Introduction to Blog

I launched the website and the Blog after having spoken to government officials, political analysts and security experts specializing in South Asian affairs from three continents. The feedback was uniformly consistent. The bottom line is that when Kashmiris are suffering and the world has its own set of priorities, we need to find ways to help each other. We must be realistic, go beyond polemics and demagoguery, and propose innovative ideas that will bring peace, justice and prosperity in all of Jammu and Kashmir.

The author had two reasons to create this blog. First, it was to address the question that was being asked repeatedly, especially, by journalists and other observers in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, inquiring whether the Kashmiri society was concerned about social, cultural and environmental challenges in the valley given that only political upheaval and violence were reported or highlighted by media.

Second, the author has covered the entire spectrum of societal issues and challenges facing Kashmiri people over an 8-year period with the exception of politics given that politics gets all the exposure at the expense of REAL CHALLENGES that will likely result in irreversible degradation in the quality of life and the standard of living for future generations of Kashmiris to come.

The author stopped adding additional material to the Blog once it was felt that most, if not all, concerns, challenges and issues facing the Kashmiri society are cataloged in the Blog. There are over 1900 entries in the Blog and most commentaries include short biographical sketches of authors to bring readers close to the essence of Kashmir. Unfortunately, the 8-year assessment also indicates that neither Kashmiri civil society, nor intellectuals or political leadership have any inclination or enthusiasm in pursuing issues that do not coincide with their vested political agendas. What it means for the future of Kashmiri children and their children is unfathomable. But the evidence is all laid out.

This Blog is a reality check on Kashmir. It is a historical record of how Kashmir lost its way.

Vijay Sazawal, Ph.D.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Can the Line of Control become the Line of Commerce?

Ershad looks at the landscape from the "other side"

(Mr. Ershad Mahmud was born in Rawalakot, Azad Kashmir. He is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Islamabad, Pakistan)

Intra-Kashmir Trade: Of Challenges and Opportunities

The recent summit meeting between the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari not only resumed the 'strained' India-Pakistan peace process but also kindled hopes in the former Jammu and Kashmir state. The announcement to commence cross line of control (LoC) trade on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalakot roads on October 21, 2008 came in the midst of huge public support across LoC while the modalities for the opening of the Skardu-Kargil route will be discussed soon, according to a joint statement. To this effect, a group of businesspersons will soon visit Srinagar and Jammu to workout further details with their counterparts.

The trade between the divided parts of the State of Jammu & Kashmir has multiple dimensions besides economic benefits. Most importantly, it provides emotional satisfaction to the people of Kashmir who have always been maintaining affinity with the people of Azad Kashmir and broadly with Pakistan. The economic integration has potential to realise the dream of a de facto reunification of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir.

The urge to have alternative trade route was voiced in the recent uprising in the Kashmir Valley. Thousands of people marched through the streets and roads leading towards Muzaffarabad. In fact, the commencement of trade across LoC is not a concession but a legitimate right of the state's people. A few people know that till 1953 the local deputy commissioner was the sole authority to provide a permit to those travelling across LoC. Many people can still recall the sweet memoirs about their visits in early 1950's. Unfortunately, successive governments snapped all the avenues where people of both the sides could interact easily.

It is a matter of fact that some people at leadership level believe that the frequent interaction of people across LoC may dilute the core issue and would cause peoples' detachment from the cause. We in Azad Kashmir heard the same argument from Chaudhary Ghulam Abbas regarding the establishment of democratic set up here in 1950 through 1970s. He was of the view that if elections would be held then people would be involved in the traditional politics and the Kashmir issue would be sidelined. On the contrary, the democratically elected governments not only stick to Kashmir cause but also ensure public participation in the state affairs. Similarly, the trade will provide a unique opportunity to the people of Kashmir, India and Pakistan to transform the Kashmir conflict from armed struggle to political movement for the lasting settlement. It will not reduce peoples' interest in the broader issue but it may offer alternative and new avenues to raise this problem and compel New Delhi and Islamabad to seek final settlement. The recent uprising and violence underline that the unresolved Kashmir issue would always have potential to flare up any time and cast a shadow over the entire scene.

Trade across LoC is also economically a beneficial venture. It offers shortest route to the Kashmiri fruit growers to sell their produce in Pakistani markets and beyond such as West Asia. Equally, it would also reduce the transportation cost and increase profits. It also lessens Kashmiris' reliance on the Indian markets and may provide them alternative options to sell their fruits or other goods in the AJK markets or Pakistan despite losing vast Indian market.
Additionally, it has the potential to generate communal harmony in the entire state, as Jammu, which controls the sole route between Kashmir Valley and rest of the India, will also have dividends of this trade with AJK. With huge financial gains the Jammu based traders and businessmen can become partners in the solution instead of backing the extremist forces. The remote districts of Poonch and Rajori may gain major share of the dividends out of this intra-Kashmir trade. Majority of the displaced persons from Jammu and Kashmir, settled in Azad Kashmir and Pakistan, hails from the Jammu region and particularly from the Poonch and Rajori. They, certainly, gain benefit of this trade, in addition, the whole community may get chance of family reunion.

As far as AJK is concerned it would emerge as trade corridor or regional trade hub while the ultimate destination would be Pakistani markets. Owing to small population it has little capacity to absorb imports from the Kashmir Valley and Jammu region. The people of AJK are mainly engaged in services sector inside or outside Pakistan instead of doing business in the AJK. It has also a thriving garment and leather industry besides poultry and plastic items.

However, the AJK government or people are not afraid of trade with Jammu and Kashmir. In fact, they are forthcoming as it offers them an opportunity to make a de fact reunification of the Jammu and Kashmir state. However, the local traders do not have larger understanding of the trade impact on local economy. Some of them hope that they would become bridge between Kashmiri and Pakistani traders.

The trade cannot be worthwhile until both the governments allow free movement of people across LoC. In this regards, both the governments should issue simple IDs to the local people as travel document. To make it a success story, both the governments need to take some bold steps such as the chamber of commerce of both the sides should be lead agency to handle the entire trade venture. Traders need multiple entry permits to freely move around. Similarly, they should be exempted to report in the police station on their arrival and departure. It should be kept in mind that trade and business can only flourish in the enabling environment.

It is a commendable step that the bus service would run on weekly basis now while both the governments have agreed to process travel requests within a week. To simplify the process further, women, senior and prominent citizens, journalists and parliamentarian of Jammu and Kashmir should be exempted to pursue formal procedure. They must be granted entry pass on any exit point to travel either side.

Validity of the travel document should have enough time to enable thousands of people of the divided families to spend reasonable time with their loved ones. Those who had already travelled across LoC need not to follow the same procedure, as new applicants have to do. Although, the agreement does not forbid any citizen of Jammu and Kashmir to travel across the dividing line yet it is a common perception that only members of the divided families are allowed to travel to other side of the line. The top leadership and the media should clear this misperception. Every citizen of Jammu and Kashmir has equal rights to travel and trade wherever he or she wants on both sides.

This time the peoples of Kashmir expect that both the governments would go beyond the traditional "baboos" approach and would sincerely take measures to improve the peoples' lives without giving up their political position vis-à-vis the future dispensation of the Jammu and Kashmir. If both the governments sincerely facilitate movement of people, services and goods across the control line, they can make paradigm changes in the current political discourse which will be helpful for both countries to resolve the conflict and improve their relationship.

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