3 Years On, LoC Bus Means Little To Kashmiris

21 April 2008

Srinagar: In a few months New Delhi and Islamabad are expected to be ready to begin trade across the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir, but the so-called mother of all Kashmir- specific confidence building measures (CBM), the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, means little for the people to whom it was supposed to provide succour. Three years have passed since the cross-LoC bus was flagged off by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from Srinagar, and less than 1,400 people -most of them from divided families in Kashmir -have been able to travel to Pakistan administered Kashmir (PaK) because of the service. Almost as many people crossed over via the other two points along the LoC at Poonch- Rawalakot in Jammu region and Teetwal in Kashmir. Getting a permit to travel on the fortnightly bus is much tougher than getting a passport in Kashmir. A 60- year- old man, who does not want his name published for fear of jeopardising his permit, has been going to the passport office in Srinagar every week for 18 months to enquire why he has not been granted a permit. Mohammad Sidiq (name changed) has not seen his elder brother for more than five decades and is desperate to meet up with him in Muzaffarabad. On the contrary, his neighbour succeeded in getting his passport and a Pakistani visa within six months and has since then, visited his relatives in PaK. “The bus service is a political gimmick to deceive Kashmiris,” Sidiq said. Thousands of Kashmiri families are divided by the LoC and their members have not been able to meet for decades. Most of them live along the areas close to the LoC. According to the passport officials in Srinagar more than 14,000 applications are pending permission for travel to Muzaffarabad using the cross LoC bus service. After tedious and time consuming clearances by police and various government agencies, the cleared applications are sent across to authorities in Muzaffarabad for a final green signal before permits are granted. Even if clearances come in numbers the fortnightly bus can carry, it will take about three decades for the current last applicant to get on the bus to PaK. Each fortnight not more than 35 people can take the bus and there have been times when the bus ran with just seven passengers onboard. According to officials enthusiasm for the bus has significantly gone down because of the endless wait it takes for permits to be processed by authorities on both sides of the LoC. All the political parties including the People’s Democratic Party ( PDP), its ally the ruling Congress and the regional National Conference have been demanding that frequency of the service be increased to make it more meaningful for the divided families, most of whom are aged people. The Working Groups (WG), formulated after the prime ministers Round Table Conference (RTC) on Kashmir to look into various issues within, have also recommended increase in the frequency of the bus service. “A proposal to increase the frequency of the service is under serious consideration in New Delhi,” an official in the Srinagar passport office said. Many political parties in the state have been crying hoarse saying that New Delhi is not seriously looking into implementing recommendations of the WGs. “These initiatives, be it the bus or the Working Groups, with high propaganda value have been more symbolism that real CBMs,” said professor Sheikh Showkat Hussain, who teaches law at University of Kashmir. “This is symbolism crafted in New Delhi and dumped in Kashmir while achieving diplomatic successes with the international community.”