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Where is my bus to Kashmir?

June 20, 2006

One more bus. One more Caravan-e-Aman. One more photo-op. One more show of bending backwards and appeasing terrorists. Last time, it was the prime minister flagging off the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, this time it is the de facto prime minister Sonia Maino Gandhi.

Yes, my fellow Indians! In case you did not know, I-do-not-care-for-PM-post-because-I-run-the-country-anyway-lady Sonia Gandhi is flagging off another bus service between India and Pakistan today from the town of Chakan Da Bagh near Poonch in Jammu and Kashmir.

Poonch-Rawalkot bus service flageed off

This bus service is going to take the passengers from each side of Line of Actual Control between India and Pakistan on a 47-km long Poonch-Rawalkot trans-border road and facilitate the ceremonial peace-hugs.

Let us rewind a little and go back in time.

Goodbye, Kashmir!

After engaging in various kinds of diplomacy like Track-I diplomacy, Track-II diplomacy, cricket diplomacy etc, the Government of India and Pakistan started the first round of bus diplomacy on April 7, 2005.

In Kashmir's blooming spring, it was Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh who waved the ceremonial blue flag to flag off the much-hyped bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad.

In spite of many threats from Islamic terrorists, the Caravan-of-Peace did actually leave the Sher-e-Kashmir International Cricket Stadium in the heart of Srinagar, with lots of decoy buses as part of the caravan and reached its destination of that now-famous Lal-Pul (Red Bridge) near Chakothi, connecting Kashmir with Pakistan-occupied areas of Kashmir.

But the buses left Srinagar only after the terrorists blew up the tourist reception centre in the heart of the town, where would-be passengers were staying, just a day before the scheduled departure time. In this first trip, 30 people from Pakistan-occupied areas of Kashmir crossed over to India and 19 people from India crossed over to Pakistan-occupied areas of Kashmir.

Two weeks later, on April 21, 2006, the second bus of this Caravan-of-Peace left Kashmir for that Lal-Pul on the LoC. This time, the buses left from an undisclosed place and the travelers were sequestered in the Nehru guesthouse near Chashma Shahi. In order to ward off any terrorist attacks, the police, military and paramilitary forces had sealed off all the roads and alleys along the route of the bus service.

The bus to nowhere

This time around, the bus from Muzaffarabad carried 25 passengers, including 14 residents of Kashmir who were returning home after having traveled on the inaugural service.

And thus the Caravan-e-Aman started and kept going until no one bothered about it and no one noticed whether it was still on or not. In between, a natural calamity in the shape of devastating earthquake that had its epicentre in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir also put a huge damper on the first Caravan-e-Aman.

Do you wonder how many terrorists might have crossed into India using this very bus service? Your guess is as good as mine. But I know this much that there were at least 11 Pakistani cricket fans who came to India for the Indo-Pak cricket series in March 2005 and then disappeared in India. Till date, they have not been traced and sent back to Pakistan.

So how has the first Caravan-e-Aman benefited India that we had a dire need of starting another bus service?

Anyone out there who could rationalise this decision?

It is ironic that on this day, World Refugee Day, the Indian government is flagging off another bus service between India and Pakistan while there is no bus service for more than 400,000 refugees who are within India longing to go back to their homeland in the vale of Kashmir.

While the government in Jammu & Kashmir is busy appeasing secessionist elements, there is a sizeable population of residents of Kashmir who languish in refugee camps in sweltering heat, dispersed all over the plains of India. Any guesses who these folks are?

YES. You got that right. Kashmiri Hindus.

The long road to Muzaffarabad

It has been 16 long years that Kashmiri Hindus have not been able to go back to their homes in Kashmir. And please keep in mind that they are all on this side. None of these 700,000+ innocent victims of terrorism and political games are living in areas across the Lal-Pul. They are all on this side of the Jawahar Tunnel in India itself. But they cannot just board a bus and travel back to their homes in Kashmir and live there. They just cannot.

Governmental agencies will tell you lot of stories about what all they are doing to get Kashmiri Hindus back into the valley but please do not get sold on those. All those are just that, stories. Fictional stories.

A few years ago, I had written a column, 'Daddy, Why can't we go to Kashmir?' in which I mentioned how my six-year-old daughter at that time asked me that poignant question and how I could not answer her simple question. Last year, when the first bus service was flagged off, my daughter watched and read the media clippings showing the reception given to Kashmiris from across the LOAC and I could see the same agonising questions on her face all over again.

So I made up my mind to visit my homeland and take her along. And off we went to my homeland. It was after 16 long years of forced exile that I took a chance, went back and touched and kissed my lovely homeland. It was an experience, full of nostalgia as well as heartbreaks.

While we were there, I stopped by at a Kashmiri music store to buy some audio cassettes of Kashmiri music. While I was shopping, the merchant was very cordial. But as soon as the trade was over, he made a comment and I quote: "So how long are you going to be here?" And that brought me back to the reality that we, the Kashmiri Hindus, are still not welcome in our homeland.

As long as we go there as tourists, it is fine. But if we demand our just rights, we are not welcome. And the Government of India is perpetuating that notion by implementing its flawed and dangerous policies of appeasement.

The blurring of the LOC

While new and newer bus services are commissioned to allow people from across the border to come and enjoy the fruits of freedom over on this side of the border, Kashmiri Hindus, living the life of refugees in their own land are left asking: "Where is MY bus?"

Lalit Koul is the editor and publisher of Kashmir Herald, an online news-journal available at http://www.kashmirherald.com He can be reached at editor@kashmirherald.com


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