Kashmir bus talks to begin amid guarded optimism
6 April 2004
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan and India enter into the first round of Srinagar- Muzaffarabad bus service talks on Thursday amid hopes of making some headway in what could also be an indicator of which way the dialogue on Kashmir dispute is headed. The technical-level talks between the two countries will begin here on Thursday morning. Senior officials of the two communications ministries will lead the delegation-level talks. Joint Secretary Communications Alok Rawat will lead the Indian side and K.V. Rind, Additional Secretary Ministry of Communications, will head the Pakistani team. Officials of both the foreign and interior ministries are included in the delegations. The two-day Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus talks follow a political decision on both sides to establish the first-ever bus service between the two capitals of the divided Kashmir. The talks are part of a series of confidence-building measures announced by India and Pakistan last year. India proposed on Oct 22 to establish the first-ever bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad. On Nov 23, Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Jamali announced Pakistan was ready to discuss the proposed bus link. On the eve of the much-awaited talks informed sources put the onus of a breakthrough on India. 'If India realizes the sensitivities of the issue and that of the people of Jammu and Kashmir then prospects of a breakthrough are bright,' the sources maintained. Simply put, Kashmiris be allowed to travel on domicile certificates instead of passports and visas. Pakistan's Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokhar said last week that India being the bigger country ought to show magnanimity for the future of the region and in efforts to resolve the Kashmir dispute. Neither country could afford another war, he argued. The key question to be addressed during the forthcoming talks will be the documents on which Kashmiris will travel across the Line of Control (LoC). While top government officials in Islamabad say Pakistan wants the divided families and the people of Kashmir to reunite, they underline that Pakistan would take into account the wishes of Kashmiris when entering into any bilateral agreement with India. Pakistan is clear that it will not be proper to enter into any arrangement that is not acceptable to the Kashmiris or jeopardizes Pakistan's stated position on the disputed status of Kashmir. Kashmiri leaders on both sides of the divide have welcomed the proposal of starting a bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad. However, they have categorically stated that they would not travel on passports and visas, an idea that India supports and Pakistan opposes. Islamabad believes conceding to such an arrangement would amount to approval of converting the LoC into the permanent boundary between India and Pakistan. Pakistan would prefer border crossings to be monitored and supervised by the UN staff. A similar arrangement is invoked between Turkey and Greece for crossings between the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the Republic of Cyprus. Sources say even if an agreement on the modalities of travel is reached during the technical-level talks between Pakistan and India, it could take some while for the bus service to start.