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A bus ride for peace

Print edition : Mar 11, 2005 T+T-

The accord to allow a bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad is a step towards boosting the peace process, though differences over crucial issues continue to characterise the bilateral relations.

in Islamabad

"BOTH governments have agreed to allow travel across the LoC [Line of Control] between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad by bus. Travel will be by an entry permit system, once the identities are verified. Application forms for travel will be available with the designated authorities in Srinagar and Muzaffarabad. The bus service is expected to commence from April 7, 2005", Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri announced on February 16 at the Foreign Office to a group of journalists from Pakistan, India and the rest of the world, in the presence of Indian External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh.

The press conference was held at the end of the talks between the two governments on the occasion of the first ever bilateral visit to Pakistan by an Indian External Affairs Minister since 1989.

There is little doubt, at least in Pakistan and in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), that with a 53-word joint statement the two Ministers have contributed their bit to the making of history in the relations between the two countries. There is, of course, cynicism in both countries about the import and meaning of the bus accord but clearly it is evident only among a minority.

At a reception hosted by Kasuri in honour of Natwar Singh, hours after the agreement, Talat Masood, a retired Major General of Pakistan and an expert on international affairs, told Frontline: "It is for the first time in the last 56 years that India and Pakistan have agreed on a proposal that would exclusively benefit the people of Kashmir on either side of the divide. It has enormous political significance and has the potential for a possible answer on the resolution of the contentious issue of Jammu and Kashmir." He made the comment in the presence of Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman Masood Khan, who looked visibly uncomfortable. The day before the accord, Masood Khan had characterised Natwar Singh's recent statement that developments on the India-Pakistan front were proceeding at "extraordinary speed" as the Indian Minister being "upbeat". Masood Khan listed three conditions that Pakistan had laid down for the bus service to materialise - no passports, no visas, and the service would be limited to Kashmiris - and gave the distinct impression that it was still a "work in progress".

It is a coincidence that the accord was announced on the last working day of the high-profile diplomat and former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan, Riaz Khokar. Islamabad's Ambassador to China, Riaz Mohammad Khan, took charge of the Foreign Office the day Natwar Singh arrived in the country. Incidentally, it was Khokar, considered a hawk on India, and who had served in India for several years, who had ruled out the bus service unless it was under United Nations supervision, when New Delhi originally mooted the idea in October 2003. Former Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, just a month later, overruled Khokar and, in an address to the nation on the state-run television and radio, said that Islamabad was prepared to take a second look at its position on the bus.

Indeed, this was an extraordinary gesture from Islamabad, which New Delhi reciprocated in equal measure. Neutral observers saw the development as a reflection of the changed ground realities in South Asia, particularly in the context of 9/11 and its aftermath.

However, Khokar and the coterie around him were convinced that it was yet another ploy by India to divert attention from the "core issue" of Kashmir and score easy points. At the same time they were conscious of the raised expectations of Kashmiris on either side of the divide for a link that would enable them to re-establish contacts lost for over five decades. The calculations of the Pakistan Foreign Office were based on the assumption that a Congress government in New Delhi could never afford to accept Pakistan's conditions, with the Bharatiya Janata Party waiting to make an issue of them. More important, those in charge of the Foreign Office had no definite idea of the thinking of President and Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf and the small group of Generals in the top military brass who make the decisions.

The credit for the bus service should go to Musharraf. Of course, he would have found it difficult to sell the idea to his own trusted lieutenants if New Delhi had not made those crucial concessions. Here, full credit must go to three important players: J.N. Dixit, the late National Security Adviser, Shiv Shankar Menon, the Indian High Commissioner in Pakistan, and Natwar Singh. The Indian envoy, who enjoys excellent rapport with every layer of the Pakistani establishment, including the military and civil society, worked tirelessly to persuade Islamabad to agree on the bus service.

