60 years after 1948 war, India-Pakistan on trade highway to peace (Roundup)

October 21st, 2008 - 5:12 pm ICT by IANS  

Manmohan SinghMuzaffarabad/Salamabad/Rangar, Oct 21 (IANS) Bridging a six-decade divide, India and Pakistan Tuesday moved ahead on the road to peace as the first trade convoys trundled across the Line of Control (LoC) that separates the two Kashmirs to the sound of drumbeats and loud cheers. As cross-LoC trade on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawlakote routes began for the first time since 1948, when commercial ties snapped following the India-Pakistan war a year after the bloody partition of the subcontinent, excitement ran high on both sides.

Old timers recalled with nostalgia the era long gone when trade flowed freely and the young looked forward to the beginning of a new era of peace.

In Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan administered Kashmir, hundreds of waving and cheering people lined up along the 180-km road to Srinagar that crosses the border at Chakothi as the caravan of 14 trucks began their historic journey.

As the first trucks carrying rice, garlic, spices, dry fruit, onions and the famous Peshawri shoes left for Indian Kashmir, a similar convoy from Srinagar carrying goodies like carpets, apples, walnuts and papier mache items left the Salamabad trade facilitation centre.

Both the countries have allowed trade in 21 items that are produced or prepared locally.

“We hope this route will once again bring prosperity to the people of both sides,” said Sardar Anis Ali Khan, a trader based in Muzaffarabad.

The move to open the traditional trade route along the Jhelum was decided upon last month when Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met in New York.

According to the agreed formula, Pakistani trucks will travel 20 km inside Indian Kashmir from where Indian trucks will carry the goods to Srinagar and other parts. Likewise, Indian trucks will come 20 km inside Pakistan administered Kashmir and unload goods to be carried by Pakistani trucks to different destinations.

Officials here said truck drivers had been issued special permits to cross the LoC. “Every time, they will be issued single entry permit by both sides,” an official at the Muzaffarabad “immigration” office told IANS.

The bureaucratic details did not dim truck driver Asif Hussain’s enthusiasm. “Though I won’t be able to go to Srinagar and meet people there, at least I’ll be able to breathe in the air of (Indian) Kashmir,” he said emotionally.

“What wrong have we done? Why are we being punished for the last 60 years?” The people of the two Kashmirs, he said, wanted to live peacefully. “Our two generations have been destroyed.”

The sentiment found echo across the divide.

At the Salamabad centre, hundreds of people dressed in their brightest armed with drums and other musical instruments turned up to watch Jammu and Kashmir Governor N.N. Vohra flag off the first convoy of 14 trucks.

Emotions ran high as schoolchildren lined along the route sang “Rab ne Yeh din deklayu. Pardesiya to hun gar ayoo (God has made this possible for us. Oh you who lived in wilderness and exile, you are welcome home once again)”.

“I haven’t been able to sleep the entire night as I waited for the first light to see the beginning of a new dawn in valley’s trade history,” said Mehboob Ahmad, a truck driver who with 13 others was getting ready to go to Chakothi.

“Both India and Pakistan must stick to this great CBM (confidence building measure) so that the walls of hatred between the two countries are brought down and a new chapter is written in the history of Kashmir… Trade through the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road must continue unfettered for borders to become irrelevant,” added Gulam Rasool Bhat, president of the north Kashmir fruit growers association, who came to see his goods being sent to Muzaffarabad.

In Rangar, about 250 km from the winter capital Jammu, similar scenes were played out.

While Governor Vohra was in Salamabad in north Kashmir, his adviser H.H. Tyabji did the honours in Rangar and kick off trade between Poonch and Rawlakote — only 30 km from each other.

Instead of 14 trucks, however, only three trucks carrying fruits and vegetables crossed the LoC to enter Pakistan administered Kashmir. Pakistan would begin trade on the route Wednesday, officials said.

“We were asked by the Pakistani side to delay the opening of Poonch route as arrangements were not in place on their side, but we wanted it to start on this date as elections are going to keep state machinery busy,” Ram Sahai, president of Chamber of Commerce and Industries, told IANS.

“Today, we are just sending fruits and vegetables as gifts for our brethren on the other side of the LoC,” he added.

A small beginning for officials, a giant leap for Kashmiris and the often fraught India-Pakistan relationship.

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