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Last Updated: 04/14/2005
Cautious optimism best for India
Rakesh Kombra

The Kashmir bus service is a nice confidence building measure, but nothing more. India should remain cautious, as such signs of good will have, in the past, led to brutal conflicts.

In the words of then-Prime Minister of India Atal Behari Vajpayee, the Amristar-Lahore bus service that evoked much euphoria in India led to Kargil that brief but intense battle to regain the Himalayan peaks that were clandestinely occupied by Islamic militants backed by Pakistani armed forces.


And to get Kargil back, the Indian armed forces had to fight a pitched battle against heavy odds to overpower the heavily armed militants and Pakistani soldiers (of course, Pakistan never owned them even after they were killed in the fight) who squatted on Indian territory by taking advantage of the winter when troops on either side usually retreat to comfort zones only to return when the weather is more hospitable.


The early 1960s slogan of Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai (Indians and Chinese are brothers) made by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru has not been forgotten either. China mounted a war against India before the bhai bhai euphoria even died down and inflicted the worst wounds on its then moderate military prowess and political pride, leaving Nehru a dejected man who never recovered from the shock.


And now we have the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service that has opened up the gateway of people-to-people contact on the Kashmir side on April 7, 2005. The intensions even on the Pakistani side seem to be positive, at least on the surface. Islamabad was the first to condemn the terrorist attack on the Kashmir Tourist Reception Centre which was set ablaze by the fidayeens (the so called holy warriors fighting jihad) acting on behalf of those radical outfits out to thwart the bus service.


Yes, the prime minister of what India calls Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) or Azad Kashmir as Pakistan prefers to call it Sardar Sikander Hayat Khan was ready to see off the 30 passengers from his side and the 18 who crossed over from Jammu and Kashmir at the Aman Sethu, or the Kaman Post, that was last used by civilians 58 years ago.

In spite of all this the United Progressive Alliance government in New Delhi is best advised to remain cautious in its optimism over the long-term impact of the move that at best is symbolic. For the moment at least, it is better for India to treat it as a well-executed Confidence Building Measure (CBM). Nothing more.


At least four separatist outfits issued threats and later claimed responsibility for the arson and a IED (improvised explosive device) blast that missed the inaugural bus by 10 minutes to passengers from the Indian side. The security provided to the bus and the cordon around Sher-e-Kashmir Stadium in Srinagar where the bus was flagged off by Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh was rather unprecedented.


But there was nothing of that sort in Pakistan Kashmir, where TV footage showed passengers and onlookers mingling with VIPs, district administration officials and security personnel before the flag off. Neither did the jihadis based there issue any threat to passengers who were packing their bags to cross over to the Indian side. That is proof enough that the masters of these terror groups would continue with what they have been doing for decades in India.


Those who must have forgotten the run-up to the Kargil war that came just months after the bonhomie struck by Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharief (then prime minister of Pakistan who was deposed in a bloodless coup by General Musharraf in 1999), must be told that there are not many Kashmiri families divided between the two sides of Kashmir - at least not as many as in the rest of India and mainland Pakistan.


In fact, Pakistan has over the years led a systematic migration of non-Kashmiri ethnic groups like the Punjabis in the Kashmir it occupies. And it is no secret that it was done to alter the demographic profile of that region.


On the other hand, the Indian Kashmir has a separate constitution that ensures special rights for the people. It also bars people from other parts of India from buying property in Kashmir, a feature absent in the Pakistan side. But let the service continue since it is always good to have some point of contact between the people of the two sides.


That leaves one fact that has emerged over the past few months over the bus service: Believe it or not, it is Pakistan that scored diplomatic points in the international arena by getting India to yield to its demand that the bus passengers need not have passports a condition that New Delhi was earlier adamant on till it blinked recently. While it is almost certain that no one from India would want to infiltrate into Pakistan Kashmir, the same may not be true the other way round. A case in point is the number of Pakistani cricket fans who crossed the Wagah border connecting the Punjab provinces on both sides, but are now listed as missing .


Yet, the service is necessary and the buses on either side must continue to roll and perhaps increase the frequency in the near future. But be watchful as winter is easing and the snow will melt soon.


Make sure there are no more Kargils. Ensure the ring masters of the jihadis are not armed with other ways of pushing their wards across the border. Kashmir is the main obstacle for lasting peace between the two South Asian neighbours, and the Caravan of Peace as the bus service is called is a welcome addition to the CBMs already working to perceivable results. But it is not time yet to bank on it as an investment for lasting peace for the Kashmiri people. The core issue India must address is Pakistan s continuing moral and material support to separatists who have already killed thousands of innocent civilians in the Valley in the name of a separate state.


With more points like Sialkot (with Srinagar) and Kokhrapar (with Munabao, the rail link in Rajasthan) set to be connected to enhance people-to-people contacts between the two countries that have gone to war thrice and stood eyeball-to-eyeball on more than one occasion, the CBMs will continue as an ongoing saga resulting from the thaw. And Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf is apparently under some kind of pressure from the United States to continue the peace initiatives even as he is forced to clip militant Islamic outfits that bred and mushroomed on Pakistan soil to launch their jihad on infidels all over the world.


Rest assured (read continuance of the General who, it may be recalled, led the forces during the brief but intense battle over Kargil) Pakistan is very unlikely to derail the peace process. In other words, it has little choice especially with the US administration breathing down its neck but to cleanse the country of Islamic radical organisations including the outlawed Al Qaeda.


What must be understood by Indian foreign policy experts and bureaucrats is that it is a core group of the Pakistani army in alliance with the ISI that is behind the training and arming of Islamic terror groups. It remains to be seen how much influence General Musharraf let alone politicians - wield in these matters.


With larger duties as the nation s President, it is certain that the mullah-military alliance fomenting hatred against infidels is working beyond the reach of the General himself. Those who disagree would do well to find an explanation for all those incursions happening in Kashmir in spite of the Indian armed forces reducing it to a considerable extent over the past couple of years.


Please understand that the reduction in infiltration as Indian politicians mouth at every given opportunity - has got more to do with the efforts of the Indian armed forces rather than the initiatives taken from across the border. That essentially means that the jehadis are all alive and kicking and one bus service between the divided Kashmir will not stop them.


While the bus is a good thing rolling, India must not relax its diplomatic grip achieved especially after 9/11 when even the US stood up and took note of the terror threat from jihadis that India had been voicing for almost two decades. India must continue mobilising global opinion against terrorism rather than rest on the laurels achieved by these CBMs including the much-anticipated bus service connecting Srinagar and Muzaffarabad.


Let there be more such bus services between the two sides of Kashmir. Let the people interact. Let those who come in from PoK get a feel of democracy and secularism, elements that are alien to them as even their Prime Minister is appointed by the Pakistan military. But never relax the grip, as is what usually happens with New Delhi.

Rakesh Kombra is the chief of the news bureau with The Gulf Today, Sharjah, UAE. He has worked for several years in New Delhi and has reported extensively from Kashmir and written extensively on the issue. You can e-mail him at