Now the entire region across the international border and the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan is discussing the invitation to the SAARC Heads of the State by Narendra Modi as a diplomatic coup, and the positive response by Nawaz Sharif as a rising up to the occasion.
True, it is a diplomatic signaling and a positive one, as Narendra Modi starts a new innings in New Delhi as India’s Prime Minister. Given the reservations and apprehensions about Modi in the region, it was a good move by the new Prime Minister to start his reign with a positive note. Taking part in the meeting should not have been an easier decision by Nawaz Sharif either, given the domestic opposition by the hawkish groups within Pakistan. For both the leaders, and for the two countries, and also for the two parts of J&K, it is a good omen.
Sharif also met Vajpayee and did mention that he would like to pick up the threads from his earlier stint as Pakistan’s Prime Minister in the 1990s. So much has changed in the India-Pakistan context since 1999; but ironically, so much has remained the same as well. Where could Modi and Sharif start and pick up the thread? What is the Sharif-Vajpayee legacy that could be revived, and built further?
One could start with being idealistic. One could present an agenda to the two leaders to resolve the Kashmir issue once and for all, for many consider J&K as the mother of all problems between the two countries. Such a reasoning obviously also extends further to conclude that once the Kashmir issue is resolved between the two countries, India and Pakistan will remain in peace with the region becoming stable and prosperous. There have been enough options and solutions for J&K on the table already; the two leaders do not have to start from the scratch.
On other hand, others would argue, J&K is only a symptom of a larger problem between the two countries, and irrespective the resolution of Kashmir issue, the broader relations will continue to remain unstable. So, it would be argued, take baby steps first, build confidence, and resolve smaller issues before taking up larger issues. So which high road should Modi and Sharif travel?
While resolving all the issues from Siachen to Sir Creek should be the final goal for all the leaders from the two countries in the long term, let that not affect improving the situation across the Line of Control (LoC) between two parts of J&K in the short term. While both countries should keep working on the larger resolution, both leaders should pick up the threads from the LoC. They could pursue three major steps immediately across the LoC, as a part of reviving what has been already in place: strengthening the existing interactions across the LoC, building new ones, and maintaining the ceasefire in absolute terms. All these three issues could be undertaken by both leaders easily and without much fuss. In fact, it could serve as breaking the ice between the two leaders over J&K and LoC, and also serve as a precursor for larger confidence building measures between the two countries in general and over J&K in particular.
First, strengthening the existing Cross-LoC interactions. Both the bus and truck services have become a ritual and rhetoric, than with any real substance. The bus service exists more in the paper, but the restrictions and the time gap (to get the permit to travel) defeats the very purpose of the initiative. It would not take much time for Sharif and Modi to make this service meaningful and effective. Both the problems and options available to pursue are well known in terms of the cross-LoC bus service. All it needs is a political decision from the Prime Minister Office (PMO); perhaps, even a phone call would do the trick!
The truck service would have done wonders to the cross-LoC interactions, had the leadership at the national level and in J&K across the LoC to pursue it as an economic CBM, instead of a political initiative. Both New Delhi and Islamabad lost the plot on cross-LoC trade, and the local political leadership across the LoC lost the interest. The entire process of trace across the LoC got hijacked and in due course became the reason for its decline. Like the bus service, the problems of the truck service and the options available to make it meaningful are well known. Once again, all it needs is a decision from the PMO in Islamabad and New Delhi. Issues such as list of items to be traded, lack of infrastructure in Salamabad and Chakan da Bagh, communication and banking facilities, etc., could be restored in no time.
Perhaps, Modi and Sharif could pick up the threads from these two services across the LoC – least controversial and easily implementable. High returns with low investments, and all with one political decision.
Second, both leaders could follow up the strengthening process by expanding the interactions across the LoC. As mentioned earlier, until now, there are only two services – bus and truck for divided families and businessmen of J&K. Both leaders could easily agree to enhance the level of bus service beyond the divided families; it could be opened to everyone from J&K. Perhaps, a beginning could be made with package tourism; in Jammu region, Kashmir Valley, Mirpur and Muzaffarabad – there is so much that one would want to visit for religious and secular purposes. From Dal Lake to Shahdara Sharief near Rajouri, there is so much the other side would like to visit on this side, and similarly, there is so much to see and visit on the other side from Sharda Peeth, Ramkot fort to Neelum Valley. In fact, even if it is restricted to a package religious tourism across the LoC, the buses would run full, and in the process bring the two societies across the LoC together. Is it not the primary objective of the cross-LoC interaction?
Besides expanding the cross-LoC interactions to the divided families, it also needs to be expanded regionally. As of now, Ladakh and Skardu-Gilgit regions are totally cut-off from the cross-LoC interactions; there is a sizeable divided families there as well, and was a trading route until 1947. In fact Leh and Gilgit in the entire belt served as two outposts to Punjab, Tibet, Xinjiang and Central Asia. Not only people and goods travelled across Leh-Kargil-Skardu-Gilgit axis, but also ideas and religion traversed across the mighty passes and snow deserts. A bus and truck services across Kargil and Skardu will complete the regional interactions across the LoC. Even today, one could find the graves of Yarkand businessmen in Ladakh, explaining the rich history of this region with extra regional linkages.
Finally, both leaders should ensure that the ceasefire across the LoC is kept in absolute terms. Though it was reached during Musharraf’s period and kept for a long period during the last decade, the ceasefire witnessed serious violations during the recent years. It is imperative for the larger cross-LoC interactions, Indo-Pak relations and more importantly for those communities living across the LoC, the ceasefire remains effective. As was witnessed during the last two years, any violation to the ceasefire, affected all the above three.
Since Sharif talked about picking up the threads, it would be useful and effective, if it could be started from here. Since Modi was sending a signal to the neighbourhood by inviting the Heads of the State, he could also follow his signal by taking concrete steps along the border. It could be a great beginning.
By arrangement with Rising Kashmir