Facilitating people to people contact between two parts of divided Kashmir is a part of Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s vision of a ‘soft border’ approach to solving Kashmir that is people-specific and not territory-oriented. From the beginning of the trans-LoC bus to the start of trade, cables sent to Washington from US missions in India and Pakistan released by Wikileaks offer great detail about the path breaking initiative, a Kashmir Life report.
Unlike the US diplomatic mission in Islamabad, the American embassy in New Delhi was very enthusiastic about the start of the trans-LoC bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad. In the huge cache of cables that Wikileaks published last month, there is barely a cable that has gone to US from Islamabad on the historic development. Most of the communications are from New Delhi and revealing how the Americans viewed it.
Details that Ambassador David C Mullford cabled to US on December 8, 2004 offered a keyhole view of why the two-day meeting between Indian and Pakistani officials over the bus service failed. The interaction was supposed to be technical but Islamabad ensured it turns out to be a political meeting. Since there were many differences, the meeting was held for many hours on December 7 but could barely meet for a few minutes on the day after when both sides called it a day.
The two sides differed over the mechanism involved in getting the bus service started. Islamabad had made two proposals and wanted UN documents be used by the travellers as in the case of Cyprus, or Red Cross certificates as in the case of Korea. As New Delhi rejected the two ideas, the cable says its Islamabad mission confirmed that Pakistani suggested reviving the pre-1953 “Rahdari” system by which travellers used documents issued by local officials on both sides of the LoC. But New Delhi rejected restoration of the system that would make the state government the main player in managing the cross-LoC travel.
India suggested use of passports but the other side rejected the idea. Initially a routine visa formula was proposed. The second option offered was a separate entry certificate issued by the respective High Commissions on the basis of passports that would be accepted as a form of identification. Finally, a LoC crossing certificate was suggested with a passport in which only the certificate will be stamped at the border. But it was also not accepted.
India wanted the road to be open for every Indian citizen but Islamabad insisted it only be for Kashmiris living on either side of the divide. Interestingly, Pakistan wanted an Indian national transporter to run the service but India said it lacks this system because all the roadways are state entities.
“It became evident during the meeting that Islamabad would not agree to any mechanism that could allow the LoC become a de facto border,” the cable reads quoting an Indian delegation member who attended the meeting. “The Pakistanis responded that the use of passports for identification was inconsistent with their characterization of Kashmir as a “disputed” territory”. Having an LoC-crossing certificate, the cable says had “first surfaced in the Track-II “Neemrana” dialogue.”
There was no response to the Indian suggestion of having designated points where divided families could meet. “This would be a marked improvement over the current practice of families arriving at their respective sides of the LoC and calling to each other from across a river or check-point,” the cable suggested quoting a newspaper.
The failure in the crucial meeting led to increasing voices within India’s foreign office that Islamabad’s condition be met even though it needed climb-down from both sides. The issue was later taken up through back channels involving NSAs of the two countries, J N Dixit and Aziz Ahmad Khan. “The MEA, in particular, is concerned that Islamabad opposes new connections between the two sides of Kashmir because this would tend to deflate the jihadist movement,” the cable observed.
The two countries finally signed an agreement on February 16 to run a bus service from April 7, 2005. “New Delhi and Manmohan Singh deserve most of the credit for making the concessions necessary to reach this deal with Islamabad,” Mullford cabled the same day. “In the Valley, the PDP stands to be the big winner politically, because of its very visible campaign to make the LoC into a soft border, to the point where billboards the party erected during 2003 noting the distance to Muzaffarabad in kilometres had become an object of scorn.”
It was a climb-down from both sides. India agreed to what Pakistan said – limiting the facility to Kashmiris and initially to members of the divided families and creating a new permit that Regional Passport Officer in Srinagar would issue. Pakistan accommodated India by accepting that the entry permit will have a Government of India stamp.
As the militant outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad and its like-minded groups threatened to convert the buses into coffins, the US officials approached the MEA suggesting they would be supplying itemizers for security purposes. India’s MEA took its time and finally conveyed “no thanks” to the Americans. Mulford cabled on February 18 to give credit to Dixit whose “implementation of the PM’s admonition to “think outside the box” made the bus deal possible. “This success also demonstrates the degree to which Prime Ministerial engagement is imperative to progress in the Indo-Pak relationship,” he noted.
In the countdown to the historic April 7, the US cables try to communicate as many details as possible. The one sent by Mulford on March 24 details the preparations, gets reactions from all sides, reports massive rush of the applicants and comments: “It will be difficult for either government to reverse this step, reflecting the degree to which popular sentiment is shaping the Indo-Pak peace process.” The cable mentions how the then chief minister Mufti Sayeed “has been careful about giving credit to New Delhi and Islamabad for their leadership in making it happen” while using the bus “to highlight its potential for breaking down barriers between India and Pakistan”.
The cable also mentions how Omar Abdullah “joined the bandwagon” by seeking a daily service and linking the development to his grand-pa’s road re-opening demand before his death. Omar, in fact, went against his father Dr Farooq Abdullah who was not “effusive about the development”.
