Cross LoC Travel An Arduous Adventure For Kashmiris

Cross LoC Travel An Arduous Adventure For Kashmiris

30 November 2012
Greater Kashmir
Nisar Ahmed Thokar

Muzaffarabad: As India and Pakistan gear up for liberalization of visa regime, Kashmiri migrants settled in Pakistan and Pakistan administered Kashmir (PaK) hope their plight would also factor in the new accord on relaxation of cross-border travel. While the existing restrictive visa regime between the two countries has hindered cross-border movement of people over the years, the policy has, however, adversely affected migrant Kashmiri community whose numbers have now gone up to around two million souls. Mainly settled in Lahore, Gujranwala, Sialkot and Rawalpindi, majority of the divided families have not been able to see their relatives in Jammu and Kashmir even during difficult situations. Restrictions on cross-border movement of Kashmiris continue despite the fact that there are internationally acknowledged norms and procedures under which instant visas or travel documents are provided to citizens during exigencies like death or illness of blood relations such as parents, children or siblings. Curiously, budding bonhomie between India and Pakistan has led to a series of peace building initiatives between the two countries but the spirit of confidence building seems to be missing for an ordinary Kashmiri as obtaining visa for travel to their ancestral homes in Jammu and Kashmir is still a Herculean task. Narrating his personal experience, Dr Ali Muhammad Mir a retired Pakistan army official of Kashmir origin based in Lahore said: “It is too cumbersome, exhausting and complex process, beyond the understanding of an ordinary citizen. In 2010, I was scheduled to attend a marriage ceremony of my close relatives in Srinagar but despite fulfilling all basic requirements my visa application took eleven months to get cleared,” he said. Mir said hopes were high that cumbersome visa procedures between the two countries will be simplified. “Such hopes were kindled many a time in the past but to no avail,” he said and added that the existing procedures have become more complicated for the ordinary people. Needless to say that majority of intending visitors to India are the people who belong to the older lot of divided families, their longing to visit their loved ones is a hope that will perhaps never die down. Ershad Mahmud a renowned political analyst based in Islamabad says that the Kashmiri community has largely suffered due to cumbersome visa procedures as a person who intends to visit Jammu and Kashmir has to go through complicated scrutiny process by Indian authorities. Given the intricacies and complexities involved in the process, Mehmood said a visa application for travel to Kashmir valley, normally takes a year to get through. Commenting on the recent development Zulfiqar Ali, a journalist of Kashmiri origin said: “The progress in visa regime liberalization is a welcome step. However, a bitter reality is that the new scheme won’t be much helpful as long as the conditions, like police reporting, utility bills and sponsorship from a person you visit, are there.” He was of the view that the Kashmiri community can benefit provided such restrictions are lifted. Although Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service launched in 2005, to some extent, provided relief to early Kashmiri migrants, it has failed to address the need and aspirations of latest lot of migrants whose sufferings and pain is comparatively much more eminent and agonizing than those of pre-1990 migrants. Kashmiri youth who crossed the Line of Control (LoC) in 1990 and later settled in various cities and towns of PaK seem to be in a highly perplexed situation. As per the rules and regulations, they are not entitled to travel by cross-LoC bus. And their parents and relatives based in Kashmir valley face similar problems while intending to travel to PaK. Commenting on the situation, Advocate Muhammad Aslam, a militant-turned-businessman said the peace building initiative has failed to address the grievances of post-90 Kashmiri migrants. “For post-90 migrants, LoC still stands like a Berlin Wall, neither we nor our relatives on the other-side are allowed to travel across the dividing line”, he said. Another Kashmiri youth who runs his own business in the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad said: “A highly influential class of people on both sides is enjoying the benefits of Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service whereas those who deserve the most are still running from pillar to post.” “My aging parents in Kashmir had applied more than a dozen times to get travel permit but they were refused”, he said. “We are caught in a terrible situation, our parents are denied travel permits and passports,” says another youth who hails from North Kashmir’s Kupwara district. Although civil society representatives time and again raised the plight of the community, so far there has been no change in the current status-quo. The issue of post 1990 migrants had also figured in the cross-LoC Women’s Dialogue, held in Muzaffarabad, wherein the distinguished delegates stressed the need for easing cross-LoC travel regime by simplifying the administrative and security clearance procedures relating to entry permit system. They appealed the governments of India and Pakistan that the travel facility should be further extended to post-1990 refugees living in PaK. Even the much-hyped rehabilitation package announced by Jammu and Kashmir government has failed to address the fundamental issues concerning the right-to-travel of the post-90 migrants.