Cross-loc Trade in Kashmir
Can you undertake trading with a person whom you have never met and whom you do not even know about and with whom you are not allowed to communicate by telephone? I don’t know about you but I would find it difficult if not impossible to do so. As if this is not enough, what if you don’t know what exactly he wants and you are not permitted to pay each other for the goods but instead engage in a barter agreement.
This is exactly how the governments of India and Pakistan expect the Kashmiris to trade. The people of Kashmir must have done something horrible in their past lives to deserve the kind of treatment that is constantly meted out to them since 1947 by both countries. India initially agreed to hold a plebiscite to find out the wishes of the people in Kashmir but then backed out and now even refuses to hear the word; the only thing it wants is either Pakistan handingover the portion which it calls ‘azad’ or at most accepting the LoC as the permanent border.
Pakistan, on the other hand, started by separating the Northern Areas from Kashmir whose constitutional status remains undefined and which it refuses to accept as part of Kashmir. It talks about the rights of the people in Indianheld Kashmir but vociferously interferes in Azad Kashmir politics and periodically supports insurgency in the former. Someone has to be very desperate to invest in a region facing all these problems.
India and Pakistan have hardly talked about Kashmir except for a few back-channel exchanges, which have no legal significance. But the sad part is that the people of Kashmir never figure in any of these talks; the issue has become a territorial one with the people being treated like a commodity.
The two sides did not agree to trade across the LoC out of love for the people of Kashmir. In 2008, the people of the Srinagar Valley started a movement against Amarnath land transfers, which was seen by the Muslims as an attempt to change the religious composition of the Valley. The Hindu dominated Jammu, also part of Kashmir, but adjacent to the Indian plains, supported it. The whole issue caused immense political tension between the two regions and saw the traders divide along political lines. Tension between traders was so intense that trade was completely disrupted between the Jammu and Kashmir regions. In the process, slogans such as ‘Kashmir ki mandi, Rawalpindi’ emerged.
India panicked. The LoC had already softened after the October 2005 earthquake and the subsequent starting of bus services between Uri and Muzaffarabad in April 2005 and between Poonch and Rawalakot in January 2006, was in full swing. The two sides in May 2008 took the initial steps to initiate cross-LoC trade during Indian Foreign Minister, Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Islamabad. During the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York in September 2008, the initiative was approved by PM Manmohan Singh and President Zardari. Singh had an interest in starting the trade as firstly it could help in diverting the Kashmiris attention from the Amarnath agitation; and secondly the decision came on the eve of State elections. President Zardari, on the other hand, was trying to decrease the importance of the military in Pakistan; and improvement in any manner of Indo-Pak relations is seen by many as the best route to accomplish it.
Duty-free cross-LoC trade for 21 items started on October 21, 2008 in haste from two routes: Muzaffarabad-Uri and Poonch-Rawalakot. So far it has not helped in alleviating the suffering of the people.