I might have written tens of thousands of words. So might have been written by many others in support of opening of the Jhelum valley road popularly called the “Rawalpindi” Road. My today’s column owes its birth to a news item published in this newspaper few days back. It read:
“Three fresh guests from Pakistan administered Kashmir (PaK) arrived here this afternoon while eight Kashmiris crossed to other side of the Line of Control (LoC) in the Karvan-e- Aman bus, operating between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad.”
The opening of this road has been an important and highlighted paragraph in political discourse of Kashmir. It has been important part of Kashmir’s post 1947 political narrative. This nineteenth century road after various passes that had served as traditional trade routes for centuries and connected Kashmir to various Central Asian states, had become jugular vein of economy of Jammu and Kashmir. It was the only all weather road that connected Kashmir to rest of the world. All imports including essentials and medicines reached Kashmir through this road.
The road was closed in 1948, in the wake of United Nations Security Council adopting resolution asking India and Pakistan troops for a ceasefire. The United Nations Security Council resolutions had asked the troops of the country for remaining stationed where they stood on the day of ceasefire, thus giving birth to ceasefire line. This resolution was followed by many other resolutions, and these resolutions are a part of history of Kashmir dispute and not point of discussion for this column. However here I want to make a point, that none of the resolutions passed by the United Nations Security Council prevented movement of civilians across the Ceasefire Line or trade across the line. The line was largely porous till mid-fifties and this invisible line turned into an impregnable wall only after 1955, when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru announced in the Parliament that Pakistan was “out of court” and declared Kashmir as an integral part of India and ruled out possibility of holding plebiscite in the state. India’s stand on Kashmir hardened further after Soviet leaders visit Srinagar and announce Kashmir as any other state of the Indian Union.
The birth of the Jammu and Kashmir Plebiscite Front is attributed to the statement made by Jawaharlal Nehru in the Parliament. The Front along with raising the slogans for right of self-determination for people and holding of a plebiscite also articulated demand for opening of the Jhelum Valley Road with an equal emphasis. In 1964, after the holy relic agitation the demand for opening of the road was raised along with demands for implementation of UN resolutions in the public meetings organized by Jammu and Kashmir Action Committee. The 1968, State Peoples Convention organized by Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah that is seen as an important benchmark in the contemporary history had in a resolution adopted supported the opening of the road unequivocally. The opening of the road had not only a humanitarian dimension but it was highlighted that the opening of the road was vital for the growth, development and economy of the state. In a presentation, on the economic status of the state the opening of the road was seen as the only highway that led to economic emancipation of the state. And that could relieve the state of its dependence on doles from outside the state. The increasing dependability of the state on grants from outside and losing its self-sufficiency was seen as an important attribute of the closure of this historic trade and communication route of the state.
The Plebiscite Front after dismemberment of Pakistan in 1972 considerably mellowed down its stand on the demand for plebiscite and found out an escape route in a new phrase: “Not quality but quantum of accession was in dispute” but besides harping on pre-1953 position it made people to believe that opening of the “Rawalpindi Road” was top on its agenda on talks with Mrs. Gandhi’s envoy. The Indira-Sheikh Accord did not at all mention the opening of the road but the Front leaders in their new avatar as ruling class continued to raise the demand of the opening of the “Rawalpindi Road”. It turned out to be the main election slogan during the 1977 elections. Majority of the political analyst held the view that it was this slogan and the ‘salt theory’ that enabled Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah and his party to defeat topnotch political leaders at the hustings. The demand found resonance in subsequent elections also but not with same intensity as during the 1977 elections. However, the slogan lost its sheen and evocation in the post 1990 scenario. Most of slogans that had echoed in the state for decades were swayed away by a three-syllable or five-letter word ‘Azadi”- it was seen as all in one slogan representing overwhelming sentiment of the people.
Despite the demand of opening of road having evaporated from the main political scene of Kashmir it however continued to be part of India and Pakistan discourse. It continued to be on the agenda of talks between New Delhi and Islamabad on all tracks. The two countries achieved a major breakthrough in this regards in April 2005 when Srinagar- Muzzafarbad was thrown open. It was counted as major CBM that could prove as an important stepping stone towards the resolution of Kashmir dispute.
True, the decision of opening the road sustained the diplomatic aftershocks of 26/11 but it tells a sad story of failures. Two or three persons traveling from Srinagar to Muzzafarbad or vice versa in a bus twice a week cannot be accounted for as a successful CBM. It is not that the people from the two sides are reluctant to travel across the LOC but fact of the matter remains that the travel has been made impossible. How and why, I need not to retell, it has been debated and discussed not only in this column but in this paper threadbare. Six years is long time for a CBM to spawn confidence required for taking a much needed bold decision not only for ending political uncertainty in Jammu and Kashmir but also for bringing stability in the region. In my previous column “After Mohali”, I had endeavored that how India and Pakistan after every paused or failed dialogue have instead of picking up threads from the paused dialogue have been starting anew. The two countries in many previous composite dialogues had covered many areas and instead of starting afresh it would be in the interests of the two countries to pick up threads from any previous paused dialogue- it could be even from archaic Bhutto-Swaran Singh talks.
On Wednesday Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao talking to India’s noted TV anchor Karan Thapar in an interview said that India was ready to pick up threads to ettle issue of Jammu and Kashmir. It was after a long pause that India’s Foreign Secretary was so candid about Kashmir. There can be no denying as pointed out by her ‘the issue has triggered conflict between India and Pakistan, recipe to settle the issue of Kashmir will come through people-to-people contact and economics and more confidence building measures. By stating that if there was need ‘to be imprisoned by the history of the conflict that has occurred between India Pakistan on this issue,’ she raised an important question. Are we going to see how – despite the dividing lines of history, the political frontiers – we are going to tackle the issue of better relations between the two countries, despite our differences, and even when it comes to Kashmir.”
It is true CBMs pave way for resolving the most of complex issues. The opening of the road was a major CBM and it had the potential of helping in the resolution of Kashmir problem. It has not failed to take off for something inherent in the move but for the bottlenecks created for free flow of trade and traffic across the LoC.
To make this move a success, the governments in two countries need to strengthen it by allowing people to travel without passing through rigmaroles of verifications by dozens of agencies. The state subject could be taken as permit to travel across the line. The free movement and trade across LoC will help in setting the ball rolling for finding a permanent solution of the problem.
(Feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org)