Join News Letter

Iraq War

Peak Oil

Climate Change

US Imperialism











Gujarat Pogrom



India Elections



Submit Articles

Contact Us

Fill out your
e-mail address
to receive our newsletter!




The Good News From Islamabad

By Radha Kumar

09 March, 2005
The News International

After a depressing lull in the India-Pakistan talks, during which the two governments appeared to be stuck on niggling technical details, Foreign Ministers Singh and Kasuri have given us an enormous breakthrough. The agreements they announced at Islamabad on February 15 and 16 - to
start the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service on April 7, and the Khokrapur-Munabao rail link in October - are key confidence building measures for India and Pakistan as well as for Kashmiris, Sindhis and Rajasthanis, who have already started to celebrate.

Like Mehbooba Mufti, I hope that the next routes to be reopened will be between divided Jammu and Kargil-Skardu. The benefits that these routes can bring to local residents on either side are enormous, both tangible and intangible; as are the political dividends that would flow to Indian and Pakistani leaders for having made a long held Kashmir wish their priority.

A number of misgivings over the decision have been voiced in India, some very petty, like the BJP's complaint that the Indian government should have insisted on travel by passport rather than a permit. Such a position would have violated the Indian government's claim, reiterated by parliament during the BJP's tenure, to the whole of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir; a claim that is also made by Pakistan. More important, it would have detracted from the spirit of the service, which was to free humanitarian interests from legal and territorial disputes, or rather not to let the latter impinge on the former.

The more serious concern that many Indians have voiced is security, both for the bus service and about the potential for its misuse. Yet the likelihood that the bus service will actually improve the security situation is much greater than the likelihood of its misuse. An increasing number of countries - and groups of countries, such as the European Union and the Organization of African States - are beginning to find 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 have learnt to their cost.

This of course means that there will be spoilers. The 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 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.

In India, the perception is that 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. There is a belief in New Delhi that in the past, when word went out from the Pakistani agencies to militant groups to halt their attacks, it was broadly effective, and that the agencies' influence is still fairly strong. It is reported that earlier this year, instructions to militant groups to concentrate their attacks on Indian security forces and stop civilian attacks were obeyed in the valley, though less so in the border regions of Jammu. In other words, the thinking is that if the Pakistani government were to put out the word that these killings must stop, they would give genuine relief to the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

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. Abdul Ghani Lone and Maulvi Mushtaq both lost their lives to elements seeking to keep the Hurriyat under their control -- the former had courageously gone public on the need for an end to the violence and the withdrawal of "guest mujahedeen". In fact, the Hurriyat, or at least the majority of the Hurriyat now that Mr. Geelani has split from them, have sought an honourable exit for the militant groups for some years now.

It may be reading too much into the recent agreements to say that they indicate a new willingness in Pakistan to end support for the violence in Jammu and Kashmir. Until recently, the general feeling in Pakistani political circles was that their government had gone a long way in curbing militant movement across the Line of Control, and India would have to open talks on Kashmir for any further steps to be taken. Now it looks as if the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road agreement signals a new, albeit tacit, policy by the two governments: to let "people-to-people" measures make their own impact on reducing the violence. The Azad Kashmir police have said they will ensure security for passengers; this should put some curbs on the comforts that militant groups have enjoyed there.

On the Indian side of the Line of Control, the bus service will cut through the isolation that the militant groups have flourished on. Indeed when Vajpayee proposed the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service in 2000, the militant groups saw it as a "ploy" to free Uri from their control, as it then was. Uri hasn't been under militant control for some years, but the bus will allow the residents of Azad Kashmir to see how deep the longing is for an end to the violence in Jammu and Kashmir.

The impact of the bus service on the political situation on both sides of the Line of Control could be even more considerable, especially if the Jammu and Kargil-Skardu routes are opened. No one can tell what will emerge as the dominant Kashmiri voice once the many communities and cultures of Jammu and Kashmir begin commingling again; or whether there will be one dominant voice instead of the many that presently exist . Much depends on how officials on either side deal with the travel permits. If they are restrictive, which would be a likely and natural response given the hostility that has persisted between them, then the political situation will be only slightly changed, and not for the better. Political activists on both sides - especially the trouble spots of the valley, Gilgit and Baltistan - will have a new grievance against India and Pakistan if they are denied the access that divided families or tourists might have.

But if the two governments are liberal in their grant of permits, which means that they would have to increase traffic as fast as they can, the political impact could be huge. At first sight, the implications could be worrying, especially for those Indians who fear the valley is lost to them, and to the far fewer Pakistanis who fear Baltistan, and maybe Gilgit, are lost to them. A second look, however, shows the far greater probability that Kashmiris will discover once again the respect for difference which had
traditionally helped them live together; a development that can only benefit both India and Pakistan.

Imaginatively, one of the side benefits least commented on is a vision that Kashmiris on the Indian side of the Line of Control have long held as for the role their region could play, as a place where Indians and Pakistanis could put the hostilities of partition behind them. As of April 7, Kashmir will be the only part of India and Pakistan that 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.

The writer is a visiting professor at Jamia Millia University, Delhi, and author of the forthcoming Making Peace With Partition, Penguin India











Search Our Archive

Our Site