Srinagar-Muzaffarabad Bus Service: Between Fear and Optimism

16 Apr, 2005    ·   1700

Rizwan Zeb in his examination of the Kashmir bus diplomacy, writes about the prospects of peace between India and Pakistan

Even a thousand mile journey begins with a single step. Will the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service prove to be the first step of the peace caravan as the Indian Prime Minister puts it, towards the final destination of peace between the two countries? Many will say yes, almost an equal number of people will say may be, a significant number will say no. But whatever the final outcome may be, the launching of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service on 7 April 2005 was indeed an historical event as 31 passengers from Muzaffarabad and 19 passengers from Srinagar crossed the peace bridge to reach the other side.

According to media reports, "the military commanders of Pakistan and India also hugged each other in the middle of the bridge amid huge applause."

Praful Bidwai, an Indian peace activist, very rightly pointed out that "the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus is the result of, and bears testimony to, the powerful and growing urge for peace and reconciliation amongst the broad citizenry of India and Pakistan, not just the Kashmiris." The author realised the true significance of the bus service for the Kashmiris when he was told about a man, who despite holding a much higher post, continued to read Kashmir news for the radio because his mother would be listening to his voice on the other side of the Line of Control.

The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service was among the very first list of CBMs suggested yet it took such a long time to fructify due to the differences on the issue of travel documents. New Delhi was of the view that passengers will require to get valid visas to travel which is the normal practice for people traveling between two counties and that those Kashmiris who had traveled to Pakistan earlier, only did that after getting visas. Islamabad pointed out (quite in line with its policy on Kashmir) that Kashmir remains a disputed territory according to international law, therefore, instead of visas, the Kashmiris should use local identity documents for travel. This stance was adopted because Islamabad was rightly concerned that once the Kashmiris travel through the LoC using visas, New Delhi will use it for supporting its argument that the LOC is in fact the international border. For this insistence, the Pakistani Foreign Office must be complimented as they were finally able to preserve its principled stand on Kashmir.

Ironically for India, this bus service also marks the partial implementation of a UN resolution which calls for free travel across the LoC. One must also keep in mind that the decision of the bus service came when a number of analysts on both sides started guessing that the peace process is failing or at least heading towards another stalemate due to differences on water issues and especially the Bahglihar dam. Few say that the initiation of bus service was an attempt to save the peace process especially on the part of India.

An Indian analyst pointed out that "the government of India and the government of Jammu and Kashmir seem to perceive the bus service as an end and not as a means to further the intra-Kashmir interactions. It is unfortunate that both governments in their enthusiasm, succeeded in making the event as 'Indian' instead of 'Kashmiri'". Very true but on the AJK, it was totally a Kashmiri show, where the AJK government and the people of AJK were the real player. The bus service has broken the status quo and will result in more opportunities for the leadership of both Kashmirs to meet and discuss issues and decide their fate. But the question to be addressed is where India and Pakistan will go from here or to simply put what next? Pakistani Foreign Minister has already shown Islamabad's willingness to open more entry points if the environment and circumstances are favorable. Already a demand has been made by a few that the next logical step would be to start a truck service between the two Kashmir's for trade between the two.

The bus service is indeed a very important event, but it is a means to an end and not on end in itself. On the Indian side there is a need to initiate a dialogue with the Kashmiri leadership including jehadis, especially Hizbul Mujahideen, which is a potential partner in the on-going peace process. New Delhi should also allow the Kashmiri leadership to avail this opportunity and meet and discuss their future. The initiation of bus service is not a guarantee that the peace process will succeed. Much more needs to be done. Patience and trust on the other party is going to be the essence of any likely success in the peace process.

Even a thousand mile journey begins with a single step. Will the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service prove to be the step towards the destination of peace in South Asia? MAY BE!

* The views expressed are his own