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The long road to Muzaffarabad
Sunil Sethi
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April 09, 2005

Many people may not realise it, but before 1947 the most popular route to travel to Kashmir from the plains of north India was partly along the road that the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus took this week. That is why the reopening of the route is such a big thing and comes laden with so much emotion.

Prior to Partition, if you hopped aboard the Frontier Mail at Delhi you would get off at Rawalpindi the next day, then get into a bus or car to pass through the pleasant hill station of Murree, wind up the hills along the gushing waters of the river Jhelum, which forms a sort of natural frontier to the Valley, before hitting the dusty small town of Muzaffarabad.

Also see: The rocky road to Muzaffarabad

From here would begin the descent to the Valley, through the magical poplar-lined stretch to Baramulla before arriving at the enchanted lake-studded city of Srinagar [Images] that so captured the imagination of the Mughal emperors. (Akbar, who conquered Kashmir in 1586, referred to it as his "private garden" and behaved like a besotted tourist, while his son Jahangir, bent on pleasure, developed an obsession that far exceeded his father's. He created a second paradise of water gardens and in old age and ill-health used to remark that the province of Kashmir was his "chief solace".)

In the 1980s I made the long road journey to Muzaffarabad from Rawalpindi a couple of times and was struck by some unexpected features about the territory we call Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. First, it is topographically quite distinct from the Valley.

No lush glades, alpine forests or trout-filled streams here -- certainly no Mughal garden [Images]. It is hotter, drier and duller, akin to the landscape of Jammu's outlying districts of Poonch and Rajouri.

Also see: The blurring of the LoC

Second, and this came as a surprise, most people don't speak Kashmiri. They speak the pahari dialect of the Punjab hills, which any Hindustani speaker can comprehend. They don't eat Kashmiri food, nor do they dress in the distinctive style of the Valley people. 

Muzaffarabad itself was a boring little one-horse town, with a couple of tacky guest houses, and a main street dominated by some ugly modern buildings and an outsize bank, clearly the result of an outpouring of handouts from Islamabad.

In the evening, residents of the guest house huddled round a black and white TV set, watching PTV dish out the news. The bulletin was largely composed of the number of casualties (the word used was shaheed or martyrs) reported in the ongoing battle (jung) in Indian Kashmir at the hands of Indian forces.

Each time the word shaheed was announced a painful moan went up -- vocal horror at the atrocities being perpetuated by the Indian army against Kashmiri brethren.

Oddly, I do not remember feeling uncomfortable or threatened in the plainly hostile, anti-India atmosphere that prevailed. On the contrary, at a personal level, I was welcomed as an Indian journalist and people freely vented opinions. Perhaps it was because of my genuinely friendly and easygoing escorts (on both occasions) from Islamabad's press bureau.

More likely, it is that when it comes to individual contact, Indians and Pakistanis behave with the utmost civility, even warm conviviality, as opposed to the often intractable positions they collectively or officially adopt.

It is a contradiction that sooner or later hits most observers of the Indo-Pak dialogue. Foreign policy analyst Radha Kumar, whose concise and vigorously argued polemic Making Peace With Partition (Penguin Books, 126 pages, Rs 195) brings us up-to-date to the point of the new border openings, is herself intrigued by the extent of doublespeak among dialogue-wallahs.                         

Academics and officials and assorted think-tankers at Indo-Pak conferences arrive bearing gifts for one another and pass their days behind closed doors in an atmosphere of congenial give-and-take; then they go home and, held hostage by governments, the nit-picking starts. But given the first opportunity, they are only too delighted to revisit their old chums in Delhi or Islamabad.  

Even so, there can be no two opinions that the reopening of the short road to Muzaffarabad (as opposed to the long route via Rawalpindi) has the potential to radically transform the grounds for Indo-Pak peace.

PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti saying that the bus would roll even if she and Omar Abdullah were the only two passengers aboard won't be forgotten in a hurry. It would be simply terrific if they could alternately ride the bus every fortnight for the next six months.

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