Peace Talks And Kashmir Bus Service
28 August 2004
Lahore: It came as a shock to the peace loving people in the sub-continent that despite the tall claims and exaggerated display of friendship, the peace process between South Asia's nuclear rivals is heading back to square one. India and Pakistan are once again at loggerheads on cross border infiltration and their peace efforts run into rough waters. However, thousands in the sub-continent are still pinning their hopes on the meeting between the two foreign ministers in New Delhi on September 5 and 6, and another between Pakistan's President, Pervez Musharraf, and India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, on the sideline of the United Nations General Assembly session. The leaders of India and Pakistan should have plenty to discuss in these meetings. They may not be able to make groundbreaking decisions on complex issues of fundamental nature, but many expect them to deliberate at least on the less complicated issue of opening the Sirinagar-Muzaffarabad road and starting the bus service between the capital cities of the divided State of Jammu and Kashmir. The resolution of this critical issue is crucial for the peace process. The current diplomatic roadblock on this issue is the victory of religious fundamentalists and reactionary forces which want to sabotage the peace process. These forces have made it clear time and again that they would not allow this bus service to operate before the resolution of the Kashmir issue. This issue has become a tool of exploitation in their hands and they skillfully use it to spread hatred and derail the whole peace process. Apart form political and diplomatic reasons there are compelling humanitarian and compassionate grounds to pay immediate attention to this issue. India and Pakistan may have to deal with a host of issues regarding the framework and modalities of this bus service, but these issues are not very complex and could be easily resolved. The only important issue is the travel documents, and the question is who's going to issue the travel documents for the passengers? This question has become particularly important given the Srinagar- Muzaffarabad bus talks have been postponed several times because of Indo-Pak disagreement over this issue . India proposes that passports and visas should be mandatory for the passengers travelling on the bus between the two capitals of divided Kashmir. Pakistan had initially proposed checkpoints manned by UN officials and travel documents issued by them. However, lately it has expressed a willingness to open the road and has avoided mentioning any UN role. But it does not fully agree to the Indian proposal of passports and visas and insists on alternative arrangements. Pakistan maintains that the use of passports and issuance of visas is not acceptable given that LoC is a temporary line across the disputed territory and not an international border between India and Pakistan. A number of Kashmir's politico-religious groups on both sides of the divide also oppose the proposal of travelling on passports and visas. They feel that it would be unfair and even humiliating for them to travel within their homeland on such documents. They argue that acceptance of the Indian proposal will have long term implications on the Kashmir issue. First, it will turn the LoC into a de facto international border. Second, It would be a sign of recognizing the division of Kashmir permanently. Third, It would bring the normalcy in relations between India and Pakistan without resolving the fundamental issue of Kashmir. Kashmiris apprehensions are not totally unfounded, but clearly, the significance of travel documents is being over emphasized. It must be noted that Kashmiri elite and even their top separatist leaders frequently travel on passports issued by either India or Pakistan. There are no factual or juristic grounds to believe that the LoC would become an international border if the same facility is provided to the common people. Passports and visas may add some complexities in making travel arrangements but surely there is no question of feeling humiliated and no reason to fear a change in the status of the LoC. On the issue of travel documents Kashmiris need to adopt a flexible approach. As a matter of principle, Kashmiris should not be asked to travel in their homeland on passports and visas. But at the same time we cannot ignore the fact that India and Pakistan exercise de facto and de jure control over the LoC. It would be totally unrealistic to ask both the countries to surrender their authority on travel documents only, without bringing a fundamental change in their Kashmir policy. It is in the best interest of the people of Kashmir to allow travel across the border to meet their families without giving too much weight to the symbolic importance of documents and issuing authorities. India and Pakistan cannot ignore the fact that their administrative powers on Kashmir are not without legal obligations. Some international jurists see India and Pakistan as trusties with fiduciary duties under international law. They have a number of legal and humanitarian obligations. A line drawn to divide the families and stop a people from moving freely in their own homeland is the flagrant disregard of human rights. Right of families to reunite is universally recognized and should not be denied to the people of Kashmir under the pretext of the issue of travel documents. Its true that India and Pakistan cannot resolve this issue overnight because there are many legal and constitutional issues involved in this matter. These issues can only be resolved by bringing a fundamental change in Indo-Pak Kashmir policy. A fundamental change in Kashmir Policy may take time, but an expedited process is warranted to deal with the issue in the interest of Kashmiris and also of peace in the region. Those who are at the helm of affairs must change their approach and course of action otherwise they will have no moral, legal and political explanation to offer to the next generations on their current Kashmir policy.