If the attack on the district collector’s office in Srinagar in January and the attack on the Jammu and Kashmir tourist office on the eve of the inauguration of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service came as a harsh reminder of Kashmir’s violent history, the overall mood in the valley, for a couple of reasons, suggested otherwise. In recent months, the people of Kashmir have sent a message: Freedom can wait, but development cannot. Two developments symbolise the transformation of popular mood. First, the municipal corporation elections and the second, the operationalisation of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service. The civic polls—held in all 14 districts of J&K after a span of 25 years (last time in 1980)—witnessed a large voter turnout, with women outnumbering men in the queue at polling booths in many places. It suggests that militancy now seems to be losing steam and the common man is ready to fight for peace, basic amenities and development.
In the municipal elections, voter turnout was recorded between 30-35 per cent with disturbed areas like Qazigund in Anantnag recording 78 per cent turnout. Pulwama with 56.6 per cent, Dooru with 65.99 per cent and Jammu with 65 per cent hinted the dawn of a new phase in the troubled state. In Srinagar, killings of several candidates by terrorists and call for a boycott by them along with APHC fell on deaf ears. Ignoring their calls, people came out to vote and the turnout was around 20 per cent, which was very impressive. Rajouri and Poonch recorded 81 and 76 per cent turnout respectively.
The fact that no single party could sweep the polls speaks of the representative character of democracy in J&K. If the Progressive Democratic Party won in Ganderbal, home constituency of the Abdullahs, it lost to the National Conference in Srinagar. The Congress and PDP won in Charar-e-Shareif and in Jammu, the Congress edged past the BJP’s tally of 26, with 27 seats.
If the bus service has been underscored by the criticism of parties like the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan, it has given the people of not only PoK but J&K too, a cause for celebration. The service goes to benefit the common people who are, after all, at the ‘‘core’’ of the core. Such an exchange will not only transform the perceptions of the people about each other, but also improve the overall atmospherics of Indo-Pak ties. The impact of the bus service in the overall rapprochement can be discerned from the threats that have come from the terrorists to the passengers of the bus. By the same token, courage shown by the passengers to board the bus against all odds could well open a new chapter in the history of Indo-Pak relations. No wonder, it has been considered the ‘Mother of all CBMs’ and rightly so. It is a clear indication that people on both sides of the Chenab have been longing to meet and have been given a new lease of life. The link that would be maintained through the bus service, once every two weeks, alone has the potential of transforming Indo-Pakistan relations. Its importance is also augmented by the enthusiasm shown by PM Manmohan Singh himself, who initiated the policy of ‘peace with dignity’ and ‘wining hearts and minds’ and even went to Srinagar to flag off the bus, despite terrorist threats. Even long-time political foes Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti have been unanimous in their support for the bus. It is sad to see some analysts in discussions on TV demeaning the importance of the bus service, by labelling the coverage by the press as unwarranted “hype”. To see the bus service as just another CBM in the long list of CBMs, would be a big mistake.
The decision by India and Pakistan to start the bus service holds immense promise for the troubled state. It suggests that both have the political strength to take bold decisions and to break from past prejudices. On the bus service, two issues caused repeated deadlocks—travel documents and domicile of the passengers. On both fronts, the two sides showed flexibility and understanding. Pakistan insisted on UN documents for travel and keeping the service exclusively for Kashmiris. India’s contention was to use passport as a travel document and for the service to be open for all Indians. The two stands were reflective of the respective official stands on Kashmir, and how India and Pakistan looked at the Kashmir issue. However, as Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran said in his press conference in Islamabad, the bus service has been effected without any prejudice and with a humanitarian approach, where it becomes a win-win situation for all. The bus service could well become a psychological facilitator when India and Pakistan discuss the Kashmir issue.
A lot still remains to be achieved. Many such measures have to be taken to soothe historic wounds and mend strained bilateral relations. The future would demand much greater compromises and policy shifts by both sides on Kashmir. For Pakistan, it still is the ‘problem of Kashmir’, i.e., Kashmir is a ‘disputed territory’ and an ‘unfinished agenda’ of Partition; and for India, it is the ‘problem’ in Kashmir, suggesting that the accession of Kashmir to India is final and complete, and the challenge now remains in addressing cross-border terrorism, development and grievances of the people of Kashmir. The two divergent approaches leave little scope for a compromise. It is a challenging proposition, but the breakthrough in the bus service has shown that both sides possess the political will. The future of Kashmir and Indo-Pak relations has never looked as bright as it currently does.