After decades of discontinuity and months of negotiations, the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service is scheduled to resume on 7 April 2005. How could one situate this in the Indo-Pak peace process? What impact will it have on the Kashmir issue? Is the initiative free of challenges?
The Bus and Beyond
There are two aspects of the peace process between India and Pakistan: confidence building measures and resolution of outstanding issues. The resumption of this bus service between the two capitals of Indian and Pakistani-held Kashmir comes under the peace process, which would help to addressing the second aspect. How?
Firstly, connectivity will help reunite nearly 20 lakh families thus far separated by the LoC. The service would make contacts between Kashmiris easy and cheap, which was otherwise circuitous and costly. If this service succeeds, it would encourage opening of the Jammu-Sialkot route.
Secondly, the bus service would provide for transparency and greater interaction between Kashmiris. The perceptions of each segment about the other, based hitherto on state propaganda, would undergo a qualitative change. A similar connectivity across the Berlin Wall ultimately brought the Wall down. The LoC might also meet a similar fate.
Thirdly, as non-Kashmiri Indian and Pakistani citizens can also use the service without the need for passports and visas, it would increase tourist traffic between the two countries. More tourist flows will provide more economic opportunities for the poverty-ridden border villages through roadside refreshment stalls, restaurants, workshops for moving vehicles, shops promoting local products and handicrafts and so on. The locals are expected to benefit from the demand for labour to maintain roads and bridges along the highway. It would also rejuvenate trade and commerce between the two neighbours.
Fourthly, the bus service is an outcome of successful back channel diplomacy between the late J. N. Dixit and Tariq Aziz, and the flexibility and compromise demonstrated by both sides. This style offers a good model for resolution of other contentious issues between India and Pakistan.
There are, however, many challenges before the proposed service:
1. The 170-km highway, which has not been in use for long years, requires repairs. It also requires mending of four bridges, especially the all important Red Bridge (Lal Pul) that connects both sides of the Kashmir. In addition, the road has to be cleared of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines laid by both sides beginning in 1948. Many of these mines have shifted from their original location, especially in the Uri-Chakoti stretch. Without grid reference, demining will be a tedious and time consuming process. Besides, heavy snowfall and avalanches in the area has delayed this work. Given the enormity of the task, can the service begin on schedule?
2. The militant groups, especially from Pakistani Kashmir, like Hizbul Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Al-Umar Mujahideen, Jamiat-ul-Ansar, and Akhwan-ul-Muslimeen have threatened to disrupt the bus service when it becomes operational. There is also the danger of infiltration by militants posing as passengers. How will India handle this threat?
3. The provision for carrying passports/visas has been done away with. But, the arrangement agreed upon is fairly cumbersome. For instance, an Indian wishing to travel across the LoC has to make an application to the "designated authority" ? the regional passport office in Srinagar ? with all the details normally provided in a passport, including photographs. The completed application forms are then forwarded to the Pakistani immigration authorities across the LoC for "pre-verification", and recording the application details of those cleared. Only after this, can one buy the ticket. The entire exercise would take a minimum of two or three weeks. The approved application form then has to be submitted at the crossing point at the LoC to obtain a 'LoC Crossing Permit' before boarding the Pakistani bus for Muzaffarabad. The procedure could be a "win-win" solution, but seem cumbersome as compared to the procedure involving passport/visa.
4. The traveling arrangement on cards is synchronized. The departures of the Pakistani bus from Muzaffarabad and Indian bus from Srinagar are synchronized so that they could reach the crossing point at the same time to exchange passengers. If one bus breaks down or gets delayed for any reason it would cause problems for passengers from the other side.
It is important that these challenges are kept in mind before the service start in April, otherwise, April is also known for the 'April Fools Day'.