Originally Published 2005-04-06 10:28:48 Published on Apr 06, 2005
Indian security agencies will be keeping their fingers crossed as, for the first time in 57 years, passenger buses start plying on April 7,2005, between Srinagar, the capital of Jammu & Kashmir (J) and Muzzafarabad, the capital of what Pakistan calls Azad Kashmir (Free Kashmir) and what we in India call Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK).
Srinagar - Muzzafarabad Bus: A Security Nightmare
Indian security agencies will be keeping their fingers crossed as, for the first time in 57 years, passenger buses start plying on April 7,2005, between Srinagar, the capital of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and Muzzafarabad, the capital of what Pakistan calls Azad Kashmir (Free Kashmir) and what we in India call Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK).

The security nightmare confronting them has been imposed on them by different sections of the political spectrum and public opinion , which have let themselves be carried away by the "Hindi-Pakistani Bhai-Bhai" ( Indians and Pakistanis Are Brothers) enthusiasm generated during the last two years. One is reminded of the "Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai" (Indians and Chinese Are Brothers) atmosphere created in the 1950s under the prime ministership of Jawaharlal Nehru. We let ourselves be convinced of the reality of this illusion, whereas the Chinese did not. And, we paid a heavy price for it in 1962 when the Chinese Army attacked us by surprise and inflicted a humiliating defeat on our Army.

None the wiser for this, we have again embarked on a similar policy of "Bhai-Bhaism"----this time with reference to Pakistan and are letting ourselves be convinced of the reality of this illusion. But, the Pakistan Army has not---whatever be the outwardly reasonable posture adopted by President Gen.Pervez Musharraf. All Pakistani Army officers from Musharraf downwards and large sections of their political class and public opinion still look upon India as the country, which inflicted a humiliating defeat on their Army in 1971 and split their country. The desire to avenge this is a strong motivating factor in all their actions, however much they might conceal it in their outward appearance and behaviour. By overlooking this, we will be paving the way for another nasty surprise for ourselves.

In this atmosphere of "Bhai-Bhaism", rules of prudence, which should dictate the national security policies and management, are gradually being given the go-by in the name of confidence-building measures (CBMs) and restoring sanity and normalcy in the bedevilled relations between the two countries. The bus-service has been projected as the most important and daring of all these CBMs---"the mother of all CBMs".

The objective behind this is laudable--- to facilitate easy and affordable reunions between divided Kashmiri families and make an impact on their hearts and minds. There were other less risky ways of doing this--- for example, by starting direct airline services between Srinagar and Muzzafarabad and the Government heavily subsidising the air fare, in order to make air travel affordable for the people. We had heavily subsidised air travel to the North-East for many years in order to enable the local people to travel to the rest of India without risking a bus or train journey, which was subject to ambushes by the insurgents.

But, air travel at cheap prices does not have the kind of glamour and photo opportunities for political leaders that bus travel has. Despite the undeniable improvement in the ground conditions in J&K since the last elections to the State Assembly in September,2002, road travel can still be hazardous---particularly when it is politically opposed by the pro-Pakistan leaders of the State and by the jihadi terrorist organisations which perceive it as a ruse by India to legitimise the status quo. 

Bus travel poses three dangers: To the bus and its passengers during the journey, to the passengers and their relatives after they return from the journey due to the wrath of the jihadi terrorists and to the State due to the threats of subversion arising from unauthorised over-stayal of the people coming by the bus from Pakistan and their merging with the local population in J&K.

Protecting the bus and its passengers during the journey should be a manageable task provided the bus service is not too frequent, but protecting the passengers and their relatives from terrorist attacks after they return from the POK would be a much more difficult task. While initially the security agencies might be able to provide security to all of them, as more and more travel to the POK and come back, it would be impossible for the police and other security agencies to protect all of them.

The dangers arising from over-staying passengers are real. Over-stayal of Mohajirs ( migrants from India) from Pakistan visiting their relatives in India and the difficulties in detecting and forcing them to return to Pakistan have always posed a major headache for the security agencies even in States where the police machinery is effective and performing. One could imagine how much more difficult it would be in J&K where the police machinery finds itself overwhelmed with counter-terrorism tasks and would have no time for conventional tasks such as detecting over-staying travellers and forcing them back to the POK.

The initiative for the bus service was taken by Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee, the former Prime Minister. Initially, the Musharraf regime was unethusiastic over it due to opposition from the Muslim fundamentalist and jihadi terrorist organisations. After nearly two years, it agreed to it after much bilateral wrangling over issues such as whether the passengers would travel with their passports and visas or with special permits issued by the local Kashmiri authorities, whether non-Kashmiris could also travel by the bus service , what would be the procedure for the issue of special permits etc.

During the course of these negotiations it was India which seems to have made more concessions than Pakistan. The only concession that Pakistan made was to give up its insistence that non-Kashmiris should be excluded. This is only a proforma concession because Pakistan would always be able to deny clearance to non-Kashmiris without having to cite any reasons for the denial. For the inaugural service on April 7, Pakistan has denied clearance to more intending passengers from J&K than India has done in the case of intending passengers from the POK. Pakistan has also refused to permit all Kashmiri political leaders, who support the status quo in Kashmir, to travel by the bus.

The issue of clearances has to be preceded by security vetting of the background of the applicants for travel. Pakistan is better placed in this regard than India because its surrogates in J&K would be able to verify for it the background of the applicants from J&K. India has no such surrogates in the POK and the Northern Areas of Pakistan (Gilgit and Baltistan). Its security vetting process would, therefore, be inadequate and unsatisfactory.

Since 1948, India has strictly followed its policy of not allowing non-Kashmiris to settle down in J&K in order to maintain its Kashmiri character. Pakistan has not followed any such policy. On the contrary, successive military regimes have systematically re-settled Punjabi and Pashtun ex-servicemen and others in the POK and the Northern Areas and thereby sought to change the demographic composition of the population. The Indian security agencies, in their security vetting, would face an uphill task in identifying such non-Kashmiri elements and denying them clearance.

The lack of sincerity of the military-dominated regime in Pakistan in the implementation of this CBM is evident from the reports carried by the Pakistani media about how the passengers who would travel from the POK are being determined. According to the "News" (April 6,2005), about 100 residents of the POK had applied to the POK Government for permission to travel by the first bus. The POK Government recommended their names to Islamabad, which did not approve any of them.

Instead, the "agencies" ( an euphemism for the Inter-Services Intelligence) prepared a list of their own, including some journalists, and asked them to travel by the bus.The selection has apparently been made not on humanitarian grounds, but with a view to promoting Pakistani interests in J&K. We should be prepared for such misuse of the bus services by the Pakistani agencies for their own operational purposes. India will have difficulty in checking and preventing such abuses.

In the meanwhile, a group of jihadi terrorist organisations operating under the control of the ISI have managed to secure from the POK authorities the names and addresses of all those who have applied for travel to POK and warned them not to do so.

It was unwise on the part of the Government of India to have gone ahead with this scheme without adequate examination of its security implications. Now that the bus services are about to start, it would be equally unwise for New Delhi to succumb to the threats from the jihadi terrorists.

It should tighten the security measures and go ahead with it. It has no other option. (6-4-05)

The writer is Additional Secretary (Retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter . E-mail: [email protected]

Courtesy: The Tribune, Chandigarh, April 1, 2005

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