Amid subdued insurgency in Kashmir and consensus on Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) between the two nuclear powers - India and Pakistan – Kashmiris, after a decade-and-a-half long conflict, saw semblance of peace and tranquillity dawning upon them with the opening of travel routes across the Line of Control (LoC) dividing the two parts of Kashmir, in April 2005.
The 2003 ceasefire between the two historic rivals buoyed New Delhi and Islamabad to go one step further.
Although sceptics on both sides of the border refused to acknowledge it as a substantial step towards building the much needed confidence between the two countries, the cross-LoC bus service between Srinagar (capital of J&K) and Muzaffarabad (capital of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) succeeded in bringing together the divided families on the two sides of the line without going through hassles of obtaining passports and applying for visas.
The ‘Karvan-e-Aman’ bus service on Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road was billed as the ‘mother of all CBMs’ aimed at restoring peace in the state. The bus was of symbolic importance to the efforts of the two governments to foster peaceful and friendly relations and followed the success of the Delhi-Lahore bus, launched in 1999.
For the people of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the bus has a high emotional quotient attached to it. When the service was announced, the general sense on both sides of the LoC was that there will be free movement of goods and people. Though an unrealistic expectation, it still persists in the hearts and minds of all the Kashmiris.
The opening of symbolic cross-LoC trade in October 2008, although on barter basis, was another CBM aimed at bringing the two Kashmirs closer. The Pakistani and the Indian authorities have set up their facilitation centres at Chakoti (PoK) and Salamabad (Kashmir) on either side of the LoC in Uri.
A relatively smaller facility has been in place at Teetwal in Tangdhar area of north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. It, however, remains suspended for six months due to heavy snow and inclement weather on Sadhna Pass, which connects the Valley to Tanghdar. Like Uri, the TFC at Chakan-Da-Bagh in Poonch remains open for the cross-LoC bus on Monday and for trade from Tuesday to Friday.
The issue of divided families – most of whom incidentally are not in Kashmir valley but in Jammu region – and trade and commerce appeared to be the guiding force behind the desire for softening the LoC.
It also appears they had much larger hopes beyond building confidence - of building constituencies of peace through cultural and economic activity which could have negated the prospects of conflict and confrontation on both sides. Success of such a scheme of things would ultimately have resulted in mellowing down the extreme positions on both sides in relation to Kashmir.
Economic route to peace
The most promising idea is the possibility of accelerating economic development and strengthening human interaction in both parts of divided Kashmir, both independent of each other as well as in a cooperative framework. The hope is that over time such an approach would integrate peoples and economies on both sides substantially, thus forming a potent constituency for permanent normalisation.
That is exactly what the cross-LoC travel and trade would have been aimed at when the two countries agreed.
The impetus to explore the economic route to enhance the likelihood of political reconciliation is grounded in the liberal theory of economic interdependence. Proponents of the theory perceive trade to be inherently beneficial for countries as it brings efficiency gains for producers, consumers, and governments. Interdependence, in turn, ought to bring amelioration of tensions or conflict as a welcome political externality.
Although the cross-LoC travel was suspended on Poonch-Rawalakot route in the backdrop of recent ceasefire violations along the LoC, the trade and travel on Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road remains unaffected. People have high hopes that the latest skirmishes won’t affect their cherished dream of opening of all the trade and travel routes.
More than 650 businessmen are involved in the LoC trade. Governments of India and Pakistan had in 2008 agreed on 21 items that can be traded. Import items of Jammu & Kashmir traders are rice, jai namaz (prayer rug) and tasbih (rosary), precious stones, chappals, medicinal herbal products, maize products, fresh and dry fruits, saffron, honey, dal moongi, tamarind, black mushroom, furniture, carpets and rugs, wall hangings, embroidered items, foam items, shawls and stoles. Export items are carpets, rugs, wall hangings and shawls. Although 21 items were initially allowed to be traded, the list has now been reduced to just 14 items.