Kashmir: The high road to peace - Independent, UK
- Kashmir: The high road to peace
A bus service is allowing Kashmiri families to visit
relatives divided by partition for the first time in
58 years. Justin Huggler reports
08 April 2005
When the moment finally came, it was deceptively
simple. Kashmiris just walked across the border that
has divided them for 58 years, crossing a metal bridge
that had been given a fresh coat of white paint for
the occasion. For the first time since the war that
followed the partition of India in 1947, the Line of
Control, the de facto border between Indian and
Pakistani Kashmir, was opened, and Kashmiris who have
not seen their relatives in more than 50 years were
able to cross.
This, at last, was a moment of hope for Kashmir, the
cause for which India and Pakistan nearly started the
world's first nuclear war three years ago. The post
where the passengers crossed used to be a symbol of
the rivalry between India and Pakistan. A huge
billboard faces into Pakistan from the Indian side,
reading, "No religion teaches animosity towards each
other". Yesterday it became a symbol of peace and
But what led to that moment was anything but simple.
For three hours yesterday, two battered minibuses
festooned with marigolds carried the hopes of millions
with them on a nerve-racking journey through the Pir
Panjal mountains. The 19 people on board did not look
the stuff heroes are made of: they were mostly elderly
villagers, the men with wispy beards and the women
covered in brightly coloured headscarves. But they
defied militants who had said they would turn the
buses into "coffins" for anyone who dared to travel in
them. Only on Wednesday, these 19 passengers had to
flee for their lives when two militants staged a
daylight attack on the heavily guarded police safe
house where they were being kept for their protection.
A full-scale gun battle on the streets of central
Srinagar followed, and the building next door was
burnt to the ground. Its ruins were still smoking as
the buses drove past it yesterday.
Three of the original 24 passengers pulled out. Two
more demanded to be let off before they had got far
out of Srinagar. Before the buses had made much
progress, militants fired two grenades at them.
Mercifully, they missed.
It was a tense drive for those of us who followed in a
press bus, through spectacular scenery that looked
perfect for an ambush. The road wound through gorges,
and past ravines. Around every corner danger could be
lurking. The 19 passengers stayed on, determined to
get to the other side of Kashmir. They included
Mohammed Salim Khan, from the remote village of Uri.
He was born in Muzzafarabad, on the Pakistani side,
but moved to Uri in 1947. Half of his family still
lives in Pakistani Kashmir. Yesterday was the first
time he would see them in 58 years.
"I'm going home to Muzzafarabad," he said happily. He
did not see anything heroic in what he was doing. But
millions of Kashmiris did. In every town and village
as the buses came through, people lined the streets
and cheered. They were only straggling crowds in the
morning, when the bus carrying Mr Khan headed for the
Line of Control, and most people were still afraid
that the buses would be hit by the militants. But in
the evening, as the minibuses returned with 31
passengers who had crossed into Indian Kashmir from
the Pakistani side, and the word got round that the
first trip had got through safely, they came out in
their thousands, cheering and dancing in the streets
for joy. It was all the buses could do to weave their
way through the crowds.
When they left Srinagar in a thunderstorm in the
morning, there had been only a few onlookers, most not
ready to believe the bus would make it. But when they
returned in the evening, thousands came out to cheer
in the darkness, long after the start of the de facto
curfew that operates in the city. Because yesterday
was not only about men like Mr Khan being reunited
with their families. For India and Pakistan, the bus
service is a "confidence-building measure", the first
concrete result of peace talks between India and
Pakistan that is supposed to lead to a further warming
But for Kashmiris, it was much more. Yesterday was a
day of hope that their land, brought to its knees by
the rivalry between India and Pakistan that has been
played out here, and by the militants, may see peace.
It is also a hope that the two halves of their divided
land can be reunited. That is what the reunion of
families such as the Khans and that of Syed Shraif
Hussain, who crossed in the other direction, from
Pakistani Kashmir to the Indian side, symbolised to
them. Syed Hussain had gone to the Pakistani side in
1950 and was never able to return to his parents,
brothers and sisters. Yesterday he held in his arms a
niece he has never met before. The girl, Naseema, wept
for joy. "I just can't believe it. God has answered my
prayers and sent my uncle back," she said. Mr Hussein
said: "After more than 50 years, I'm coming home. It
is the happiest day of my life."
