(The most important confidence building measure between India and Pakistan initiated in April, 2005 has virtually become an unbearable ordeal for the passengers!)
It was for the first time since the establishment of a ceasefire line in 1947 (present LOC or the line of control) that people were allowed to cross from both the sides in April, 2005. Even though the Buses did not actually cross because of the narrow bridge on Jhelum and the travel was through transhipment, yet the event received worldwide coverage. It was hailed as a breach in the Sub-continents Berlin Wall. The Bus was started on a fortnightly basis with 30 odd passengers travelling from either side. The travel of the first Bus was telecast live. The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flagged it off from Srinagar. Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, the then Chief Minister had himself gone to LOC to receive the first batch of visitors from the Pakistan Administered Kashmir. There was euphoria all round and people expected that the decades old problem was on way to resolution. Some of the relations on two sides of the divide travelling by the Bus had met after 60 years or so. The measure was the beginning of détente between India and Pakistan which had been initiated by Atal Bihari Vajpayee by extending a hand of friendship to Pakistani leadership from Kashmir.
Simultaneously, cross LOC trade was also initiated. The trade did pick up and goods were exchanged from two sides. However, it was more or less a barter trade as there were no arrangements for cross LOC banking. Both the bus and the trade are continuing on a virtually nominal basis. One had expected that after initial hiccups there would be virtually free flow of the people across the artificial barrier. Unfortunately, that has not happened. We still have a miniscule number of people travelling to and fro. Firstly, to get a ticket on the bus first involves clearance from the intelligence and security agencies of both sides which takes months. Only blood relations on two sides get the permission. Common Kashmiris on two sides do not get the permission if they are not related. Permission wise it may be easier to get a normal visit visa from the respective embassies and the travel by air or even by road through Wagah is much easier and smoother. The worst part of the travel as related by some people who have crossed on the bus is the checking on two sides of the line of control. The buses do not cross but people have to walk across the Domail Bridge along with their baggage and take the buses of either side to reach Srinagar or Muzaffarabad.
The actual travel itself is tiring and quite long. Some relations who recently came on the Bus had started at 6 am in Muzaffarabad. They reached Chakoti at 8 am. Till 12 noon, the Pakistani authorities completed their verification procedures at the line of control and they crossed the line at 12.30 pm. On this side the Indian authorities completed their procedures by 3 pm when they finally left for Srinagar. They reached Srinagar at 7.30 pm. A normal drive of three and a half hours took them thirteen and a half hours and they were really tired when they reached their destination! They were also very upset about the facilities provided on the Indian side. These were, according to them, virtually non-existent. On the contrary the Pakistanis have provided excellent facilities on their side. It would send a message of goodwill across if the civic and other facilities on our side are upgraded and improved.
These people also disclosed that in the past they would travel through Wagah border. That travel is easier and smoother. Those days they would start from Lahore at around 7 am and would be in Amritsar by 11 am. They would take a direct flight from Amritsar to Srinagar and would reach their destination by 2.30 pm or so without any problem. The confidence building measure has virtually become a confidence shaking measure for the actual users. The only advantage has been that many people who had been cut off on two sides for almost half a century have been able to meet each other. One great consolation is that the bus has continued in spite of many hiccups caused by tension on the border and within Kashmir. There have been disruptions but the bus has not been totally discontinued.
Now, with the change of government on the other side and possibility of a thaw in relations between our two neighbours, one expects that the Confidence Building Measures would not only be revived but made into real and practical ones giving some solace to the suffering masses. The most important first step to usher in real peace in the subcontinent is the demolition of the sub-continent’s Berlin Wall!
Mohammad Ashraf, I.A.S. (Retired), Former Director General Tourism, Jammu & Kashmir