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Last Updated: Monday, 11 April, 2005, 12:58 GMT 13:58 UK
India's gains from Kashmir bus

Letter from Kashmir
By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Line of Control, Kashmir

Indian troops painting the bridge at the Line of Control
Painting the bridge in the colours of the Indian flag

The BBC's South Asia correspondent reflects on who gained most from the historic reopening of transport links last week across the disputed territory of Kashmir.

It was once aptly described by former US president Bill Clinton as "the most dangerous place on Earth".

But in recent weeks the Line of Control (LoC) that divides Kashmir has started to look more like a garden centre in rural England.

Turf once scattered with deadly land-mines is now studded with lampposts which could have come from the set of a Sherlock Holmes film.

A spanking new reception centre not only has its own neatly-manicured lawn, but some potted plants and ornamental outdoor furniture to boot.

In just 41 days, the Indian army transformed Kaman Point, the 220-feet (67-metre) steel bridge where last week's historic bus passenger crossing took place, from a war zone into a comfort zone.

According to a colleague, the new reception centre has some of the most impressive public toilets in Indian-controlled Kashmir, if not the entire country.

Looking like a border

On the Indian side, the beautification of the LoC is partly because of the flowering peace process; partly, it seems, in an act of South Asian one-upmanship.

An emotional reunion in Srinagar
Kashmiris reunited, in spite of militant threats

But most importantly of all it indicates the Indian government's determination to make the LoC look like a border.

India is what historian Sumantra Bose has called the "status quo power", administering the largest chunk of this disputed territory (the Kashmir Valley, Jammu and Ladakh).

It also has by far the most sizeable population. (There are 10m people in Indian-administered Kashmir, compared to 3m in Pakistan-administered Kashmir).

By agreeing to the bus link between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, Delhi is trying to reinforce the status quo.

Unlike the passengers on those emotion-packed inaugural crossings, I was unable to cross into Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

But, from across the river valley, it seemed to me that the Pakistani efforts at adornment were rather sparse in comparison.

Whereas the Indians have erected a ceremonial archway at the end of the newly-constructed bridge linking the two sides, Pakistan made do with a more modest green iron gate. And I couldn't spot a single lamppost.

Momentous advance

The simple fact that the Indian army constructed the bridge at Kaman Point, and then painted it in the bright green, orange and white of the Indian flag (they later repainted it a neutral shade of white after complaints from Pakistan officials) hammered home the point - of the two arch rivals, India has gained far more from the bus link.

The bus link will not help Islamabad reclaim any real estate in Kashmir, the touchstone of its policy since partition and a central goal of much of Gen Musharraf's military career

First of all, it addresses one of the main grievances of the Kashmiri people themselves who are unquestionably the biggest winners of last week's events - their ability to enjoy tearful reunions with separated relatives.

Although the bus link is only fortnightly, and therefore restricted to a relatively small number of passengers, it is still a momentous advance.

India hopes it will ease tensions in the Kashmir Valley, thereby reducing popular support for the Kashmiri separatist movement, and the violent insurgency it has spawned.

By the same the logic, Delhi hopes to marginalise the Islamic militants fighting Indian rule. Turning the buses into "coffins", the terrifying vow of four militant groups, means killing elderly Kashmiri people - elderly Kashmiris who last week were reliant for protection on the Indian security forces.

When two militants mounted an audacious attack on the tourist reception centre in central Srinagar, where the passengers were being housed for their protection on the eve of the journey, the point was most violently driven home.

The "army of occupation", as many in this Muslim-majority state regard the Indian security forces, suddenly performed a more benevolent role, as "the protectors of the passengers".

Greater respectability

For the Kashmiri separatists, it was a deeply unhelpful visual image.

No wonder the initiative was first mooted by Delhi.

Syed Tariq Hussain meets his nieces - for the first time
Syed Tariq Hussain meets his nieces - for the first time

From his viewpoint, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has gained greater global respectability from this move and pleased Washington.

The American decision to go ahead with the sale of F-16 fighters to Islamabad was most probably partly a reward.

But Pakistan is the "revisionist power" in this dispute and the bus link will not help Islamabad reclaim any real estate in Kashmir, the touchstone of its policy since partition and a central goal of much of Gen Musharraf's military career.

The simple fact that neither the president nor any other official from the central government attended last Thursday's inaugural celebrations as a guest of the Pakistan-administered territory - known locally as Azad (Free) Kashmir - spoke of his peculiar quandary: of the passionate nationalist vying with the pragmatic internationalist.

On the Indian side, as the bus was flagged off we saw a gathering of the great and the good, crowned by a joint public appearance by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi.

The Indian establishment was here in force, celebrating not just what Mr Singh called a "caravan towards peace" but a move which arguably tightens its grip on the Kashmir Valley and safeguards its territorial integrity as a nation.

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