The troubled road to trans-LoC trade

29 August 2008
The Hindu

New Delhi: Since August residents of the village of Salamabad have been waiting for the arrival of hundreds of smoke-belching cargo trucks, the unlikely harbingers of a better future. Like hundreds of thousands across Jammu and Kashmir, Salamabad residents hope that the scheduled opening of trade across the Line of Control will transform what the former United States President Bill Clinton described as the “world’s most dangerous place” into a zone of peace and prosperity. Cross-border trade, it is starting to appear, could also hold the key to defusing the murderous shrine-land crisis that has claimed dozens of lives across the State in recent weeks. In an effort to assuage Muslim anger in Kashmir, ahead of a deal with Hindu protesters in Jammu, India will be pushing Pakistan to deliver on its promise to open up the LoC. Earlier this month, protesters initiated a march towards the LoC, responding to a call by the hardline Tehreek-i-Hurriyat patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani to force the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road open for trade. Mr. Geelani, speaking for a coalition of secessionist groups and orchard-owners’ bodies, said the march was necessary to break an economic blockade of the Kashmir Valley by Hindutva groups. Five people, including All Parties Hurriyat Conference leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz, were shot dead when police opened fire to stop the march. More than 30 people died in subsequent fighting. Had it not been for bureaucratic stalling by Pakistan, though, the LoC would have opened weeks before the march even began. India and Pakistan agreed to open the route for limited trade at a July 21 meeting of their Foreign Secretaries. Pakistan said it would allow just nine commodities including fruit, across the LoC — well short of India’s more expansive plans. Even this modest beginning, though, marked progress. Pakistan had stonewalled forward movement, even refusing permits to a delegation of Kashmir-based businessman, who wished to meet their counterparts in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Less than a week after the Foreign Secretaries met, a team of top Indian officials, led by Ministry of Home Affairs Joint Secretary R. Shakandan met on July 25 at Uri. Orders were given to initiate construction of parking bays, warehouses and a customs office at Salamabad, just short of the LoC. A follow-up meeting on security issues, involving customs, police and military officials, was held on July 27. However, Pakistan backed down on its commitment to open the road on August 21, citing logistic constraints. Both sides agreed to postpone opening the LoC until October 1. Army sources told The Hindu that Pakistan had yet to complete construction of a customs station and parking bays on its side — raising fears that cross-border movement of cargo could be delayed even further. India will be pushing Pakistan hard to make sure that does not happen. Ironically, the Islamist leadership India will be seeking to placate was, not too long ago, bitterly opposed to opening up the LoC. In 2005, after India and Pakistan announced that bus links across the LoC were to be resumed, Mr. Geelani lashed out at the plan as “a diversion from the core issue.” “People have not given their blood for the reopening of a road,” he said, “but for self-determination.” On another occasion, he described the issue as “an irrelevant drama.” Several civil society organisations now involved in the shrine board movement shared this perception. In April 2005, the Kashmir Bar Association, the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons and the Jammu and Kashmir Trade Union Front issued a joint statement calling the opening of the road “untimely and inconsequential.” Jihadist groups supportive of Mr. Geelani were more blunt in their approach. In a March 30, 2005, press release, the Save Kashmir Movement, al-Nasireen, the Farzandan-e-Millat and al-Arifeen warned potential bus travellers that “they will find their names in the list of traitors.” Jihadists later attacked and destroyed the Tourism Reception Centre in Srinagar. It was to have served as the terminus for the bus service.