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Kashmir hug, Delhi blush

Tearful Kashmiris hugged each other, reunited after decades in showers of rose petals. They walked across the freshly-painted white Peace Bridge to the other side and kissed the ground on which some had never stepped.

'I am setting foot in my motherland,' said Shahid Bahar, a lawyer from Muzaffarabad who came to India for the first time on Thursday.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who flagged off the two buses in Srinagar bound for Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, declared that 'the caravan of peace' has started. 'Nothing can stop it.'

Emotions ran high and words lived up to the sentiment. 'The Line of Control could fall like the Berlin Wall,' said Sharif Hussain Bukhari, a Pakistani who was coming to India after 55 years to meet his sister.

History was in making when the two Kashmirs were connected after 58 years as civilian vehicles rolled for the first time since 1953 on Jhelum Valley Road.

Wednesday's militant attack on the tourist centre in Srinagar did not deter travellers on either side from taking the bus. But the bus from Pakistan was full with 30 passengers and from India one-third empty with 19, after five dropouts since Wednesday's incident.

The score ' 30 to 19 ' symbolises the difference between the ways Pakistan and India have managed the occasion.

India's messy handling handed Islamabad a propaganda coup even the best spin doctors in Islamabad could not have hoped for.

For General Pervez Musharraf, it is the feather in the cap after a string of diplomatic successes: the F-16s, a triumphant return to the Commonwealth and a place at the strategic high table in Southeast Asia that balances India, to mention a few.

The impression left in drawing rooms across the world after the dramatic attack in Srinagar was that everything was rotten on the 'Indian side of Kashmir' and out of control of the Indians.

By carefully calibrating their pitch and not making a big deal about the bus, Musharraf's spin doctors projected the image that all is well in what Pakistan calls Azad Kashmir, though it is far from the truth.

The Srinagar attack, followed by Thursday's blast in Pattan minutes after the buses had passed, created the impression that the Indians are the problem in Kashmir.

It is this impression Islamabad had tried to perpetuate for decades by flogging the UN resolution on Kashmir and repeatedly asking the world to intervene.

The impact of this campaign had lost its momentum after a high pitch in the early to mid-1990s. But images of the burning shelter in Srinagar ' contrasted by the calm in Muzaffarabad ' may well give it a new lease of life.

The US condemned the Srinagar incident and called it terrorism. State department spokesperson Richard Boucher also applauded 'the leaders of India and Pakistan for their statesmanship and efforts to reduce tensions'.

UN secretary-general Kofi Annan said: 'The introduction of this landmark bus service is a tangible achievement of the composite dialogue between India and Pakistan.'

But statements such as these also served to sow the seeds of a Kashmiri national identity as separate from that of India's: an objective Pakistan has tried in vain to push.

Annan's statement, for instance, spoke of the 'the people of Kashmir, who have been divided for decades and traumatised by violence'.

Words of condemnation, in any case, remain words and pale before images of helpless women leaping to the ground in the backdrop of a blazing building.

Privately, Americans in government are aghast that India could not protect the most obvious target for the militants. It did not help India's case that several passengers dropped out, two after the buses were on their way.

The fear among passengers on the Indian buses contrasted with the confidence across the Line of Control. But what was common on both sides was the large number of people who lined the craggy slopes of the Pir Panjal range to watch the buses pass.

'A door has opened,' the Prime Minister said referring to the bus service. Some may be wondering: which door'

At least Mehbooba Mufti, the popular face of Kashmir's ruling combine who was at the bridge, hopes: 'This bus should lead to the disappearance of borders forever.'

On the other side, the rhetoric was cautious. Asked by a TV channel if the bus service could be extended to Rawalpindi, adjacent to Islamabad, foreign minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri said: 'It's not a bad idea but let's walk before we run.'

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