Apart from de-mining operations, it offers details about the road widening, repairing of the bridges, creation of required infrastructure and facelift to the town located on the ‘Rawalpandi Road’. Even the number of applications that authorities received on day-to-day basis is mentioned. But not every detail is correct. Mulford’s informants in Srinagar had told him that the passengers would have to cross three bridges on foot to reach the Kaman Bridge! There are many paragraphs about the demographics involved with the bus – the population of divided families.
Passages regarding security of the bus painted a war like situation. “The bus will travel in something of a convoy, with lead and follow cars, after Road Opening Parties have traversed the road to clear it of IEDs,” the cable said. “J&K police officials say that should credible reports surface of IED threats, a jammer car may travel in the convoy.” It mentions, for the first time that the security apparatus in the state had formed vigilance committees to reduce the likelihood of ambushes, including by using the “zimmewari system,” by which civilians look out for suspicious items that could be explosives. This was despite the fact that officials in Delhi and Islamabad had downplayed security concerns to US diplomats.
Voices against the bus included that of Kashmiri Pandits and the hardliner separatist Syed Ali Shah Geelani. What is revealing in this cable is that the moderates had told Americans that they have confirmed boarding the bus. “The moderate Hurriyat leaders have confirmed to us their interest in travelling on the bus, but said they would wait until the second or third trip in May or later, partly to allow divided families which have no other opportunity to travel to go first, but also to see how the process unfolds, as well as to allow arrangements for such trips to be made,” the cable reads.
“This is no ordinary road, and no ordinary bus; it is one of the biggest Kashmir stories in many, many years,” Mulford notes. “Although it does not deal directly with the ‘core issue’ of Kashmir, the bus has the potential to begin a new era in intra-Kashmir relations. Those who continue to dismiss it as a diversion or otherwise flawed sound increasingly cranky and out of touch with the march of history.”
Almost a week ahead of the attack on the Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) in Srinagar on the eve of the bus launch, a cable dated April 1, had informed Washington that they are wiling to supply itemizers. The offered was declined a week later. The officials (in MEA) were pleased to hear US government’s reaffirmation for the bus. “They also expressed satisfaction that we were exhorting Islamabad to use its influence to ensure that the bus service is not disrupted,” the cable reads.
The communication detailed the security system in place to ensure the bus rollout remained incident free. “There have been conflicting reports about whether a low-flying helicopter would be added to the mix,” it said. When the attack was carried out in Srinagar making a huge spectacle for the TV news channels, the Americans in New Delhi were annoyed. They cabled US government to condemn the attack in strongest possible terms. “This was a cynical attack on one of the most powerful symbols of rapprochement between India and Pakistan,” the cable suggested details of a possible condemnation.
On April 7, when Prime Minister Singh and many others flew to Srinagar to launch the bus, Mulford send a long cable offering every detail of the historic development. From dropping of 11 of the 30 passengers to Ms Mehbooba accompanying the passengers till Kaman Post, and the bus skipping two rifle grenades near Pattan, the cable did not miss anything.
Mulford showered all praise on Prime Minister Singh saying it demonstrated his “personal and political courage” and is “the most concrete evidence to date” of his leadership and “willingness to take risks for peace”. The bus, the cable reads, “fits in neatly” with his “vision of borders as increasingly irrelevant in a globalized world, and as a means to reduce their relevance between India and Pakistan.” It categorically said the bus would have never rolled “had the MEA and MHA bureaucracies been left in charge of Indo-Pak relations.”
In the entire cache of secret cables, there are only two more cables on the issue – one from Delhi that talks about the start of another bus and the other from US embassy in Islamabad when the trans-LoC trade started. Interestingly, nothing much on the issue was apparently being communicated to Washington from Islamabad.
However, increasing people to people contact through LoC remained a continuous subject for American officials in Delhi. In May 2006, for instance, the moderate Hurriyat told US officials that instead of “very cumbersome modalities”, they will urge MHA “to allow persons from both sides to use state subject certificates as a basis for bus usage” so that cross-LOC traffic can be “like (that of) the US-Canada border”. Prime Minister Singh had “welcomed thoughts on such fixes” but urged them to use the MHA dialogue to accomplish such changes.
In their pursuit of helping the two countries to be more open to trans-LoC contacts, the US officials seem to have gone overboard in informing Washington that lot many things have happened. During the earthquake, while India and Pakistan opened LoC at a few points and symbolically exchanged relief, the cables talked about huge transfers having taken place. There were, however, for a few weeks the trunk call dialling facility available for the divided families, but it was later withdrawn. The cable said that restoring the phone connectivity was the personal decision of Prime Minister Singh.
New Delhi did announce that it will open medical facilities near the LoC for the injured of the other part of Kashmir but there was no report of anybody coming to avail the first aid. There was not much of a movement on the LoC other than some of the Kashmiris jailed in Muzaffarabad for spying who escaped alive and trekked the distance to reunite with their families on India’s side. Of the five tracks that were supposed to be opened – during and after the earthquake, the one on Haji Pir was never used. Of the two in Poonch, one was closed within days leaving Chakan da Bagh the only functional crossing point. In Kashmir the Kaman Post is the only operational route with the Teetwal footbridge opening quite rarely during summers.