In the ongoing session of Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti made a significant statement. She said her government wants to open several more crossing points on the Line of Control (LoC) to connect the two sides of Kashmir, such as Suchetgarh-Sialkot, Kargil-Skardu, Nowshera-Mirpur, Gurez-Astoor-Gilgit and Chhamb-Jurian. The move could open new doors of trade and people-to-people contact.
“I am hopeful that, if not all [the crossing points] at once, then at least one or two at a time will be opened, so that we can send Basmati from Jammu to there,” she said.
Days later, Industries Minister Chandra Prakash Ganga told the house that Kashmiri apples could find a place in the list of tradable items before long. He also said full-body scanners on the crossing points would soon become a reality.
The statements come at a time when there is a stalemate between India and Pakistan vis-à-vis their stated positions and the rhetoric on Jammu and Kashmir. The state government led by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – which espouses the cause of self-rule – has paid a lot of attention in the past couple of months to its agenda of peace and reconciliation. The PDP might be drawing a flak for joining hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but Mehbooba Mufti has been quietly pushing her agenda of cross-LoC Confidence Building Measures (CBMs).
Mehbooba has been quietly pushing her agenda
The move to ask the Government of India to set up new crossing points was made two months ago. She only made it public now, in a speech in the state legislature. Mahbooba Mufti’s government has also made strong recommendations for introducing banking facilities for cross-LoC trade.
But the most significant step she took was to recommend Nepal as a legalized route for the Kashmiri youth who had crossed over to the other side of the line for training, but now want to return home and live a peaceful life. Hundreds of such families have returned in the last few years, but they are facing a host of problems since they came via Nepal. The route is not legal, and does not entitle the families to basic amenities of life once they return. Most of the returning youth have married in Muzaffarabad and other places, and have children who do not fall under any legal category. Giving the Nepal route a legal status could ease their problems.
Many of us have lost hope in the CBMs, initiated after 2005, but the fact is that they have survived the vagaries of conflict between India and Pakistan. The bus service that runs once a week on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawlakot routes has brought huge relief to the divided families on both sides. The process of getting permits to travel on these buses may be cumbersome, but the stakes people on both sides have in this service are very significant. That is why over 25,000 people have benefitted from the service since 2005. It is because of these stakes that the bus service survived, although it was suspended for weeks after the Mumbai attack of 2008 that completely derailed the India-Pakistan peace process, the beheading of Indian Army soldiers in Poonch in 2013, and a number of other incidents that had potential to take the situation back to square one.
The utility of this important CBM will become even more significant if the routes that were opened after the 2005 earthquake, such as Teetwal, are also opened permanently, and the procedure for acquiring permits is simplified. The service must also be extended to the general public and not confined to divided families. Until the final resolution of Kashmir, the softening of the borders is a great healer. It goes beyond state sovereignty, territory and borders, focusing on people, economy and trade, thus brining a sense of belonging to those who feel partitioned.
And that is why, despite the absence of a proper mechanism and continued conspiracies against it, trade across the LoC has also survived difficult times. The continuation of trade between the two sides of the line is a demonstration of the will of the people, and it has a huge symbolic and emotional value.
It was suspended on several occasions, because of exchanges of gunfire and shells between the two armies, and it was put on hold for many weeks in 2014 and 2015 when consignments of narcotics were recovered from trucks coming from the Pakistani side. The drivers of the consignment continue to be behind bars in Baramulla jail.
The latest threat to cross-LoC trade came from the traders in Amritsar and Lahore, who did not hold back in calling this trade illegal, despite it being supervised by two sovereign countries. Those traders might have genuine concerns. They see it as parallel trade impacting their business. But the peace dividends of this trade cannot be ignored.
A major hurdle in the path of cross-LoC trade is banking problems. India has offered to introduce certain banking initiatives to resolve the problem, but Pakistan has not taken them up. Although approved in 2004, cross-LoC trade only became a reality in 2008, in the wake of weeks of protests and strikes during the Amarnath land row. As trade bodies in Jammu announced an economic blockade, traders in Kashmir chose an emotional recourse by demanding the re-opening of the traditional trade route via Muzaffarabad. Subsequently, there was a joint call of “Muzaffarabad Chalo”, and many people, including senior separatist leader Sheikh Aziz, were killed in police firing when a procession was stopped near Sheeri on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road. New Delhi’s position became precarious, and to address the brewing resentment, they moved unilaterally to give a final shape to cross-LoC trade.
The traders continued, on an unofficial level, to solve their problems and remove any bottlenecks. They even set up a Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI), but the two governments failed to recognize it. The JCCI is a spectacular achievement of bonhomie on the two sides, with members belonging to Jammu, Kashmir, Muzaffarabad, Mirpur and Gilgit-Baltistan chambers of commerce. It is currently headed by YV Sharma, a former president of the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, whose voters are spread across the length and breadth of Jammu and Kashmir.
There is a need today to strengthen these existing CBMs. If Mahbooba Mufti succeeds in opening more routes across the LoC, particularly the Kargil-Skardu and Astor-Gilgit routes, she will be a step closer to realizing her father’s dream of reconciliation. Such measures may not bring a complete or sudden change, but they will surely help build an atmosphere of understanding between two Kashmirs, which is essential for the people on either side to reconnect, emotionally and economically.
The author is a veteran journalist from
New Delhi and the editor-in-chief of
The Rising Kashmir