These families are the tragedy of Kashmir, divided by
the hostility between India and Pakistan. To
Kashmiris, the family reunions were the reunion of
Kashmir. To Kashmiris, yesterday was not crossing from
India to Pakistan. Most Kashmiris do not view their
land as part of India or Pakistan, they see it as a
Independence is still the most popular solution to the
Kashmir problem here, but you will never hear a word
of it in Delhi or Islamabad. In Kashmiri eyes, the
significance of yesterday was that they were allowed
to travel freely inside their own land again.
That is why Mr Khan and the other passengers will be
seen as heroes here for their courage in defying the
militants. Mohammed Taj, 75, from the Indian side,
said he was going because he wanted to see his sister.
"For that, I am ready to die," he said. "Death is in
the hands of God. Inshallah, we will meet."
Sharif Hussain Bukhari, who came from the Pakistani
side, said: "There is a risk but I am taking the risk
so this bus is the first step towards a resolution of
Kashmir. The Line of Control could fall like the
The militants tried to stop all this. With their
daring raid on the complex where the passengers were
being guarded in Srinagar, it looked as if they might
have succeeded. The militants sent their message. But
the thousands of Kashmiris who lined the road and
cheered as the bus went by gave them a deafening
It is still not entirely clear why the militants have
risked alienating ordinary Kashmiris, among whom they
have enjoyed considerable support until now, by
targeting the bus and passengers. Many believe it is a
sign of desperation.
One of the most striking things about yesterday was
how the Kashmiris took over the event with their own
raw passion. The Indian government had planned all
sorts of celebrations, but most fell like damp squibs.
Only a small crowd bothered to turn up to hear a
speech in Srinagar by the Prime Minister, Manmohan
Singh, and many started jeering because police would
not let them out before the end.
"The caravan of peace has started," Mr Singh said.
"Nothing can stop it." In that, at least, he was
proved right. At Salamabad, near the Line of Control,
where the passengers were given a reception, the
authorities had laid on what looked more than anything
like a school jamboree, complete with a bossy
organiser giving children in traditional costumes
Dad's Army-style commands to, "Raise flags. Shake,
shake, shake. Lower flags".
But just as the passengers from the Pakistani side
were about to arrive, a fierce storm blew in, knocking
down the marquees and sending the children scattering
for cover. The marigold garlands that adorned the
entrance were torn. In a moment that was worthy of the
Raj, only the Indian army bagpipers played on unmoved,
as the storm tossed everything else aside around them.
Then, to add insult to injury, the bus drivers did not
even stop, and whisked the passengers from the
Pakistani side straight past the waiting dignitaries.
But it did not matter, because the Kashmiris who lined
the streets to cheer, braving the storm, provided a
far more powerful message than the jamboree could ever
Yesterday was by no means a solution to the Kashmir
problem. That appears to be as intractable as ever:
both India and Pakistan lay claim to all of Kashmir
and neither is likely to give up what they have got. A
recent proposal by Pakistan's President Pervez
Musharraf for some form of autonomy for Kashmir was
dead-batted by India. For Kashmiris, life remains
bleak. There is still a shocking level of day-to-day
killing in Indian-administered Kashmir.
In the first six weeks of this year, 118 people were
killed, and that is just the official figures.
Thousands of Kashmiri civilians have disappeared after
arrest by Indian security forces. A few bodies have
turned up, but most have not been seen again. These
problems will not go away because of a bus service.
The militants, with their attack in central Srinagar
on Wednesday, made it clear they are not going away
But what yesterday did was to give Kashmiris, for so
long in despair, a little hope. To them, as they
happily lined the streets in their traditional grey
ponchos, yesterday was not about the politics of India
or Pakistan. It was about Kashmir.
Bus pioneers breach Kashmir's 'Berlin wall'
Tearful passengers hail peace breakthrough after
defying militants to open new link across disputed
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