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A Subcontinental Turning Point

By Praful Bidwai

19 February, 2005
The News International

It is simply impossible to exaggerate the importance of the agreement reached between India and Pakistan on launching a bus service between the two divided parts of Kashmir from April 7. It is the kind of breakthrough that has happened only very rarely in this fraught, long-strife-torn part of the world.

Perhaps the only other parallel is the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960. But even that had to be brokered by the World Bank. It essentially settled a long-festering old dispute between the two countries, which had by then intensified their mutual rivalry under the first intensive phase of the Cold War.

The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus deal is not only an externally un-mediated bilateral agreement; it opens up new vistas of cooperation, rather than put the lid on an already existing mutual dispute. This in itself is a great tribute to the mutual trust, good faith and maturity that the two governments are capable of. Although they normally do not allow such trust, the bus agreement raises hopes that able leaderships in both countries could help India-Pakistan relations soar sustainably to lofty heights; they could certainly put their sordid past behind themselves.

Soon, a bus carrying members of Kashmir's divided families, inquisitive tourists from other parts of Pakistan and India, and goodwill citizen visitors will roll along the same road that witnessed the first armed India-Pakistan clashes after Independence, in October 1947.

The 170-km road between the capitals of the two Kashmirs, especially its Uri-Chakothi stretch, is precisely where the two militaries laid countless landmines during the 1965 and 1971 wars, and even later. The hundreds of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines that still exist there are a reminder of past hostility. Their removal, now under way, could pave the way to a future that both peoples richly deserve.

The proposal for the bus crossing the Line of Control, ran into rough weather at least four times before the agreement was finally reached after much "back-channel" discussion. Ultimately, a deal could be struck because both New Delhi and Islamabad agreed to give-and-take -- without compromising their respective legal or political positions on Kashmir.

India conceded Pakistan's demand that the bus passengers should carry neither visas nor passports; only locally issued identity documents would be valid. Pakistan in turn, dropped its insistence that the service be limited to the Kashmiris alone, and that the papers to be carried from Srinagar should not bear a Government of India stamp. India too agreed to respect papers issued by the Government of "Azad Kashmir" (which it does not politically recognise).

With the bus agreement, three things have happened. First, the once intense Pakistani fear has been significantly allayed that New Delhi would use the bus as a substitute for serious talks on Kashmir; if anything, once the bus starts rolling, there will be more pressure on India to pursue thecomprehensive bilateral talks agenda.

In reality, the bus deal has created a more favourable climate for talks on other issues, including Kashmir. India will now be under unprecedented pressure to put Kashmir on the negotiating table and associate Indian-Kashmiri opinion with the process.

Second, there has been a considerable weakening of one lobby or current opinion in the Indian Establishment, which holds that Pakistan is not, and cannot be, sincere about shedding its visceral hostility towards India, and improving relations. This lobby argued that Pakistan didn't want the bus in the first place; it would put all kinds of obstacles, however unreasonable, to scuttle it; in view of Pakistan's demands (including one final "bargaining" proposal about the Central government not stamping papers), it would be futile to negotiate with Islamabad beyond a point. This hardline opinion has got discredited, albeit temporarily. (Presumably, the same has happened to Pakistani hardliners.)

Third, the bus agreement has facilitated and speeded up deals on other links, including the Khokhrapar-Munabao rail service between Sindh and Rajasthan, and buses between Lahore/Nankana Sahib and Amritsar. On the rail link, Pakistani officials only a couple of months ago demanded about three years' time to convert the metre gauge track on their side to broad gauge -- the 5-foot 6-inch distance between a pair of rails, which prevails only in South Asia.

Now, however, it is agreed that pending gauge conversion, Indian and Pakistani passengers can use the available tracks to the International Border, and then cross the border, and board a train of the other country's railways. The service should open in October.

Apart from this, the bus agreement has created a new level of trust which is likely to result in some prompt action on the eight month-old agreement to re-open consulates in Mumbai and Karachi, as well as address other outstanding disputes and issues, including Siachen, Baglihar, Sir Creek, etc.

To be fair, the bus wasn't the only icebreaker. There was a second one: the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline as a stand-alone project. Hence, New Delhi's recent decision to authorise Petroleum Minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, to negotiate oil and gas supply agreements with various countries,
and to de-link the overland pipeline from any transit rights through Pakistan for India, played a critical role here.

This too became possible because Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh rejected the hardliners' argument that pipeline transit fees would "unduly" benefit Pakistan, eventually encouraging it to re-launch a proxy war against India. There was a paranoid fear that Pakistan could cut off supplies at will, jeopardising India's energy security. This fear will soon be put to rest. The pipeline deal-in-the-offing could be another instance of nothing succeeding like success.

The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus agreement has already spurred a demand from the Valley for bus services between Suchetgarh and Sialkot, Nowshera and Mirpur, Rajouri and Bimber, and Kargil and Skardu. At any rate, there is widespread jubilation in the Valley at the realisation of this "dream" bus link. Political currents from the ruling People's Democratic Party and Congress, to the National Conference, and the Left, have all welcomed the bus.

The only grumblers are the BJP, which says the bus will facilitate terrorists' entry into India, and people like the Jaish-e-Mohammed (which has threatened to attack the bus) and Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who makes the trite observation that the bus won't get rid of "repressive laws" or "human
rights violations" (which it won't), and therefore it's "a non-issue" (which it isn't)! Asia Andrabi, chief of Dukhtaran-e-Millat, has gone one better, saying the bus service "is a sinful attempt to influence the disputed status of Kashmir. Those who support the bus service are our enemies."

This should occasion some rethinking about just who these worthies represent in India or Kashmir. It should also highlight the physical vulnerability of the bus to extremist attacks.India and Pakistan have a long way to go in realising the potential for cooperation -- well beyond the 120,000 visas India issues every year, and the measly proportions of their bilateral trade in their total international trade. The introduction of normal tourist visas is long overdue, as is cooperation in education, science and culture. But the two have at last made a worthy beginning.











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