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US fuel for Kashmir bus

Washington, Oct. 23: External affairs minister Yashwant Sinha casually announced the proposal for a Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service yesterday, but in Washington and London, those working on India-Pakistan issues have been hard at work on the idea for more than two years.

If the proposal bears fruit, American sources here said, it will be the first step on the tortuous road to converting the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir into a permanent border, which realists everywhere see as the final solution to the Kashmir issue.

The proposal was broached by India when Pervez Musharraf was in Agra in July 2001, but the wily general did not respond.

“He pretended not to have heard the proposal,” an Indian official was quoted yesterday as having told the Americans later.

For the record, the state department’s deputy spokesman, Adam Ereli, said yesterday’s proposals “represent a major step towards... providing a foundation for real progress in resolving differences between India and Pakistan”.

He said the measures “significantly upgrade transportation links and people-to-people contacts between India and Pakistan. We warmly welcome these proposals”.

Sources said that shortly before Musharraf was to travel to Agra, Lord Nazir Ahmed, a British peer, travelled to Washington for a series of meetings with US lawmakers, officials and American think tanks.

Out of those meetings came the idea of creating a soft border in Kashmir as the first step towards converting the LoC into a permanent border and dividing Kashmir as a solution to the dispute.

Ahmed is a Mirpuri from Kashmir and is seen by Indians as a pro-Pakistani advocate of separatism: so he had to enlist support from Washington if he was to get anywhere with the idea of the bus service. But when the Americans discussed the proposal with the Indians, they immediately saw the light.

Although nobody in the Indian government would admit it, at the highest levels there is realisation that converting the LoC into a border is the practical solution in Kashmir.

But once the Agra talks collapsed, there was no occasion for India to propose the bus service.

Yesterday, Sinha used the most conducive opportunity in New Delhi’s step-by-step peace offer to suggest the transport link between the Kashmirs.

American sources said that, though the idea appeared to have died an official death after Agra, they did discuss it with several Indians at the unofficial level.

Noted Gandhian Nirmala Deshpande, who was in the US this summer for a series of meetings, was one such. On her return to India, she has been trying to organise a pioneering bus journey by women from Baramulla to Islamabad.

Transport links between the two sides of Kashmir were halted in 1947 after Pakistan invaded the Indian state.

Sources here and in London are, however, keeping their fingers crossed about whether Islamabad will actually allow the bus service. It will mean setting up a border checkpoint along the LoC for immigration and customs. Setting up such facilities is normally resisted by claimants to territory in a dispute because of implicit recognition of ceasefire lines as borders.

Therefore, if Pakistan does allow the bus service, the rest of the world will view it as a signal of Musharraf’s flexibility in settling the Kashmir issue.

Hurriyat for consensus, P 6

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