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Published in the 16-30 Apr 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

A Bus that united hearts

By Wajahat Nazki

The Milli Gazette Online 

Srinagar: The start of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service was in fact the opening of a road of peace as the first bus named ‘Caravan of Peace’, left Srinagar for Muzaffarabad on 7 April, linking between the two parts of Kashmir after a gap of almost 57 years. It is being described as the ‘mother of all confidence-building measures’ and rightly so as it will open up another route for Kashmiris to the outside world apart from the Srinagar-Jammu road which gets blocked whenever it rains or snows excessively. This is also expected to give fillip to trade and business in Kashmir as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his speech at the flag-off ceremony at Srinagar, said that Kashmiris can now trade with Pakistan and Central Asia through this route which will bring prosperity to the state.

While few in J&K believe that the bloodshed and violence will end in the near future, many expect that the move will strengthen the economy of the state as the road has the potential to be a real lifeline for the people here, provided it’s made to serve as an outlet for Kashmir products to the outside world. Tourism, Kashmir’s main industry, is set to achieve new heights in terms of the number of expected tourist arrivals this year as against 0.4 million tourists who visited the valley last year.

The reaction to the start of this service from various quarters has ranged from rejoicing to cynicism to hostility. Mufti Sayeed-led coalition government, which includes Congress Party as well, kept the administration overbusy for the past fortnight as hectic preparations went underway to start this bus service. Decorated walls, painted kerbs, multi-coloured flags and unprecedented security measures, one witnessed it all so much so that it almost threw the daily life here out of gear. Not to mention the political advantage every mainstream party tried to gain by crediting itself with this development. As the preparations for the start of the bus service reached its peak on 6 April, the lousiness of the afternoon gave way to fear as gunshots rattled the air around Lal Chowk in the heart of Srinagar. It was a ‘fidayeen (suicidal) attack’ once again, but this time in the very building where the passengers of the bus were kept for security reasons. This incident before the ‘mega event’ was caught live by the media persons across the globe. Soon the 80-year-old Tourist Reception Centre was reduced to rubble as the whole building was gutted. Militants, who already had given an strike call and had issued warnings against this event as they felt that this new bus service was just a diversionary tactic by India to evade the core issue of the ‘right of self determination of the people of Kashmir’, were able to penetrate the three-tier security system put by the government. In the wake of what had happened on 6 April, the next day’s ‘gala event’ saw a poor attendance of the locals with security people outnumbering them, which made almost all the leaders on the dais including the PM, Manmohan Singh, Congress President Sonia Gandhi, and CM Mufti Sayeed to condemn the act and reiterate what they called their "commitment to peace”. Eventually the buses from both the sides did reach their respective destinations safely, but not without giving terrible time to the administration and the people here, more so to the administration, as they were almost kept on tenterhooks throughout the day.
The bus from Muzaffarabad was flagged off by Pakistan administered Kashmir’ prime minister, Sardar Sikandar Hayat Khan almost the same time when PM Manmohan Singh was inaugurating the bus at Srinagar.The bus from Muzaffarabad carried 30 passengers while the Indian bus carried only 19 with 11 passengers dropping out due to the militant threats who termed the bus as a “moving coffin”. 

The J&K State Road Transport Corporation ran two specially designed models of Ashok Leyland buses from Srinagar to Kaman Bridge, the last Indian military post. The same buses then ferried back passengers from PoK to Srinagar from the Kaman post. The buses did not cross the LOC, instead, the passengers had to cross the dividing line on foot. According to the travel procedure agreed upon by India and Pakistan, the passengers on either side would come up to the border point by bus and then walk across the LOC. It’s in place to mention here that is no visa is required and entry for the passengers would be made on a permit system issued to state subjects. Passengers from Muzaffarabad were accorded traditional Kashmiri welcome. After enjoying Kashmiri songs and dances they were served Kashmir cuisines, including world famous Wazawan. Passengers arrived here under unprecedented security at about 7pm in the evening.

Apart from the economical aspect of running this bus which sounds more viable at this point of time, the governments both at the center and the state need to do much more if they have to strengthen and propagate the ‘humanitarian cause’ which according to them forms the basis of running this bus service. There are around 2 million divided people on both sides of the LoC in J&K whcih includes parts of the Jammu region and Ladakh as well for whom the bus service is not going to make much of a difference as they need to come to Srinagar first. There is, therefore, every reason to reopen the road between Jammu and Sialkote, Nowshera and Mirpur as also Poonch and Palandari.

The next and the biggest challenge for the government here in the coming days would be to keep the bus running amidst genuine threats. If they resort to the same course of action and precaution every time this bus runs, it’s only going to make things difficult for the local people. Foremost thing for them would be to convince and motivate people who think otherwise, that the journey has just started and that this, after all, is merely a ‘first step in getting to the objective’. Unless that happens, the bus may keep on running, but would always be far from the destination. 

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