. “When Kashmiris establish normal contact with Pakistanis, they will find them exactly like people living in the plains of India. This will break a lot of myths.”

Second, the peace initiative will expose a Kashmiri separatist leadership that attacks civilians and siphons money from ordinary Pakistanis to the families of slain militants in Kashmir. A relaxation in the line of control will allow closer scrutiny by the Pakistani public of the violent acts and intolerant attitudes of the Kashmir separatists. Furthermore, the ability to travel legally and openly between Muzaffarabad and Srinagar will undermine the sense of adventure that attaches itself to the “rite of passage” trek of a young militant across the LoC.

Third, the free movement of people across the LoC will transform the context in which the Kashmir dispute is conducted. The reopening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road is likely to bring India and Pakistan closer even at the cost of postponing a permanent resolution of the Kashmir problem. If communication across the line of control works smoothly, it will reduce separatist sentiment, erase the redrawing of boundaries as the key to a solution, and create new definitions of identity.

India and Pakistan say that the peace process symbolised by their bus diplomacy is “irreversible”. The bus has a long way to travel, but it is already clear that it may have the capacity to transform more than Kashmir alone.

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