A Year On, Kashmir Bus Service Works As Symbol, Not In Practice
4 April 2006
Srinagar: As a peace symbol between rivals India and Pakistan, the bus service launched a year ago to reunite families divided by a heavily- militarized ceasefire line in Kashmir is a success.But if you want to be a passenger, the service is a major disappointment. Of the 5,240 who applied in Indian Kashmir to cross the border in the past year, 311 made it, while 505 people came from Pakistan, official figures show. 'The launch of the service was a big joke,' says Mohammed Din, 71, from the Indian border town of Uri. He is still waiting for a permit to visit his son in Pakistani-held Kashmir after applying six months ago. However, analysts say the service - launched on April 7, 2005 by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from the Indian Kashmir summer capital Srinagar - is worthwhile for the glimmer of hope it brings, no matter what its shortcomings. 'The bus may not be carrying enough passengers but it surely carries a hope that India and Pakistan are committed to the ongoing peace process,' says Muslim Jan, a lecturer in mass communication at Kashmir University. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since their independence in 1947, two of them over Kashmir, the Himalayan state divided between them and claimed in full by both. The nuclear-armed rivals came to the brink of war again in the aftermath of an attack on India's parliament in December 2001 by militants who New Delhi claimed were backed by Islamabad. Pakistan denied the charge. At the time, India snapped diplomatic, transport and trade links and moved almost one million troops to the frontier for a tense stand-off that sparked intense concern in world capitals that war was imminent. But in January 2004, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee restored ties by agreeing to a new peace process that led to the guns falling silent on the Line of Control that divides Kashmir. The bus service - - a four-hour amble through the mountains and across the Sutlej River from Srinagar to the capital of the Pakistan zone, Muzaffarabad - became a concrete symbol for its promise of reuniting families divided for almost 60 years. India and Pakistan made the trip possible by allowing Kashmiris to board the bus using local identity cards and not passports, after a vetting process that involves approval from both sides. That decision broke a long- standing taboo on cross-border travel in Kashmir. India had insisted that passports were essential, particularly because it feared militants could use the service. The breakthrough was even more impressive because it was opposed by separatists who have waged an insurgency since 1989 against Indian rule that has claimed at least 44,000 lives. 'The launch was a major step towards gradually finding a permanent solution to the Kashmir problem,' said moderate Kashmir separatist Abdul Gani Bhat. 'It still continues to be a major fruit of the ongoing peace process.' But for Mudassar Budoo, a 21-year-old student from Uri sector who applied for permission to cross to Pakistan on the bus exactly a year ago, the promise seems empty. 'They (police and intelligence agencies) have not cleared me so far. I had thought I would use the bus to meet my relatives across but that wish may not come true soon,' said Budoo. That mood contrasts heavily with the initial enthusiastic response of Kashmiris who braved the summer sun for hours to obtain travel forms. 'Yes, that enthusiasm is gone,' says a police officer. 'People have become impatient. They should realize it takes time to get verifications done on both sides.' The latest bus run, on March 30, highlighted the difficulties. When the bus left Srinagar for Muzaffarabad, only four people were on board. The low passenger usage came despite the service only resuming last December, two months after a massive earthquake devastated much of Pakistani Kashmir and parts of the Indian side, leaving 74,000 people dead.