M A I N   N E W S

Bus to Muzaffarabad hits roadblock
Rajeev Sharma
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, June 30
India has proposed 10 Jammu and Kashmir-specific concrete and forward-looking Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) to Pakistan in the just-ended Foreign Secretary-level talks, though the stalemate continues on the proposed Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service.

Pakistanís response to these proposals, made during the June 27-28 talks here, is awaited.

Sources said that the additional CBMs and measures of cooperation proposed by India pertained to such diverse spheres as transportation links between Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), people-to-people contacts, trade, cultural exchanges and cooperation in environment and forestry management issues.

One specific Indian proposal that apparently took the Pakistani delegation unawares was a bus service between Jammu and Sialkot.

However, an old Indian proposal which is proving to be rather ticklish is the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus link. Progress on the issue has been held up. Technical-level meetings on the subject could not be held so far.

The sources said that among the differences and difficulties on the subject was the issue of documentation. Pakistan is not keen to allow the bus service. It feels that this will leased to a positive public reaction. People from this side will be able to see the lack of progress on the other side.

Therefore, it has tried to use this issue of documentation to stall progress. Pakistanís argument that it cannot accept a passport and visa regime for travel on this route is not acceptable to India because even now people from Kashmir go to PoK and vice versa. They travel on the basis of passport and visa.

In any case, travel by the proposed bus will not be only for residents of Jammu and Kashmir and PoK, but for all nationals on both sides.

The perception here is that if Pakistan really wants to take the process forward, it can easily say that it accepts the passport and visa regime as a practical consideration and without prejudice to its recognised position.

It is understood that Mr Khokhar, who met some Kashmiri separatist leaders during his stay here, was quizzed by almost every one of them on this bus service.

Mr Khokhar told Mirwaiz Umer Farooq during their meeting on June 27 that Islamabad was willing to soften its stand and settle for the pre-1953 practice of honouring state citizenship certificate issued by District Magistrates in J&K and PoK as valid travel documents, sources privy to Khokhar-Mirwaiz talks said.

This again is perceived to be a ploy by Pakistan to try and push in terrorists using this kind of scheme since such certificates will be issued by the officials they control.

Moreover, if such a scheme is considered in J&K, people can argue that similar schemes should apply in Punjab as well.

Till 1955-56, people from Punjab could go to the other side using such documents. The question is: can history be turned back and the situation of 1953 be recreated in 2004?

The basic tone and tenor of both sides at talks between the Indian delegation led by Foreign Secretary Shashank and the delegation led by his Pakistani counterpart Riaz Khokhar was to discuss a forward-looking positive agenda, recognise ground realities and take the process forward.

India has a firm position derived from its core national interests and from legal and historical aspects of the issue. There cannot be any compromise on this position. Pakistan has a different position, which India does not accept and will not accept.

However, the approach of the Indian delegation was not to get bogged down in stating known positions, but to explore opportunities of cooperation in Jammu and Kashmir. At the same time, the Indian delegation was conscious of the bottomline: that nothing should be done which compromises on the countryís basic position that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India.

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