May Issue 2005
The Bus to Peace
April 7, 2005: 1.55 PM (IST) Place: Kaman Post (Line of Control). As the Indians rolled open the gates of Kaman Bridge (or Aman Setu) to welcome visitors from Muzaffarabad, an emotional new chapter in Kashmir’s history was opened. For Zia Sardar and Shahid Bahar, who were on the maiden bus to Srinagar, the trip began with the men kissing their native soil. “It is so fragrant, I cannot explain it… we have been longing to come here,” said Shahid, a lawyer from Muzaffarabad.
Bullets and bombs were replaced with flowers and bouquets, the region’s turbulent history was being rewritten. Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his team hugged officers from the other side of the LoC, with the usual epithets having lost all meaning on the bridge.
Flagged off from Srinagar by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the bus carried a mere 19 passengers. Threats by militant outfits such as Al Nasireen, Save Kashmir Movement, Al Arifeen and Farzandan-e-Millat served to reduce the number of travellers from 29 to 19. The Tourist Reception Centre, where would-be passengers were kept under the utmost security, was attacked in an attempt to derail the fragile peace process. Although a second bus made a successful run on April 21, the threat has not diminished, and there is a huge security detail on the 118-kilometer long Srinagar-Kaman Post road. It is to minimise this threat that the state government is considering running the service from Uri.
Politically, there have been varied reactions to this historic development. Dubbed the “mother of all CBMs,” the bus service has had its own impact in Kashmir. Families divided since Partition can now meet, and, after five decades, visit their places of birth. It is the ordinary citizens of the two Kashmirs who have benefited most from this service. Amid garlands, flower petals and the famous Kashmiri wazwan thrown in their honour, reunions were marked by sobs, shrieks and tears. The general refrain was that such CBMs should be strengthened and not heldhostage to the whim of political leaders.
Syed Sharief Hussain, 71, a former judge of the Lahore Court, could not hide his emotions as he embraced his niece Kousar at Salamabad, a village close to the LoC where a Tourist Reception Centre had been set up by the J & K Government. His determination to see his birthplace, failed to deter him from boarding the historic bus, even after watching the Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) in Srinagar go up in flames on April 6. For Hussain, and many like him, a long cherished dream was coming true.
Hussain was among many who were persecuted by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s regime in the 1950s for having pro-Pakistan leanings. A case was registered against Hussain when he was found pasting posters against the late Abdullah’s visit to Sopore. Rather than have Hussain serve jail time, his father decided to take him to Lahore. The young Hussain’s first stop was Gujarat, where he did his matriculation. A degree from Rawalpindi followed, and Hussain finally earned a law degree from Lahore. After teaching for a while, he entered politics and became a member of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s People’s Party, representing Kashmiri refugees in the Punjab Assembly. After leaving politics, he became a judge of the Lahore High Court.
After an emotionally draining day, Hussain was eager to rediscover his native land. “The first thing I will do is offer fajr prayers, at Hazratbal shrine, and then I will visit Jamia Masjid to offer Friday prayers,” he informed his relatives. Though he was told that it was too early in the morning to visit Hazratbal, especially in view of the prevailing situation, he insisted, “No I have to go.” Hussain went to his village, Kreeri, in Baramulla district and later visit his old school in Sopore, in North Kashmir, where he had studied up to the ninth standard.
“In Kreeri, I want to pay obeisance at the local shrine and meet my classmates, many of whom, I am told, are alive,” he said. Hussain met with relatives settled in Srinagar, while the rest had travelled from his home village to Srinagar to see him. It was a reunion worth watching as Hussain met his sister Hajra Begum, her children, and those of his deceased sister Sara Begum. The room was filled with people.
Hussain refused to talk politics on this momentous occasion, but asserted that the opening of the road was a huge step in normalising the situation. “I do not see it as an end but it will certainly help divided families to meet,” he said, adding, that “by opening these links, you are pushing the tragedies into the background and that will help the people heal.”
The scene at Jamaltta, an area in central Srinagar, was no different. Scores of neighbours, relatives and strangers waited for hours to greet Fareeda Ghani, writer and former legislator of Azad Kashmir’s assembly, and her brother Mehboob alias Pritam Giani. The crowds reached out to touch her and showered the two with flower petals and almonds as they drove home. They kissed her hands, wept with her and hugged her, welcoming another of Srinagar’s children after a 57-year absence.
Ghani wept inconsolably as she entered the 100-year-old wood and brick house she once lived in. “These walls, these rooms remind me of my childhood,” she said, climbing a winding stairway to her parents’ room, still preserved by cousins in its original decor. Walking through her childhood home, she reminisced, “I used to play with dolls in this room.” The celebration, held in the ornate drawing room of her ancestral home, was interrupted by her father’s surviving sister, the frail 90-year-old Tathi, who enquired after Fareeda’s mother. “How is Birjees?” the old lady managed. After a pause, her Pakistani niece replied, “She passed away.” There was grim silence as Tathi wept uncontrollably. “These are sad moments. We have missed so much and shared so little of our joys and grief,” said Fareeda. “I am delighted though that after years of separation, I have returned to my home and the country where I was born,” adding, “it is overwhelming. For almost a life time we could not come home. Now we are here. Every man or woman should have the right to return to their home, a right to meet and live with their family and friends.” Ghani’s younger brother said that he hoped that “this newfound freedom is sustained and that this bus inspires bigger things and brings an end to Kashmir’s pain.”
Brushing aside the militant threats, Ghani said that, “this bus is the biggest confidence-building measure, the people of Jammu and Kashmir should not face any problems in visiting their land.” Though Fareeda kicked off another controversy by laying claim to her father’s property in Kashmir, she promised to return soon.
Despite militant threats and governmental hoopla, the bus did make its voyage, proving that after a decade-long struggle, Kashmiris on either side of the Indo-Pak divide are anxious for peace. For, at the end of the day, it is people like Farida and Sharief Hussain who will benefit most from the resumption of bus links between the two Kashmirs.