Bonhomie at the border

Published : May 06, 2005 00:00 IST

As the buses from both sides rolled and people from both sides mingled with each other there was no stopping the dynamics unleashed.


THE scenes on April 7, the inaugural day of the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar bus service, could as well have been from an India-Pakistan joint film production script. Neither the local authorities nor journalists in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) had anticipated them. No wonder at the end of it, everyone was caught unawares.

A little while after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi flagged off the Muzaffarabad-bound bus from Srinagar on April 7, the informal `hotline' on the Pakistani side that connects the Indian and Pakistani armies on the Line of Control (LoC) came to life. It was a message from the Indian authorities to their Pakistani counterparts on the sniper fire directed at the `peace bus'.

The Pakistani side was apprised of the possibility of diverting the bus route as an absolute safety precaution. The message was that the Pakistani side should be prepared for a delaying, if necessary, the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar bus on its side of the border and make suitable changes in the departure timings of the bus leaving the POK capital with Srinagar-bound passengers.

Every moment on both sides was synchronised to the second, as the world watched with bated breath the historic journey of the buses. The coordination to the point of last detail between the two armies through the `hotline' speaks volumes about the transformation brought about by the peace process. Until the ceasefire came into effect on November 25, 2003, covering the LoC, the international boundary and the Siachen glacier, the only language both sides used was that of sniper fire and shelling on real and imagined provocations from each other, and about which they rushed to complain to the international community.

Most of the time, each side first learnt of the allegations and counter-allegations against each other through media reports. The `hotline' currently in use for communications between the commanders is an informal and not an institutionalised mechanism. A proposal has been mooted for better coordination at the local levels but it is still in the pipeline.

The bonhomie displayed as passengers of the first bus from Muzaffarrabad to Srinagar set foot on the 250-foot-long Kaman bridge, now rechristened "Peace Bridge", was in keeping with the ceasefire spirit. (The wooden bridge, destroyed by Pakistani invaders in 1947, was replaced with a metal one in March to facilitate the bus service.) Officers from both sides eased the stringent security measures to enable some government officials of POK to meet their close relatives living on the other side in the middle of the bridge.

The camaraderie extended much beyond that. The grip of the Pakistan military and establishment on POK is complete though on paper it is a disputed territory with a government, flag and Constitution of its own. Pakistan is responsible for the security and other vital sectors of POK. Though official Pakistan was conspicuous by its absence at the bus launch function and all related activity, none of the festivities associated with the inaugural run would have been possible but for the cooperation, if not willingness, of the Pakistani establishment.

In a rare demonstration of openness, the military opened up the `no go areas' on the LoC for the international and domestic media to cover every second and nuance of the big event. For the first time since 1947, journalists, including the two Islamabad-based Indian correspondents, were allowed to walk right up to the last inch of territory under the control of Pakistan and mingle freely with the local military and paramilitary personnel.

According to one military officer, Pakistan had mooted an informal proposal with the Indian side to let the media contingent on both sides cross the bridge albeit for a few minutes. It appears the proposal was put on hold on the plea that given the narrow space on either side of the bridge, it would be a logistical nightmare to manage the rush. Maybe it will materialise in the next few weeks.

There was a great deal of confusion on the POK side about the inaugural. It was only to be expected, as Pakistan wants the rest of the world to believe that POK is a disputed territory and it has nothing to do with it. So, unlike on the Indian side, the inaugural ceremony on the POK side was a low-key affair, at least on the official front. POK Prime Minister Sardar Sikandar Hayat Khan flagged off the bus from Muzaffarabad. No representative of the Pakistan government was present either at the inaugural or the function organised a little distance from the LoC to receive the Indian guests. It appears to have been a calculated move on the part of the Pakistani establishment.

At least one prominent Pakistan daily, The News, reported that the POK Prime Minister was keen to have Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz to launch the bus from POK, as was the case on the Indian side. However, the Pakistan Foreign Office turned down the suggestion on the plea that it would amount to a recognition of POK as part of Pakistan. The Foreign Office has not reacted to the news report.

However, when approached by Frontline, the Political Secretary to the POK Prime Minister maintained that there was never a proposal to involve any dignitary from Pakistan in the launch. "The stand of Pakistan on POK is very clear," he asserted. Notwithstanding the hair splitting, there is little merit in the argument on the status of POK. After all, the bus agreement was negotiated between Islamabad and New Delhi. Muzaffarabad counted only when it came to issues relating to the logistics of the operation of the service.

The POK government, in collaboration with Pakistan, had chalked out elaborate plans for the 60-km bus journey from Muzaffarabad to the LoC. A number of suspects who could `create problems' for the bus journey were rounded up and put behind bars. The entire route of the bus was to have been blocked and no vehicle allowed to accompany the bus. A security convoy was to escort the bus, in the front and at the back. There were repeated announcements from the dais, by the POK Prime Minister, reminding the media and all others who wanted to be at the LoC to leave at least 30 minutes before the bus rolled. Strangely, no one moved.

For the first few minutes after the bus hit the road, the security personnel acted tough and escorted it with sirens blaring. Barely a few hundred metres into the journey, there was a surge of vehicles of all kinds towards the convoy. The authorities simply gave up and within no time it was a free-for-all.

The civilian vehicles were stopped about 7 km from the LoC. Barring the select few electronic media representatives, the rest of the media contingent was to have disembarked 3 km before the Peace Bridge. But the authorities relented when mediapersons requested that they be not deprived of the opportunity to witness the historic event. The venue meant to accommodate 20-odd media personnel somehow accommodated 120 in the end.

As the buses from both sides rolled and people from both sides mingled with each other, there was no stopping the atmospherics and the dynamics unleashed by them. The case of the Director of Public Relations of POK, Abdul Qayyum, best illustrated the point. He had more than one reason to feel triumphant. His brother in Srinagar, whom he had not seen for 57 years, was one of the passengers who had just arrived.

Qayyum talked to Frontline about his roots in `occupied Kashmir' and how he was keen to make a trip. But there was a problem. Being a government official, he required special permission.

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