March 2005 News

Man who drove bus across undivided Kashmir wants to do it again

13 March 2005
The Daily Times

Srinagar: Six decades ago, when Kashmir was not divided by the enmity between India and Pakistan, Abdul Ghani Mir used to drive across the region's picture-postcard valleys, ferrying passengers on the road that was the region's lifeline. Mir, 82, is one of the last surviving drivers of the 10-bus fleet of the Allied Transport Company that used to roll down the 170-kilometre mountain road before it was closed for traffic in 1948, after Kashmir was divided between India and Pakistan. But after about six decades, the nuclear-armed neighbours agreed in February to start a bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, as part of efforts to improve their embittered ties. 'I would love to drive the bus again, but I am too old now,' said Mir, who has been suffering from heart ailments and asthma for over a decade. 'It seems too far now,' Mir added.In the 1940s, Mir used to drive a 17-seater Chevrolet bus ferrying passengers, cargo and mail from Srinagar to Rawalpindi in Pakistan. In his austere home in the crowded Drogjan neighbourhood of Srinagar, Mir proudly displays pictures of the bygone era. During British colonial rule, the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad highway was a major trade route for the Himalayan region - bringing in oil, salt and other key supplies and linking tens of thousands of families. Unused for anything but military traffic for more than 50 years, the highway is now being cleared of land mines and hundreds of Indian and Pakistani army engineers and workers are making repairs to meet the April 7 deadline for restarting a bus service. For the past 15 years, an uprising against Indian rule in Kashmir has ravaged the region, killing more than 66,000 people. Once out of the Kashmir Valley, the narrow road climbs up the mountains on the Pakistani side until it joins the Jhelum River. It winds along the riverside for 72 kilometres until it reaches Muzaffarabad, where white milestones dating back to British times still mark Srinagar as the end point of the highway - 160 kilometres away. 'It was a pleasure to drive on the road because of the scenery,' Mir said. When British colonialists left India in 1947 and the new nation of Pakistan was created, Mir was among the Kashmiris who weren't aware for weeks that their land had been divided. He was on the Pakistani side when the split occurred. 'A customs officer told me Kashmir had been partitioned and Muzaffarabad was now part of Pakistan. We were given a choice to stay on that side or return to the Indian side,' said Mir. 'I opted to return. My wife was here, I couldn't leave her'. Mir and his wife, Hajira, have not applied for a permit to cross the ceasefire line dividing the Himalayan region, but the state government was considering allowing them on humanitarian grounds, a senior government official said, asking not to be named. Mir's face brightened at the prospect. Asked if he wants to go despite his poor health, Mir said 'I know I am frail, but desire never leaves the human soul. There is always hope.' ap


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