Sameer Arshad Khatlani
November 2, 2008
Salamabad, otherwise a nondescript ethic pahari minority dominated village near the Line of Control (LoC), suddenly came alive on October 21, as villagers gathered to celebrate the historic opening of trade links across divided Kashmir for the first time in six decades.
The mood was festive as a crowd lined up on both sides of the LoC, clapping and celebrating the chipping away of yet another part of the “iron curtain” between the divided Kashmir. On the other side children dressed in their brightest sang songs of an emotional reunion on the beats of drums and musical instruments.
Euphoria notwithstanding, the route, however, largely remains symbolic as limited trade would be allowed across the de facto border; only four trucks will be allowed each side once a week.
Skeptics say the opening of trade was nothing more than “a joke”. They point out that similar euphoria was created around the launch of Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service in 2005. But three-and-a-half years on, the service, described as “mother of all CBMs”, has miserably failed to meet expectations. Thanks to the tardy procedure, mistrust and suffocating bureaucracy, only 9,000 passengers have traveled between the two sides of Kashmir on the “peace bus” even as regional passport office Srinagar alone received 14,600 applications from Indian nationals.
Naseema Begum, who watched the flagging off ceremony on TV at her Srinagar home, says she could not help but think it was a cruel joke. Naseema says she has given up hopes of meeting her family in Muzaffarabad after she was denied a permit recently. “They sat on my application for more than three years and finally rejected it on flimsy grounds,” Naseema says. She says it’s easier to travel on a visa to Pakistan and asks, “What was the need of staging a drama that the travel on the bus will be hassle free for the divided families with no requirement of visa and passport?” “It’s like rubbing salt into our wounds.”
Srinagar businessman Mohammad Shafi echoes the skepticism. “The opening of trade routes is historic, but we have our doubts looking at the fate of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, which has been reduced to a mere symbolic practice,” he says.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had raised divided families’ expectations when he told Lok Sabha on April 20, 2005: “We started the service despite terrorist threats and a suicide attack. The courage and determination of our people give us confidence for its continued operation with even greater frequency in the future. I am convinced the service has tapped a latent reservoir of public support for greater people-to-people contact, especially among people living on either side of the LoC.”
The then foreign secretary Shyam Saran went a step further and described the bus service as a “humanitarian measure without prejudice and a win-win situation for all”.
“Hollow proved the lofty promises,” says Muzaffarabad-resident Nadeem Hashmi, whose application for a permit was also rejected recently. “Assurances of hassle-free travel across the LoC raised hopes of divided families. I have never met half of my family, which stays in Indian administered Kashmir. My father had migrated from Karnah in north Kashmir and settled in Muzaffarabad in 1947,” he says. “Ever contacts with our kin on the other side have been few and far between.”
Even the lucky ones like Noor Mohammad (name changed) of Karna, who managed to get a permit to see his kin in PoK, are bitter. “After a long wait, I finally managed to go to Muzaffarabad. But the suffocating bureaucracy and rampant corruption left me bitter,” he says. Noor alleges that while he was returning from PoK he was charged Rs 4,000 as “customs duty” even as he wasn’t carrying anything that warranted it.
Residents of Karna also point out that crossing points across the LoC set up to facilitate contacts between the divided families are “subjected to whims of local authorities on either side”.
“There is no accountability and the authorities demand bribes for letting people meet each other,” a local resident alleges. He says crossing points are opened on alternate Thursdays. “But no crossings were allowed on consecutive weeks last month. Once Pakistanis said they won’t allow crossing because of Eid holiday and then on our side Army refused crossings saying they were celebrating Dussera,” he says. “What is the point of having such arrangement when you cannot even meet your kin on Eid?”
Getting a permit to travel on the peace bus is complex and time-consuming. Once permission is sought, the issuance of a permit is subject to clearance from the secret services of India and Pakistan. And officials resort to the usual blame game. “POK authorities are responsible for the delay. They take a long time in clearing the applications, at times even more than six months,” a regional passport office official said. “We take at the most two.”
Intelligence agencies say they are choosy in recommending permits as many PoK residents refuse to go back. About a dozen of them have stayed back after approaching High Court. “We find it difficult to repatriate POK visitors as many of them go underground after failing to get permit extension to stay beyond 28 days,” a source said.
Intelligence agencies have also forcibly sent back around a dozen Pakistani citizens in last three years.
Visitors are allowed to stay beyond 15 days in case of some emergency but the permit rules make extension beyond 28 days impossible.
Aasim Awan who managed to get a permit to travel across LoC after a three-year wait says divided families deserve more than just symbolic gestures. “The bus service has been an abject failure,” he says. He says if the government is sincere, the least it could do for the divided families is to open telephone lines. “Telephone is the basic service. We can only receive phone calls from PoK. Our government has banned telecommunication links across LoC,” he notes. “So how can trade take place when people can’t talk on the phone?”
Cautious optimism, however, prevails in Salamabad as local residents believe cross-LoC trade promises good days for the area, scene of the devastating October 2005 earthquake. Salamabad trader Mohammad Ibrahim said, “The region was always backward but earthquake made things worse. But the opening of the trade is a new ray of hope for us. The roads are being repaired and the development is visible.”
Courtesy: The Times of India