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A smooth run

Print edition : May 06, 2005

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The inaugural trip of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus goes off well despite some hiccups caused by terrorists.

SHUJAAT BUKHARI in Srinagar

IF the militants had their way at the hotel block of the Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) in Srinagar on April 6, the historic bus to Muzaffarabad would not have rolled out on the road the following day. At the end of the journey, which took 19 passengers from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad and brought 30 in return, there was a sigh of relief from all those associated with it. But officials admitted that "it was the most difficult task in recent times".

The bus, named "Caravan of Peace", connecting Indian Kashmir and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, was a confidence building measure (CBM) that was initiated on February 16 by both countries. Except for a wave of expected dissent, everything seemed to be going smooth until March 18, when four militant organisations - Al Nasireen, Save Kashmir Movement, Al Arifeen and Farzandan-e-Millat - threatened prospective passengers with dire consequences if they boarded the bus, which they called the "coffin". When the militants repeated the threat at least twice and made phone calls to prospective passengers, most passengers, except a few from Rajouri and Poonch districts, panicked and decided to cancel the trip.

The government acted swiftly. Under the garb of briefing the would-be passengers about the journey, all of them were taken to police stations and then kept under tight security at the TRC. Yet, 10 persons managed to skip the journey. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saw 21 passengers off at the Sher-e-Kashmir Cricket Stadium on April 7. But two of them got down en route. Officials cited "technical reasons" for dropping them off.

However, a day before the historic journey, a fidayeen (suicide) squad of the four militant outfits managed to penetrate the thick security cover at the TRC, where two buses for the inaugural ride were stationed. The attack ended in a fire that gutted the TRC. The passengers escaped unhurt. The two militants were shot dead by security forces following a gun battle.

However, the handling of the incident has raised doubts. Some said that minutes after the "militants" struck, the building was up in flames; moreover, the bodies of the militants were not shown to the media.

In the State Assembly, Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed almost echoed the sentiments of Opposition National Conference members by assuring them a probe into the incident. Earlier the chief of the National Panther's Party Bhim Singh had kicked off a controversy by questioning the government's handling of the situation. He had in a press conference sought a high-level inquiry into the incident.

The bloody run-up, however, ended on a positive and emotional note when the passengers finally crossed the Kaman Bridge, the link between the two parts of Kashmir at the Line of Control (LoC). The bridge, which was blown up in 1947 when tribal raiders invaded Kashmir, had been reconstructed jointly by India and Pakistan. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed received the passengers from the Pakistan side under full glare of the media. Thousands of people, who braved heavy rains and recurrent threats from militants, welcomed the passengers on the short but bumpy road to peace.

Sardar Zia and Shahid Bahar, two residents of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK), stole the show when they kissed the Kashmir soil as soon as they stepped into Indian territory. "There can be no better gift of God than this great journey into my homeland," remarked Bahar, a Muzaffarabad-based lawyer who is in search of his roots in Delina village in Baramulla district."

"Like the Berlin Wall, this boundary is also crumbling thanks to the peace and reconciliation efforts," said Nissar Ahmed Mir, a retired officer from POK, who hails from Rajouri district in Jammu.

"The bus could be used as a ladder to a final solution; opening this road for trade relations as well would be another step in that direction," said Musadiq Ahmed, a research scholar at Kashmir University.

The first bus on this road brought cheers to hundreds of members of divided families. Fareeda Gani, a former member of the POK Assembly, who arrived at her grandfather's house in the Jamallata area of Srinagar along with her brother Pritam Giyani, wept bitterly when she saw her ancestral house. Her father, a barrister, was forced to leave his homeland in 1949. "

Syed Sharief Hussain, a former Judge of the Lahore High Court, was visiting his homeland after 55 years. He could recognise only his 85-year-old sister Hajra Begum in the crowd that had gathered to welcome him. "All others were born after I left or were too young then to be recognised," he said.

The success of the inaugural trip has emboldened others to line up for subsequent trips. The government is planning to shift the originating point for the trip from Srinagar to Salamabad, where a new TRC has come up.

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