However, the establishment in Pakistan is sceptical of the motives behind New Delhi's agreement to allow passengers on the bus without either a passport or a visa and on the basis of a "simple" document handed out by the local authorities. The dominant view in Pakistan was that in the first place neither side believed that the bus service could ever become a reality; it is no small "risk" to allow people from both sides of the divide to meet and interact, given that they are victims of propaganda from both countries. Undoubtedly, it is a bigger risk for Pakistan to allow people of "occupied Kashmir" on the Indian side to get a sense of the ground realities in "Azad Kashmir", especially when they have been prepared to fight and die for "azadi". The economic, social and political situation in "Azad Kashmir" is considered worse than on the Indian side. Abdul Ghani Lone, the veteran leader of Kashmir who was assassinated in 2002, had incurred the wrath of the powerful in Pakistan and POK with his cutting comment during his visit to POK that the plight of the people in "Azad Kashmir" was worse than that of people in Kashmir in all respects except perhaps "religious freedom".

Besides, thanks to the recent decision of New Delhi to allow journalists from Pakistan to visit Jammu and Kashmir, there is a realisation in Islamabad that the pro-Pakistan constituency in Kashmir is not as big as it had imagined. The debate initiated by Musharraf on the need to look at various options on Kashmir, including independence, was in the aftermath of the Pakistan journalists' visit to Jammu and Kashmir. There are serious concerns in Pakistan on whether the contacts that would be facilitated on account of the bus service would actually strengthen the "pro-Independence" constituency in Kashmir. Besides, Pakistan is bound to lose "control" on the elements and forces in Kashmir opposed to India once they have exposure to and knowledge of the ground realities in "Azad Kashmir". Analysts in Pakistan are convinced that the "pro-Independence" constituency in "Azad Kashmir" is the largest.

Pakistan has good reason to be concerned about the accord on the bus service. After all, if the two countries can hammer out an agreement on a contentious issue of people-to-people contact relating to Kashmir, on what grounds can they stall similar links involving other provinces of the countries? The Sindh-Rajasthan link is a case in point. An estimated 90 per cent of the applicants from Pakistan for an Indian passport are from the Sindh province and at the moment they have to travel over 1,400 km, from Karachi to Islamabad, just to apply for an Indian visa. They have been clamouring for the reopening of the Indian consulate in Karachi, which was shut down in the mid-1990s after Pakistan accused India of promoting disharmony in the country. It must be said to the credit of India that during Natwar Singh's visit it offered to allot a government building and plot in Mumbai to enable Pakistan to open a consulate there. There is no way that Pakistan can afford to delay the consulate beyond a point once the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar bus link commences.

The most remarkable aspect of the peace process is the broad consensus within Pakistan. Barring Qazi Hussain Ahmed, chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, and the twice-banned Jaish-e-Mohammad, the peace process has received approval from all quarters. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said that the bus service would help alleviate the suffering of divided Kashmiri families and also promote the prospects of safe and open borders in South Asia without prejudice to the Kashmir dispute. Bhutto reflects the dominant political sentiment in the country. For the first time in Pakistan, a broad consensus has emerged on the issue of normalisation of relations between the two countries. People on both sides of the border want to live a tension-free life. They want to build their respective economies and not war machines. The Indian decision to consider the Iran gas pipeline as a "stand alone project" has gone down very well with various sections in the country.

There were several other important achievements during Natwar Singh's visit. An agreement has been reached to launch a bus service between Lahore and Amritsar, which would greatly facilitate the requirements of Sikhs pilgrims who come to Pakistan to pray at the Nankana Sahib and the Hasan Abdal shrines. There can be no doubt that Natwar Singh's visit will help boost the fragile peace process, which had begun to fray at the edges. However, the generous use of rhetoric by the two Foreign Ministers in their statements at the joint press conference could not obscure the fact that serious differences over crucial issues continue to characterise the bilateral relations. But to expect miracles in India-Pakistan relations overnight is being unrealistic.