Global Policy Forum

Trade through Kashmir Can Heal Rift


By Athar Parvaiz

Inter Press Service
October 26, 2008

After decades of confrontation and rigidity over Kashmir, India and Pakistan seem to be looking at trade through the disputed territory as a path to peace. On Oct. 21, the ‘Prime Minister' of Pakistani Kashmir (or Azad Kashmir), Sardar Atique Khan, released a white dove to mark the resumption of trade with the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir through the ancient Jhelum Valley road, disrupted more than six decades ago. And on the Indian side, the governor of Jammu & Kashmir state, N. N. Vohra, flagged off a convoy of goods-laden trucks while expressing the hope that resumption of trade may bring economic prosperity and peace in a region which has witnessed more than 60 years of armed conflict. Analysts see significance in the fact that the convoy moved just one month after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari had announced resumption of trade relations between the divided parts of Kashmir on Sep. 21, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York.

The announcement came at a time when protests in favour of reopening the Jhelum Valley road between the divided parts of Kashmir were being heard in Indian Kashmir. More than 40 people were killed and hundreds injured during the protests, which involved a march by merchants and local political leaders to the Line of Control (LoC) which separates the two sides. Singh and Zardari also pledged resume trade across the land borders between the two Punjabs and between Sindh in Pakistan, and Rajasthan and Gujarat in India, after a gap of 43 years. Official trade between the two countries is expected to double this year to nearly four billion US dollars.

Though the reopening of the road link has been a long-held wish of Kashmiris on both sides, it was the protests, triggered by an economic blockade of the Kashmir valley by people in the Hindu-dominated Jammu region of the state, that appears to have provided impetus for the process. "I am really very happy. History has repeated itself and the unnatural things have come back to their natural way. I hope they will not change again,'' trader Attauallah Haider told IPS.

Both traders and ordinary Kashmiris are apprehensive that the governments of India and Pakistan may still not allow trade and travel to expand to the extent demanded by them. "Only 21 trade items have so far been included in the list of items for trade and the infrastructure is yet to be put in place for the facilitation of trade," says Mubeen Shah, president of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI). "The trade is symbolic as of now, but we hope that India and Pakistan will widen the volume of trade and the frequency of exchange of trade items."

Similar views were expressed by Zulfikar Abbasi when he led a 19-member team of traders from Pakistani Kashmir to Srinagar for discussions on the resumption of trade. He also demanded restoration of telephonic links and postal services between the divided parts of Kashmir. "We can't think of any trade between the two parts of Kashmir without telephone facilities," Abbasi said during his visit to Indian Kashmir. Kashmiris on Indian side have not been able to make trunk calls to Pakistani Kashmir (and Pakistan) since they were banned by New Delhi in 1989 when Kashmiris began an armed struggle against Indian rule. India accuses Pakistan of fomenting trouble in its side of Kashmir.

A report, commissioned by the Centre for Conflict Mediation and Resolution at the United States Institute of Peace recommended in September that the telephonic services should be restored. "People in Jammu & Kashmir are not allowed to make direct telephone calls across the LoC -- yet this prohibition makes little sense for calls can of course be made via mobile phones and satellite-linked communications. The government of India is reconsidering this ban, but the Indian security forces want to maintain it, purportedly to impede cross-border terrorism,'' says the report.

Many believe that free trade and travel can be the most significant Kashmir-centric confidence building measure which can impact the ground situation positively in Kashmir. "If people are allowed to travel freely for trade and other purposes, it can help a great deal in resolving the crises. Half measures won't do,'' opines Ved Bhasin, a political analyst. "We have a bad experience with the bus service which was started on Apr. 7, 2005 between the two parts of Kashmir, but only a limited number of people from divided families have so far been able to exchange visits. If the trade service meets the same fate, it can't serve any purpose,'' Bhasin said.

The Jhelum valley road was the only link which connected Kashmir with Pakistan and the markets of central Asia before the former princely state was divided between India and Pakistan in 1948, as part of a ceasefire plan. Two-thirds of the state went under Indian control and one-third under Pakistan's, resulting in abrupt closure of the road. Presently, the two sides of Kashmir are divided by the fenced and fortified 742 km-long LoC, which Kashmiris on either side do not accept. "We want complete removal of such barriers and we demand free trade, travel and other relations between the two parts of divided Kashmir," says pro-freedom leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who heads a conglomerate of secessionist parties under the banner of the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference. The two countries have fought three full-fledged wars in an attempt to gain control of the entire territory of Kashmir, but are now rapidly waking up to realities such as the fact that they are nuclear-armed.

Since 2004 India and Pakistan have been engaged in a peace process aimed at resolving all disputes between them, including Kashmir. However, for several months now this peace process appeared running out of steam, partly because of Pakistan's internal political problems that have seen the election in February of a civilian government, after more than eight years of military rule. The reopening of the trade route is seen as marking a resumption of the peace process. "We sent the sweet and world-famous Kashmiri apple to the other side; this would sweeten the relations between India and Pakistan," said Ghulam Rasool Bhat who is president of the Srinagar-based Kashmir Fruit Growers' Association. Kashmiri fruit growers and traders hope that the reopening of the road would also give them access to markets in central Asia and west Asia via Pakistan.

However, there is confusion over basic issues even on the Pakistan starting currency usage. "We have to use the barter system for trade wherein the worth of the goods is fixed on the basis of prevailing exchange rates between India and Pakistan...facilities for money transactions are yet to be put in place,'' says KCCI president Shah.

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