Bus service has only brought disappointment to Kashmiris
8 April 2006
Srinagar: One year after a historic bus service began operating between Azad Kashmir and occupied Kashmir, the buses are travelling nearly empty and many Kashmiris feel they have brought little but disappointment. The bus service, heavily hyped by both India and Pakistan, has been the most visible sign of the fitful peace process between the two countries. Dubbed the “Caravan of Peace,” it was supposed to bring together Kashmiri families divided by the heavily militarized Line of Control (LoC). Instead, the service, which runs once every two weeks, has been bogged down in bureaucratic minutiae and security worries. “I feel like India and Pakistan have played a joke on us,” said Abdul Aziz, a resident of the border town of Uri, about 100 kilometres north of Srinagar. Aziz applied last July for permission to ride the bus to Muzaffarabad, in Azad Kashmir, but no permit came. In October, the devastating earthquake killed five of his relatives in Azad Kashmir. “Even since then I haven’t been able to go,” he said. On the other side of the LoC, similar frustrations were evident. “I submitted my application to the government in April 2005, but one year has passed and I am still waiting for the clearance of my name,” said Qadeer Ahmad, 35, of Muzaffarabad. “What is the benefit of this bus service if we cannot use it?” he said. Amjad Khan, 34, who was among those on the first bus, said that his attempts to make a second trip have been frustrated. “Officials here say my name has not been approved by India,” Khan said. He added that relatives in occupied Kashmir had been told that they could not take the bus because Pakistani officials had not yet cleared their names. According to S. L. Sreeramuloo, the regional Indian passport officer who issues the 15-day travel permits that Indian bus riders must carry, 816 people rode the bus over the past year. Of those, 505 came from Azad Kashmir and 311 from the held state. The office has received 6,525 applications. The tedious process to secure a permit involves filling out detailed application forms, giving proof that relatives live across the LoC and waiting for security agencies in both India and Pakistan to give their clearance. Officials say the security procedures have slowed dramatically in Muzaffarabad, which was largely destroyed by the earthquake. “That has been a big reason for delays,” Sreeramuloo said. The massive earthquake left large portions of the region devastated, closing for months a 170- kilometre highway linking the two portions of Kashmir. The service was resumed in February. In the early days, the buses carried 30-odd passengers on each trip. These days, they often have less than five people aboard. “I am not surprised. Indian and Pakistani leaders should try to fill up the form and see how difficult it is to go and meet dear ones,” said Omar Abdullah, leader of the opposition National Conference and a member of India’s parliament. Some people, though, remain optimistic. A few thousand activists of the People’s Democratic Party, a member of held Kashmir’s ruling coalition, celebrated the “Bus Birthday” in a Srinagar park on Friday. Party members danced, sang folk songs and shouted slogans as their leader, Mehbooba Mufti, called for more buses to ply the route. Early on Friday, suspected militants stole an SUV from a village, raising fears of a militant strike. “When such an incident occurs there is chance of a car bombing,” said Inspector General of Police K. Rajendra Kumar. The militants, who are fighting for Kashmir’s independence or its merger with Pakistan, also launched attacks the day before the bus service began. “The bus was about hope, which still remains unfulfilled,” Aziz said.