Softening the Line of Control

Three alternative routes are better than the road between Srinagar and Muzafarrabad which New Delhi has offered to open.

The opening the Srinagar-Muzafarrabad road network is one of the confidence building measures (CBM´s) offered by the Indian government to Pakistan on 22 October. This has been projected by analysts and the media as a giant step towards solving the problems of millions on either side of the Line of Control (LoC). However, these gushing and effusive commentators, perhaps keen to highlight the magnanimity of the centre's Kashmir policy, have not paused to consider the ground realities before rushing to the conclusion that some act of humanitarianism has been performed.

The idea of 'softening' the border between India and Pakistan along the state of Jammu and Kashmir is not a new one. It is an old idea that is being revived in a new context. The case for it is based mainly on humanitarian grounds, which are supposed to be above political considerations. The primary argument is that it will help families, currently divided, to reunite. These divided families are a permanent peculiarity of the illogical division of a society between two countries based on no particular principle other than the fact that the line of separation represented the respective militaries' state of control as on a particular day. When the state of Jammu and Kashmir was divided into two halves between India and Pakistan on 1 January 1949 and the ceasefire line announced, families were divided, by a line, based on the territory held. In short, the separation was on a completely random basis. Since then, various proposals have surfaced from different quarters to open up the Jammu and Kashmir border.

The campaign for soft borders with 'Pakistan-held-Kashmir' has been led by various Kashmiri leaders who have dominated the political spectrum of the state ever since its partition. The tallest Kashmiri leader of the last century, Sheikh Abdullah had also pressed for opening of the border and continued this demand after his dismissal from power in August 1953 till his death in September 1982. It was one of the main demands in the manifesto of his National Conference Party for the assembly election of 1977.  The Mirwaiz of Kashmir, Maulvi Umar Farooq, has also been a strong proponent   of this idea on the humanitarian ground that divided families long to reunited. He cites the example of his own family, which was divided in 1947.

Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed while repeating this demand has linked it with the ultimate aim of restoration of peace in the state. The thrust of the campaign to soften the border has been to allow the movement of men and vehicles on the famous Rawalpindi-Srinagar road, which connects not only Pakistan-held-Kashmir with Indian Kashmir, but also with the Punjab province of Pakistan via Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir. But the emphasis on this route has been at the cost of ignoring other parts of state, which were also divided in 1947 and for whom the opening of borders would have much greater utility and appeal.

It thus becomes necessary to examine the other possible routes for facilitating the reunion of divided families. The Kashmir valley, which has a very distinct identity, is dissimilar to the culture prevailing in Azad Kashmir on the Pakistani side. Before 1947, only Muzaffarabad district of present-day Pakistan-held-Kashmir was in Kashmir province. The rest of the districts of Pakistani Kashmir were either in Jammu province or in the frontier province of Ladakh and are now called Northern Areas in Pakistan. Even Muzaffarbad district, in linguistic and cultural terms, was closer to the Jammu region. After 1947, Pakistan kept the entity of Kashmir symbolically independent. For instance, the head of the state is known as the president and head of the government is known as the prime minister. The power centre in Azad Kashmir is the roost of Muslim Rajputs, proud of their martial past. All of them are non-Kashmiri speaking and have close ties with the border districts of Jammu region.

During the partition of India, large scale migration of Muslims took place from the region to Pakistan-held-Kashmir and also to other parts of Pakistan, quite apart from the numerous families which were forced to live on either side of the LoC. In the plains belt of Jammu, most of the Muslim families migrated to the Punjab province of Pakistan. For the last fifty years, the families on both sides have been trying hard to remain in touch with their relatives across the border. But since Indo-Pak tensions have become an increasingly frequent phenomenon it is difficult to do so. Today, in fact, even in the less stressful interludes between the periods of tension there have been cases where the death of a relative has been conveyed to the kin after a gap of weeks. Just recently the case came to light of a woman from Sialkot in Pakistan (11 km from Jammu) who had come to her parental house on the Indian side during her pregnancy (a common practice) more than two years back and has since not been able to return because of continuing tensions following the 13 December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament (as a result of which travel between the two countries was suspended). Tales of such tragedies in the region is unremitting. The opening of the Suchetgarh-Sialkot road across the international border would provide immediate relief to thousands of families who would otherwise have to take a much longer route to cross over. As the border in that segment is in the plains, the larger road network would make travel easier.

The number of divided families in the state is far more in the hilly belt of Jammu i.e. Rajouri-Poonch than they are in the plains. The Line of Control here not only divided the territory, but also villages and even individual houses. The illegal movement of families across the LoC has been a regular feature of life since partition. As the terrain in hilly areas comprises creeks, mountains and numerous passes, people have been illegally going across the border on both festive and tragic occasions. The situation has changed now. As the maximum infiltration of militants takes place in these tracts, security has become very tight. The movement of families across the LoC has decreased dramatically as a result of increased security patrols, but desperate attempts to cross the line are not at all uncommon.

The softening of the borders will provide immediate relief to the Muslim families of this hilly region. Even the Hindus on the Indian side of the LOC have a nostalgic desire to visit the areas they left on the other side.  In the pre-1947 era most of the area was part of the Jammu province.  Mirpur was the largest constituent of Azad Kashmir and comprises the tehsils of Bhimber, Kotli and Mirpur. The district lies on the famous Mughal road, passing through Mirpur-Bimber-Rajouri, which was the main artery connecting the state with the rest of the country. The present relationship of Mirpur with the rest of Pakistan is quite unsettled. In the 1960's the Pakistan government built the Mangla dam in Mirpur which ended up submerging the entire town of Mirpur.

This encouraged the expatriation of people from Mirpur, many of whom settled down in large numbers in Britain and who have continued their protest against the construction of Mangla dam and its recent extension. Prior to that, in the midst of the partition riots, several thousands of Hindu Mirpuris had to migrate from their ancestral homes and had to settle down in different parts of Jammu province in India. Since then their numbers have increased to several lakhs. Even after over 50 years of sustained tension between India and Pakistan the sympathy of Hindu Mirpuris for their Muslim counterparts remains at a very high level and they express their support to the latter in the struggle to save their home land from the effects of the dam.

Of the other areas similarly affected, Poonch, in 1947, was the only district of the state which was itself bifurcated between the two countries. It was, therefore, the worst affected district. Many Muslim families were separated from each other. As a result, ties with the other side were never broken until militancy surfaced in the state,. So high was the level of contact that even marriage parties used to go from one side to the other, a phenomenon that was rarely witnessed in other parts of the region.

Since Jammu has the maximum number of divided families as compared to any other part of   the country, opening three roads in the region, namely the Suchetgarh-Sialkot road, the Mirpur-Bimber-Rajouri or Mughal road and the intra-Poonch route, would best serve the cause of reuniting divided families. The special importance of these three roads on ethnic, emotional and humanitarian grounds can hardly be disputed. Since security is an obvious consideration, needful precautions along those lines can be taken fairly easily. As a first step, since restrictions on general movement of people will be imposed, at least genuinely divided families should be allowed to meet so that their distress does not remain hostage to the hostility between the two states.  In the longer run, when the security environment permits, cultural bridges between the two parts could be built through these roads, failing which much headway will not be made since temporary peace, as and when it is restored, will be all too fragile. Opening the Jammu borders would not only solve a major humanitarian problem of the Subcontinent but will also go a long way in cementing the cultural bonds between the two countries at the level that matters in everyday terms, between people.

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