By Praful Bidwai
19 February, 2005
The News International
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.
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
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
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.
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.