Kashmiris joyful over India-Pakistan bus accord
MUZAFFARABAD/SRINAGAR - Kashmiris on both sides of a ceasefire line were ecstatic on Wednesday after arch-rivals Pakistan and India finally agreed to start a bus service between the divided Himalayan territory.
"It is a dream come true," said Deen Mohammad, an university student in Srinagar, summer capital of Indian Kashmir. "The bus will reunite thousands of families. Something great is happening to blood-soaked Kashmir after a pretty long time."
But as Pakistan's Khurhseed Mehmood Kasuri met India's Natwar Singh on Wednesday, separatist insurgents threw a grenade at a bus stand in Kishtwar, a militancy-hit town, 267 km south of Srinagar, killing one civilian and wounding six others.
Violence has continued in Indian Kashmir where Muslim rebels have been fighting against New Delhi's rule since 1989. Over 45,000 people have been killed in the revolt in Jammu and Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state.
Despite the violence, in a landmark agreement Pakistan and India's foreign ministers agreed on Wednesday the two countries would start a bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, the state capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, from Apr. 7.
"I have no words to express my happiness," said 36-year-old Muhammad Iqbal Awan, a resident of Muzaffarabad, who migrated from the Indian side 15 years ago.
"I am overwhelmed that after a long 15 years of separation from my dear ones I will be able to meet them...I am just counting the days until the bus service starts and I can go home."
At present Kashmiris wishing to go to the other side have first to travel through the countries that control them, a journey that takes several days and sometimes weeks, depending on whether the Indian and Pakistan immigration authorities allow them to travel.
The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service will cut the road journey to a day as the 184 km road runs alongside the scenic Jehlum river.
A dilapidated wooden bridge connecting the two Kashmirs will need to be replaced, officials say.
The news spread quickly, with some residents in Srinagar celebrating by exploding firecrackers.
Chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mufti Mohammad Syed, hailed the move. "It is a historical event, a great stride towards peace," he told reporters.
The two countries have agreed to an entry permit system and application forms will be available in Muzaffarabad and Srinagar, a procedure quickly criticised by Indian nationalists.
"This (Kashmir bus service) is a hasty step. This agreement will give rise to secessionist forces," Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, spokesman of the Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party said in New Delhi.
"The bus service should be based on passports," he said, referring to an earlier demand of the Indian government, which New Delhi finally conceded due to Pakistan's objection that using passports could be regarded as recognising the ceasefire line as an international border.
However, Muzaffar Beigh, finance minister in Indian Kashmir described the agreement as the "biggest confidence building measure" in Kashmir in decades.
"The bus will open the hearts and minds of people living on both sides of Kashmir," he said.