April 2006 News

Kashmir 'peace Bus' Completes One Year

7 April 2006
The Times of India

Srinagar: The 'peace bus' connecting the two parts of Kashmir, which completed a year on Friday, has emerged as a key link between divided families and a major confidence-building measure in the peace process between India and Pakistan. Since the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service was flagged off by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from here April 7, 2005, it has helped 710 Kashmiris from both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) to re-establish contacts with long-lost relatives. A total of 365 Kashmiris travelled on the bus from the Indian side to meet their kin in Pakistan-administered Kashmir while 345 people from Muzaffarabad and other parts of Pakistani Kashmir had emotional reunions with their relatives in Jammu and Kashmir. The service succeeded despite warnings from separatist guerrillas that they would target the bus as well as those who chose to travel on it. The guerrillas even carried out an audacious strike in Srinagar a day ahead of its launch last year but this did not deter the travellers. 'It was because of the threats that elaborate security arrangements have to be made each time the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus undertakes its journey,' said a police officer. While almost everybody in the mainstream and separatist political camps welcomed the bus service, hardline Kashmiri separatist Syed Ali Geelani opposed it, claiming that India was trying to project the bus service 'as an end in itself rather than as a means to resolve the Kashmir dispute'. The service of the 'Karwan-e-Aman' (Caravan of Peace) remained suspended for nearly three months in the wake of the devastating earthquake that hit both the Pakistani and Indian Kashmir in October 2005, but it resumed once the roads and a crucial bridge on the LoC were repaired. The Jammu and Kashmir State Road Transport Corp (JKSRTC) purchased seven buses for the service and each of these 28-seat vehicles is fitted with modern gadgets like air-conditioners, plush upholstery and stereo systems. 'The cost of maintaining the luxury fleet is so high that depending solely on the income generated by carrying passengers to and fro the Kaman Bridge in Uri township was simply not viable economically,' said a JKSRTC official. 'It was because of this reason that we began using the same fleet for carrying tourists to other destinations in the Kashmir Valley.' Despite its emotional and symbolic significance, most prospective travellers in Indian Kashmir blame the authorities for tedious and troublesome procedures associated with a journey on the Srinagar- Muzaffarabad route. 'It is very tedious despite the fact that we are not supposed to obtain visas for the Srinagar-Muzafarrabad journey,' said Muhammad Muzaffar, 34, a Srinagar resident who claimed his travel documents had not been cleared even though he had submitted an application six months ago. 'The intelligence department conducts an extensive investigation before clearing passengers for the journey. It is always easier to go to Muzaffarabad via the Wagah border (in Punjab),' Muzaffar said. India's external affairs ministry has designated the regional passport officer in Srinagar as the nodal travel authority for the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service while the deputy commissioner of Muzaffarabad is the nodal authority on the Pakistan side. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is scheduled to inaugurate another trans-Kashmir bus service between Poonch and Rawalakote later this month.


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