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Beyond the bus service

By Sushant Sareen
Last updated on: April 27, 2005 17:23 IST
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The astrologer who selected the midnight between August 14 and 15 for India to be declared independent needs to be complimented for picking a most auspicious time.

After all, it is probably only a favorable constellation of stars that has invariably played a situation out in a way that despite not being fully aware of what we are getting into, the end result always seems to work in our favor.

Take the case of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service.

When Atal Bihari Vajpayee proposed this confidence building measure, I am quite sure it was only his political instinct that was at work. Knowing a little about how the Indian state functions, I am quite certain that the proposal was not made after any major exercise to figure out the pros and cons of such a step.

Bussing the peace process

And while Mr Vajpayee's political instincts came a cropper in the Lok Sabha elections (it is arguable how much damage that result caused India), they certainly have succeeded in case of the cross-LoC bus service and in ways that even he would never have imagined.

The bus service is not only a major political breakthrough but also a CBM with far reaching consequences, most of which neither the two states, nor the non-state actors (politicians, separatists, jihadis and the people) are even aware about.

For a variety of reasons, mostly to do with security concerns of the two states, the bus service is still very restricted and closely monitored. As it exists, the bus service has merely a symbolic value for India and Pakistan.

'Both sides are sick of hostility'

For the peoples of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, however, the bus has a very high emotional quotient attached to it. Both the success and possible failure of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service is likely to set in motion a chain of events that could alter the nature of the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

Already, there is emerging a serious disconnect between the expectations of the peoples of J&K (including the portions of the state under Pakistan's illegal occupation) and the exigencies of state security.

This disconnect is likely to grow as more buses ply on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad route and this will create pressures on the establishments of both India and Pakistan to try and open things more and more, not only along the LoC but also along the international border.

Goodbye, Kashmir!

When the bus service was announced, the general sense on both sides of the LoC was that there will be free movement of goods and people. This was an unrealistic expectation. And yet it persists.

A visit to Pakistan occupied Kashmir last November was quite instructive regarding the aspirations and expectations of the people. The only thing everyone seemed interested in was opening up of traditional routes between the two parts of Kashmir, and allowing free movement of people, goods, and politicians from both sides. Everything else was secondary -- UN resolutions, plebiscite, etc.

The issue of divided families -- most of which incidentally are not in Kashmir valley but in Jammu region -- and trade and commerce appeared to be the guiding force behind the desire for softening the LoC.

The bus service as it exists is hardly going to satisfy the peoples of Jammu and Kashmir. The manner in which the dynamics of the bus service is developing, no matter whether the bus service is a success (measured in terms of more and more people applying for travel) or a failure (people dismiss the bus service because of the limited nature of the service and the restrictions attached to traveling across the LoC), there will be pressure on the establishments of both India and Pakistan to widen the nature and scope of this CBM.

If the bus service is a 'success', it will give rise to demands for more buses along the route, greater relaxation and freedom of movement, permission for trade and commerce across the LoC and opening up of other routes (Jammu-Sialkot, Jammu-Mirpur and Kargil-Skardu).

The blurring of the LoC

On the other hand, if the service is a 'failure', there will be pressure on both sides, which have invested so much in this CBM, to ensure its success by conceding all the demands that will rise in case of a 'successful' bus service.

The end result will be that the LoC will get converted into a soft border, demarcating the two Kashmirs.

But this will neither mean that the LoC will become a de jure border (it is already a de facto border), nor will it mean that the issue of Kashmir will be resolved, at least not immediately. All that it will do is make the problem more manageable and create conditions for an eventual solution.

The final solution will almost certainly be around the LoC. But what could surprise the two establishments in India and Pakistan is how this solution is reached.

What is most likely to happen is that the forces unleashed by greater interaction between the two Kashmirs could bring India and Pakistan together in a cooperative effort to keep what they have and deny the Kashmiris what they want.

The first thing that will happen with the bus is that it will isolate the jihadis. The jihadis are facing a great dilemma. If they allow the bus, they will eventually get isolated. On the other hand if they obstruct the bus, it will alienate them from the people in whose name they claim to be waging their jihad.

What is more, threats by front organizations of jihadi groups based in Pakistan have come as a challenge to both India and Pakistan. Unless they want the bus service to end, India and Pakistan will have to ensure the security of not only the bus but also of the passengers who travel on it.

The bus to nowhere

This will create pressure on the Pakistani security establishment to crack down even more on the jihadi groups. Once the jihadi threat is ended, it will allow for greater and closer interaction between the peoples and politicians of the two parts of Kashmir. This is when the interests of the Indian and Pakistani state will converge.

A closer interaction between the peoples will only bring out the differences in them. That there is no one Kashmiri identity is something most Kashmiris will realize once they start interacting with the peoples of PoK. Except for a common religion (which, as we know from the experience of Bangladesh, is hardly a factor in forging and sustaining a nation), the Kashmiris of the Valley have nothing in common with the 'Kashmiris' in PoK -- language, culture, clothes food and social structures.

If anything, the PoK Kashmiris have more in common with Jammu than with Kashmir.

More news from Jammu and Kashmir

Surprisingly, the 'Kashmiris' in PoK identify themselves as Kashmiris, which no self-respecting Jammuwallah will ever do. And just as the Valley Kashmiri treats the Jammuwallah with contempt, so he will the PoK 'Kashmiri'. Just let them meet and the differences will come out.

What is more, the political interests of the Valley Kashmiri militate against any framework other than what currently exists in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. In J&K, they have a majority, but in a united Kashmir, they will be reduced to a minority and will have to depend on the Punjabi and Dogri 'Kashmiri' for political power. And as we know from the experience of partition, a politician would rather divide than unite if it means losing political supremacy.

Therefore the chances are that the Kashmiris in India will pipe down and reconcile to the great deal they have in India rather than hanker after an uncertain future in Pakistan.

Incidentally, once the Valley Kashmiri travels to PoK he will see for himself the pitiable condition in which the "freedom fighters" from the Valley, who crossed in the first flush of insurgency to PoK, are living.

All this is not to rule out the emergence of Kashmiri nationalism. There is no doubt that there exists in both parts of Kashmir an influential body of opinion that wants independence from both India and Pakistan. It is therefore entirely possible that the demand for independence may rise in the whole state. If this happens, then the chances are that both India and Pakistan will get together and crush the Kashmiris and keep what they have.

Finally, there is also the possibility that once the LoC softens, the demand for accession to Pakistan may get greater strength. But having seen Kashmir on both sides,  I for one don't think this will happen.

Nor for that matter does constellation of stars predict such an eventuality. Remember the astrologer….

Complete coverage: The bus service  | The peace process

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Sushant Sareen