In Kashmir, two bus routes traverse the Line of Control (Loc) - Muzaffarabad-Srinagar and Rawalakot-Poonch - but residents face a minefield in the journey to receive a travel permit.
Since the advent of the bus services in April 2005, thousands of people from both sides of the LoC apply for travel permits every year. The route is primarily for families divided by the border, though the application procedure is long and drawn out. Prospective passengers are forced to submit 12 copies of their application to the deputy commissioners of Muzaffarabad and Rawalakot in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and the passport offices in Jammu and Srinagar. Of greater concern is that, once a passenger applies, the waiting period seems to be unending.
With the launch of the Muzaffarabad-Srinigar bus service amidst great fanfare in April 2005, the process of restoring communication links between AJK and Indian administered Kashmir seemed to have finally restarted.
In January 2006, both countries agreed to start another bus service, linking Poonch and Rawalakot, which was launched in June of that year. By 2008, the two routes were running every week.
Among many hoping for a travel permit is 79-year-old Saeeda Begam, a Mirpur-based refugee belonging to a divided Kashmiri family who had to leave her ancestral village in Gurden Rajouri, Indian-administered Kashmir, along with her parents at the age of 15 in 1947.
“Despite repeated attempts,” her son Hafiz Maqsood Mirza says, “to visit her brothers and sisters she can’t get a travel permit. Both the governments of India and Pakistan should respect human rights and values by introducing a liberal regime.” Describing his mother’s wait of 64 years, Mirza seems to have lost hope, as his mother is now paralysed.
There are several stories in this vein. A 74-year-old refugee from Jammu, Mirza Javed Akhter, filed his documents to the ofice of the deputy commissioner of Muzaffarabad in July 2010. His wait, like thousands of others, goes on. When he inquired about the status of his application, Mirza was told that it had been forwarded to the designated authority across the line of control in Srinagar, but there has been no development since.
Kashmiri writer Ershad Mahmud agrees that the procedure to obtain a travel permit is very cumbersome: “It is very difficult even for those who are fully eligible and qualify in all areas.” He observed that the upcoming Pakistan-India working group meeting could finally resolve the issue.
“Both governments should introduce swap entry passes to citizens so that there can be free movement through the opening of all historical and natural routes between AJK and Indian-administered Kashmir,” he says.
A local scholar, Syed Waqas Ali Kausar, also believes that the LoC bus service has chronic procedural delays in terms of entry permits and administrative hiccups. He stresses the diplomatic importance of the bus service in helping to foster a culture of peace in the region.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 5th, 2012.
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