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
Click to follow
The Independent Online

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.

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 reconciliation.

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 of ties.

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 separate place.

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 Berlin Wall."

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 answer.

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 have done.

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 either.

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.