From threat to opportunity

JUST as India and Pakistan get ready to implement their single biggest confidence-building measure by launching the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, four little-known militant groups in Kashmir have threatened to turn the bus into a “coffin”. The threat is not empty. The groups — Al Nasireen, Save Kashmir Movement, Al-Arifeen and Farzandan-e-Milat—has published the entire bus manifest, so far not made public, listing the 40 prospective passengers, with names and addresses.

By Praful Bidwai

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Published: Sun 3 Apr 2005, 9:57 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:10 PM

In “background” media briefing, India’s home ministry officials have named Pakistan as the source of the leak of the classified list, without adducing persuasive detailed evidence. The Pakistan government may level identical charges against the Indian officials who scrutinised the passengers’ applications.

Rather than allow this to become a red herring, or worse, a source of mutual recrimination and rivalry, the two governments should convert the threat into an opportunity for collaborative action between themselves, which can take their dialogue process forward.

The proposal for a bus across the Line of Control (LoC) has had a long chequered career since it was made in October 2003 although its immense popularity amongst Kashmiris on both sides of the border was never in question. Its negotiation involved much hand-wringing and many rounds of frustratingly unproductive talks. The principal obstacle to an agreement was the stark divergence between the Indian position that passengers should carry ordinary passports (which may not be stamped with a visa), and the Pakistani insistence that no passports be carried.

It is a tribute to the flexibility of the two governments — a rare show indeed — that the dispute could be resolved and work could be begin on removing landmines and repairing the road between the capitals of the two divided parts of Kashmir. The repair work witnessed some splendid cooperation between the engineers of Indian and Pakistani armed forces — a fine example of working together constructively. There is every reason why the same spirit should be displayed by them in ensuring that the bus runs on schedule, undeterred and unaffected by threats and blackmail attempts.

It would be a pity if the great energies and hopes which people from both countries have invested in the bus were to go waste or turn into sources of frustration and failure. The enthusiasm for the bus is self-evident. Its inaugural journey is meant to ferry 10 VIPs from Indian Jammu and Kashmir, including Deputy Chief Minister Mangat Ram Sharma, People’s Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti, National Conference leaders Omar Abdullah and Abdur Rahim Rather, the CPI(M)’s Yusuf Tarigami, and Panthers Party chief Bhim Singh.

It’s in recognition of this hope that Prime Minister Singh and Sonia Gandhi decided to flag off the bus on its maiden journey. Pakistani leaders, including those from Azad Kashmir, have been almost equally upbeat about the bus, although they have warned that it’s no substitute for substantive talks on Kashmir.

So what should India and Pakistan do to defend the bus against criticism by and physical attack from extremists? They should jointly do what they would have done individually-as if keeping the bus running were their own domestic cause, to be protected against extremist threats.

Therefore, whatever they do-whether they make a double-check on mine clearance or seal off sections of the road, or whether they send a “road-opening” party and deploy special escorts, they should do so jointly and with the same earnestness, professionalism and dedication that the best of their security guards display while providing protection to VVIPs.

The need for joint action springs from two considerations. First, the two governments and their leaders face an identical threat — from militants who are not just anti-India, but who also accuse President Musharraf of having “challenged the religious pride of Pakistani Muslims and Kashmiri Muslims at the behest of an imperial power” — and of selling the Kashmiris down the river. As the very nearly successful attack 15 months ago on Musharraf demonstrated, the extremists act with as much deadly determination against their Pakistani targets as their Indian adversaries.

Secondly, the two governments must demonstrate an extraordinary degree of sensibility and respect towards the people of both parts of Kashmir by making the bus run-no matter how heavy the odds. After all, both governments claim to speak in the name of the Kashmiri people.

Yet, both have treated the citizens of each part of Kashmir with insensitivity, or callousness and worse. The Indian state has illegally extended Central legislation to Kashmir, violating its own Constitution. It has rigged elections, imposed pliant leaders, and unleashed brutal repression against civilians. The Pakistani government, for its part, has not even given “Azad Kashmir’s” people the autonomy and the representative institutions they need.

Indeed, as Mohammed Yasin Malik of the J&K Liberation Front points through his impressive signature campaign, neither New Delhi nor Islamabad bothered to consult the people of Kashmir while negotiating the LoC bus, which all Kashmiris unreservedly welcome. Malik spent two years trekking through 5,000 villages to collect 1.5 million signatures demanding meaningful involvement of the Kashmiris in the India-Pakistan dialogue. This demand is fundamentally so sound as to be irresistible.

The time has come for New Delhi and Islamabad to redeem themselves in the eyes of the Kashmiris by demonstrating an exemplary level of non-adversarial engagement and friendly cooperation. This would be a fine contrast to the competitive rivalry which comes to them “naturally” or viscerally, whether in regional or international forums. Even the dialogue process has not mitigated their hostility.

Take Nepal. While India deplored the King’s coup and cut off aid, Pakistan tried to insert itself into the vacuum by coming to the King’s rescue with a $5 million aid package. This is an extremely short-sighted, parochial and foolhardy decision. The King deserves to be reprimanded and reined in independently of India-for having throttled Nepal’s democracy. Nepal’s stabilisation along democratic lines is worthy of universal, unconditional support. There must be an alternative to the existing model of sordid India-Pakistan rivalry. The LoC bus is a good candidate for this.

PS: Pakistan has disappointed many Kashmiris by refusing entry to 12 mainstream political leaders, including Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Farooq. This is a big mistake. One only hopes Islamabad doesn’t compound it by narrowing the purpose of the bus merely to the reunification of divided families. The bus is much more than that.

Praful Bidwai is a senior Indian journalist and eminent commentator

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