April issue 2004

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

If wishes were bus services, then Kashmiris would have free rides from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad and vice versa. The much awaited re-opening of the road between the two capitals of Indian-controlled and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, via the line of control, is tipped to bring solace to the much alienated population of the Valley. But so far the question of road opening has turned out to be a damp squib which is hyped more by politicians and media than the action on the ground.

The valley has its reasons for pinning hopes on the opening of routes between the two Kashmirs. The road is being seen as a symbolic gesture to reunite divided families on both sides.

Historically, prior to 1947, the Muzaffarabad route was the only link between Kashmir and the outside world. It was constructed during Maharaja Ranbir Singh’s reign. Historians have noted the tireless efforts of a British officer, Colonel Nisbet, in making this ‘magnificent piece of engineering’ with the help of the then state engineer, Alkinson.

Work on the road started in 1880 and was completed in a decade. It was finally thrown open in 1892 when Maharaja Pratap Singh was driven in a bullock cart to Domel. A British firm, Spedding & Co., charged the Maharaja a sum of 21,78,870 rupees. The road was a revolution. Within a year, imports touched 66,16,145 rupees and exports 65,05,088 rupees.

After the division of Kashmir in 1947 into Indian-administered and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, this road link was snapped. Many Kashmiris linked with tourism and handicrafts or horticulture industry see better trade prospects in the re-opening of the route.

But between these dreams and destination there are several milestones. India had offered the road re-opening as part of certain confidence-building measures earlier in 1997 but the idea was consigned to cold storage after the Kargil war. The question was included in one of 12 proposals mooted by India when the recent India-Pakistan initiative took off, following the November 26, 2003 ceasefire along the international border and the line of control. Yet, it has still failed to become a part of the agenda mooted for secretary level talks between the two countries.

It may not turn out to be an easy task to see buses moving over this much awaited route even after the talks begin because several intricacies are involved as far as this road goes. The route assumes significance since it would be connecting two territories not via the international border but the Line of Control(LOC). Politically, this may suit neither India nor Pakistan, because any question of travel on this route may amount to acceptance of the LOC as the international border. On the converse of it, any connection through the LOC between the two Kashmirs would be a symbolic gesture for its people who have been sandwiched in the hostilities and politicking between India and Pakistan.

Besides, the question of opening consulates and customs offices is yet another basic pre-requisite which might take its own time. In mid-February, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir (Indian-controlled) is reported to have had a meeting with the army and central customs officials in Uri, 100 kilometres from Srinagar, on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road. Following this meeting, the Customs and Central Excise Commissioner (North India), M.S. Badhan, had identified Uroosa village, 14 kilometres from Uri towards Muzaffarabad territory as the place for a customs checkpost. The question of visas may prove to be more tricky in view of the fact that travel documents would entail travel over the LOC.

The completion of the road itself may not be an altogether smooth sail as is being perceived by some. The road that snakes its way through the mountains along the Jhelum river is prone to landslides. Besides, the area is heavily infested with anti-personnel landmines placed not only during Operation Parakarm but also during the previous wars. Though the de-mining process is going on, it is not yet complete. Besides, the road is pot-holed and narrow.

To combat the problem of road connectivity, Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed announced in February that he had asked the finance minister to earmark funds for the purpose. Sayeed has already requested the prime minister for extension of the north-south corridor (Srinagar to Kanyakumari highway project) till Uri and the state government has submitted a 570 crore rupees project to New Delhi. Tourism Minister, Ghulam Hassan Mir, has gone a step further and claimed that efforts are on to make the road operational. He has also mooted wayside restaurants, hotels and toilets to facilitate travel. Enthusiastically, he also talks about visa relaxation and the security system on the road, which is neither being discussed anywhere nor is it within his jurisdiction. However, the Roads and Buildings Minister, Madan Lal Sharma, has expressed ignorance about any work on the road.

Another bone of contention is likely to be the construction of a bridge linking Chakoti (in Pakistani territory) to Uri over the Neelam river. The bridge over this river was destroyed in 1947 and the question of work on the bridge may prove to be tricky since it is on the LOC. At present, a footbridge exists here which is used by the United Nations Military Observers Group in India and Pakistan for their frequent movement between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad.

Meanwhile, the Peoples Democratic Party leading the state coalition government is using the issue as a road to its own success by tickling the emotions of the people and using it as a trump card in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. The party had taken out a rally to mount pressure on India and Pakistan to open the road, timing it with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf’s one-on-one talks during the SAARC summit in Islamabad in January. Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah had earlier used this card of reopening of the route in various elections and it seems the present chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed is pursuing the footsteps of his adversaries to touch the peoples’ sensibilities.

The opening of the route has been an emotive issue, at least in the Indian-administered Kashmir for many years, perhaps owing to the rhetoric of the road acting as a bridge between divided families. Interestingly, there are less divided families between the Kashmir Valley and Azad Kashmir than there are between the Jammu division of the state and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. There are at least two alternate routes between the two parts of the divided state along the line of control, in Jammu division, and also one connecting Jammu with Sialkot via the international border.

Jammu and Sialkot, just half an hour away, were previously connected by a railway line, that subsequently got damaged in 1947. They were regarded as twin cities and the route was an important hub of commerce and trade. An estimated four to five lakh families migrated to the Pakistan side via this route in 1947. Before partition, people from Sialkot would come and spend the day in Jammu to enjoy its cool breeze in summers and people from Jammu would visit Sialkot for shopping and other errands.

The other two routes connecting Mirpur would also be more significant for the people of Poonch and Rajouri on this side and Kotli, Mirpur and Rawalakote on the other side. People in these areas argue that if the aim is to unite parted hearts and divided families, the people of Rajouri and Poonch are the worst sufferers. The Bhimber route also assumes significance in view of its historical importance as it was used by the Mughals starting from Gujrat district in Pakistan Punjab to Bhimber via Saidabad to Nowshera (via Chingus) to Rajouri and then Shopian in Kashmir Valley. They argue that the Bhimber road also connects the erstwhile Chamb area, now called Iftakharabad, and Mirpur, both in Pakistan. Besides, it is the shortest possible route. The drive from Bhimber to Mirpur is just a couple of hours. Again, the Jhangar route would be a viable alternative, since it is centrally located and around 30 miles each from Kotli, Mirpur, Poonch and Jammu. Though these two roads are in a dilapidated condition, the Jammu-Sialkot road is still in good operational condition with a gate dividing the two territories at Suchetgarh, where there was an octroi post.

Interestingly, the government does not include these three routes as part of its slogan of ‘demolishing the Berlin Wall’ or ‘porous borders.’ This also suits the Hindu right wing in the Hindu-dominated districts of Jammu where the border population is being warned against the notion of opening of roads by constant propaganda that “once routes open, the Pakistanis will occupy your homes and fields.” The only valid logic for preferring the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar road over the other three routes that connected the divided state of Jammu and Kashmir is that it is also being seen as a first step to address the alienation of the people which is more deep-rooted in the Valley.

Whether or not the opening of the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar route becomes a fact, the fiction that ‘it is just a matter of a few months’ is being narrated by politicians who want to claim credit for peace initiatives between the two countries and signal this issue as step one to resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Obviously, there is more bark than there is bite. And even before any concrete agenda has been set up, euphoria has been created in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls. It seems, that contrary to the publicity and the hype, the road that winds its way along the mighty Jhelum and leads to nowhere may continue to do so for quite some time, much against the wishes and aspirations of the people.