Tardy procedures, mistrust & suffocating bureaucracy beset major India-Pakistan Kashmir CBM

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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


Fixing India-Pakistan antagonism: Cross-border religious tourism is lowest-hanging fruit

The 2005 restoration of Katas Raj temple complex in Pakistan’s Punjab provides the blueprint for taking the process forward

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Dec 26, 2015

Singer Anup Jalota’s bhajan ‘prabhuji tum chandan hum pani’ played in the background as a saffron-robed priest purified Krishna, Radha and Hanuman’s idols with milk for their installation at Lahore’s Krishna Temple in February 2007. The temple on Ravi Road in Pakistan’s cultural capital was packed with devotees, many of whom occupied the corridor and stairs to witness the unusual murti sathapna amid Hindu chants.

The India-Pakistan detente (2003-2008) had allowed a group of Indian pilgrims’ to carry out the first sathapna at the temple since partition virtually emptied out Hindus and Sikhs of west Punjab and Muslims of the region’s eastern part.

The sathapna was perhaps the little-known high-point of the thaw before the attacks on Mumbai derailed the process in 2008.

The inclusion of religious tourism now in the recently-announced India-Pakistan dialogue should allow the two countries to pick up the threads on this front to promote greater people-to-people contact.

The 2005 restoration of Katas Raj temple complex in Pakistan’s Punjab provides the blueprint for taking the process forward.

Ex-deputy prime minister L K Advani’s choice for inaugurating the restoration project was highly symbolic and contributed to goodwill during that period.

It showed the willingness to move beyond the toxic legacy of partition and Advani’s Babri Masjid demolition campaign, which triggered anti-Muslim violence reminiscent of the grisly bloodbath in 1947.

The first religious service at Katas since partition was held with much fanfare in 2006. But tense India-Pakistan ties have left its religious tourism potential unrealised.

Religious tourism is perhaps the best way to engage the religious right, which is seen to be most resistant to altering status quo in bilateral ties. It is the lowest-hanging fruit that could be harnessed for a positive impact on solving more fractious issues.

Cross-border Muslim and Sikh religious tourism has thrived for decades. And the addition of two shrines associated Hindu triumvirate’s third god, Shiva, to it in Pakistan — Katas and Hinglaj — can potentially generate unparalleled goodwill.

Katas’s importance to the Hindu mythology could draw Indian pilgrims in droves if they are encouraged like Sikhs. Seven temples in Katas are dedicated to Amar Kund. It is one of the two sacred ponds believed to have been created after Lord Shiva’s tears fell on the earth at Katas and Pushkar as he mourned his consort, Sati.

Even Mahabharata protagonist Yudhishthira is said to have passed his wisdom test at Katas to bring his four siblings to life during their exile there.

Over a thousand-km away, Mata Hinglaj Temple in Baluchistan’s remote mountains is one of 52 shaktipeeths believed to have been created at places where body parts of Shiva’s consort, Parvati, had fallen.

In Hinglaj, Parvati’s forehead with vermillion mark had fallen after Shiva took her corpse around following her self-immolation.

Muslims revere the shrine and call it Nani Pir. This was evident when then Baluchistan chief minister late Jam Mohammad Yousaf refurbished the shrine in 2007.

Accounts of pilgrimage to Hinglaj date back to the fourth century. It was among the toughest pilgrimages, which took 45 days via Karachi before partition. A Uttam Kumar-starrer Bengali film captured the perilous journey to Hinglaj in the 1950s.

Ex-defence minister Jaswant Singh had led a group of Indian pilgrims to Hinglaj for the first time since partition in February 2006.

The fresh peace process could boost reopening of shrines like Sharda Peeth, dedicated to Goddess Saraswati on the Pakistani side of Kashmir, and become symbols of enduring peace if India-Pakistan ties do not take the familiar schizophrenic trajectory.

Courtesy: The Times of India


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