Sonia Gandhi and Pranab Mukherjee flagged off the first Poonch-Rawalkote bus linking the two Kashmirs, from Chakan-da-Bagh, on 20 June. Coinciding with such Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) is a new pattern of terror, which attacks soft targets: trade and tourism. In the last four months, there have been major militant attacks in J&K - on a Youth Congress rally (21 May), tourist buses (25 May and 31 May), tourists at Dalgate and Lalchowk (11 July) and Beehama Chowk (15 July) en route to Amarnath. In this volatile situation, what would happen to the two bus services? How important are they? With the Mumbai train attacks freezing the bilateral peace process, are further Kashmir specific CBMs likely?
The Poonch-Rawalkote road is the second route to be opened on the LOC. It is a Kashmir specific humanitarian CBM. Living in the border villages of Poonch and Rajouri for the last sixty years, many families are divided across the LoC. This road served as an important trade and commercial link before partition. These trans-LoC buses are important for peace building in Kashmir, especially in the context of the communal divide and terrorism.
Poonch is a Muslim majority region but the Muslims there are either Gujjars and Bakerwals or belong to smaller ethnic groups. Similarly, there are various ethno-linguistic sub groups among the Hindus; most of them are demanding socio-economic development, which is different from that of the ethnic Kashmiris in the Valley. The Union government had long neglected this region and there is an urgent need to address its concerns, especially of the frustrated youth, who are falling prey to militant agenda. Their cooperation is important for counter insurgency operations in this region. Intelligence estimates suggest that around 1,600 terrorists, most of them of Pakistani origin, have moved into this area over the past few years.
The Poonch-Rawalkote bus service assumes importance in this milieu. The militants oppose the bus service and the normalization process. Their attacks, since the first RTC (Round Table Conference), are targeted against the internal peace process initiated by the Union government with the Kashmiris. For example, on 24 May, when the second RTC was being held, six grenade attacks injured 38 people including 14 SF personnel in Srinagar and on 25 May a grenade was hurled at a tourist bus in which four tourists from Gujarat were killed and six others injured. On 31 May, another tourist bus was attacked, injuring 36 tourists from West Bengal and on 12 June, militants killed 10 persons, including seven Nepalese labourers in Kulgam and injured four Amarnath Yatra pilgrims.
By addressing an important grievance of the Kashmiris -reunifying divided families across the LoC, the new bus service deals with an internal problem 'in' Kashmir and widens the space for intra-Kashmiri dialogue. The frequency of the bus service should be increased burying the fear that militants would use it. Don't they already have alternative means of communication, besides these 'permit' based LoC buses?
Given these dynamics, what are India's interests in J&K? Pervez Musharraf' has been emphasizing "demilitarisation", "self-rule" and "joint management" as the "final solution" of the Kashmir issue. "Demilitarisation" is untenable until cross-border terrorism ceases and the infrastructure of terrorism in Pakistan and POK is dismantled. What are the other options in J&K?
India should continue with the internal peace process and Kashmir-specific issues across the LoC. The opening of communications across the LoC for commercial purposes improves the economic prospects in J&K. In May 2006, top foreign ministry officials from India and Pakistan signed an agreement in Delhi to begin a truck service, between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, on either side of the LoC in July. Export of fruits from Kashmir valley to Muzaffarabad is a long standing Kashmiri demand. The J&K government has acquired land for construction of a truck terminal and immigration facilities at Salamabad, which would be equipped with health care and telecommunication facilities, to host commercial trucks. India should go ahead with this process since it would complement the internal peace process. The moderate Hurriyat, though it abstained from joining the RTCs, welcomed the bus service as a useful step in the peace process. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Hurriyat Chairman, asserted the requirement of state subject certificates as a pre-requisite for traveling on the two roads.
India should consider opening other routes which are being discussed, especially the Kargil-Skarudu and Mirpur-Bimber roads, so that separated families living in these areas could reunite. This would enlarge the interactions across the LoC. Strengthening the internal peace process in Kashmir is in India's interests and militant attacks should not be permitted to supervene.