Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service excites Kashmiris
23 October 2003
The Daily Times
NEW DELHI: While analysts and experts debate the sincerity of the peace proposals India announced here on Wednesday, people in Indian- administered Kashmir are particularly excited about the prospects of a bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad. Mohammad Ashraf, a Kashmiri fruit merchant, is so excited about the Indian proposal that he has already started dreaming about selling his produce in Rawalpindi and Karachi.Standing near a caravan of trucks outside Azadpur mandi, Asia's largest fruit and vegetable market, this animated merchant counts the possible benefits of a road link between the Indian side of Kashmir and the Pakistani side. 'I would never come here to sell my produce again. There is too much rancour and disdain. I have been summoned to the police station thrice in the last three days to prove my credentials. Besides, it costs too much in transport. Once the Rawalpindi road opens, I will not come back here,' Mr Ashraf told Daily Times.Former Pradesh Congress president Ghulam Rasool Kar calculates the possible economic importance of this road for the Kashmir Valley, whose economic mainstay is horticulture. 'The transportation cost for an apple box from Sopore, the apple town of Kashmir, to a Delhi market varies between Rs 30 and Rs 45, depending on the season. The same box could go to Rawalpindi for Rs 15,' he said.While the prospects of a bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad has enthused the younger generation, older Kashmiris have had a bout of nostalgia. 'I remember when I used to drive my truck from Srinagar to Rawalpindi. I can't drive anymore, but I hope our young people see how fascinating this road is,' said Mohammad Shabban, who is in New Delhi with his sons for treatment. The 183-km Srinagar to Muzaffarabad road, close to the hearts of Kashmiris, was the only main route for travellers to the Kashmir Valley from the rest of the world until 1947. It has remained blocked since a bridge was blown up to hold back Indian forces at the start of the 1947 war between India and Pakistan.Various international peacemakers have proposed the opening of routes between the two parts of Kashmir to fit the 'soft border' solution to the Kashmir dispute. They believe this step would make the region more autonomous from Islamabad and New Delhi. Soon after Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's proposal in July 2001, a few days ahead of President General Pervez Musharraf's Agra sojourn, then Azad Kashmir President Sultan Mahmood mooted the idea of a Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus. He believed it could become a powerful symbol of friendship. A US-based think-tank, International Multi-Track Diplomacy (IMTD), recently pleaded for a second bus route between India and Pakistan via Srinagar and Muzaffarabad. Ambassador John W McDonald of the IMTD said this would be a different, more exciting journey than the Lahore-Delhi trip. He said sustained communication between Kashmiris on both sides would be an effective step toward establishing stable, peaceful relations. The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad is already paved. The bus would take less than three hours. After all if North Korea, the world's most isolationist state, can allow citizen exchanges with South Korea, then surely India and Pakistan cannot object to such a peaceful interchange of citizens, Mr McDonald said.Ahead of the Agra summit, there were hopes that the opening of the Line of Control would be discussed. Expectations were high in Uri Township, the first stop past the Red Bridge (Lal Pul) on the Indian side of Kashmir. Real estate prices skyrocketed in July 2001 along the road from Baramulla to Uri.Last July, India proposed a 'softer Line of Control' for the second time. Replying to an unstarred question in the Rajya Sabha, Minister of State for Home Affairs ID Swami said his government was willing to open additional checkpoints along the border with Pakistan and the LoC. He said India still stood by Prime Minister Vajpayee's July 9, 2001, proposals to ease travel restrictions between the two countries. These proposals included setting up checkpoints along the Jammu-Sialkot sector and reopening the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar road, he said. The latest proposals do not include opening the Jammu-Sialkot road via Suchitgarh. For 56 years, only members of the United Nations Military Observers Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) have used the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road to move across the LoC. UN officials stop their vehicles near the Red Bridge, alight, and cross it on foot.The road began being built in 1880 and was completed in 10 years. It was opened to the public in 1892 when Maharaja Partap Singh, the third Dogra ruler, was driven across in a bullock cart to Domel. It was also through this path that Mughal Emperor Akbar invaded Kashmir. The army of the last Kashmiri king Yusuf Shah Chak defeated the Mughal forces led by Raja Bhagwan Das at Tapar.But while the idea of a softer LoC has significant support in India, it has few takers in Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan fears that agreeing to checkpoints along the LoC would be one step towards the conversion of the LoC into a permanent border.