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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 April, 2005, 09:19 GMT 10:19 UK
Bus aids Kashmir's road to peace

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Indian-controlled Kashmir

Line of Control
Pakistanis and Indians in a friendly gathering at the Line of Control

Families divided for more than 50 years are being reunited on Thursday by a new bus service that has opened between the two parts of Kashmir separately controlled by India and Pakistan.

The move is a boost for hopes for peace in the strife-torn region and between the nuclear-capable nations.

India and Pakistan's claims over Kashmir have led to two of their three wars since independence in 1947.

Now the small bus service has become the latest in a series of peace steps taken by Delhi and Islamabad over the past year.

In 2002, India and Pakistan came close to war after an attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001.

QUICK GUIDE

Tensions rose after India blamed the attack on Pakistan and both sides amassed close to one million troops along their border.

But since January last year, India and Pakistan have begun a dialogue to resolve some of their differences, particularly over Kashmir.

Progress has been slow, especially after the election of a new Congress-led government in India in the summer of 2004.

Widely welcomed

But the announcement in February of the landmark bus service across the Kashmir ceasefire line created a fresh wave of excitement.

It's only the first, and very small, step in one of many that the two sides have to take
Shankarshan Thakur,
Kashmir analyst

The opening of the historic Jhelum highway between Srinagar in Indian-controlled Kashmir and Muzaffarabad in the Pakistan sector, once a key trading route in Kashmir, was widely welcomed.

Indian and Pakistani soldiers, who once traded artillery fire across the heavily mined frontier, have come together to clear the road and rebuild the bridge across the Jhelum river.

Long-term observers of South Asian politics are cautious, however, of any major breakthrough in a stand-off that has lasted for more than half a century.

Kashmir analyst Shankarshan Thakur says it is premature to see the bus service as a major step in the peace process.

"It's only the first, and very small, step in one of many that the two sides have to take," he says.

Uprising

Others point out that neither India nor Pakistan have moved from their positions on the Kashmir problem.

While India describes the Kashmir separatist movement as a problem internal to India, Pakistan has long pressed for a role for the international community in finding a solution.

A recent initiative offered by President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan to consider redrawing the borders of Kashmir was soundly rejected by India.

Yet many believe that the start of the bus service represents the best chance for Delhi and Islamabad to find some middle ground.

Most of all, the effect will be felt in Kashmir where tens of thousands of people have died since an armed uprising against India began in 1989.

Many families have been torn apart by the conflict and see this as an opportunity to reunite with their loved ones.

But they are also disappointed that the bus will only run once a fortnight with limited seats.

Bus in Kashmir
Kashmiris argue a fortnightly service will not be enough

"It is no fun running a service fortnightly when we have thousands of divided families eager to visit each other," says Omar Abdullah, an MP from Kashmir in the Indian parliament.

Kashmiris on both sides of the Line of Control have expressed their anger at the confusing application process and have even accused officials of nepotism.

The bus service also has its opponents, mainly hardline separatists and armed militants who fear that the move will divert attention from their struggle against Indian rule.

There has been some violence in Indian-controlled Kashmir, most notably an attack on Wednesday in Srinagar.

"It is ironic that both India and Pakistan find themselves faced with the same threat [from the militants]," says Shankarshan Thakur.

Despite the uncertainty over the service, the mood on the ground is optimistic.

For Kashmiris it gives them a semblance of hope that the trauma of the past 15 years may be behind them.

But for the two governments, the real work is yet to begin.


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