New Delhi’s decision to suspend the cross-LoC trade with Pakistan is unfortunate. Unfortunate because undoing whatever progress has been made to resolve the Kashmir conflict is clearly a regressive step. It is also untimely because this comes at a time when the Kashmir Valley is in the middle of a hopeless spiral to a bottomless pit. The suspension of the trade that began in 2008 is also perhaps indicative of the BJP-led central government’s Kashmir policy today, free of any grand vision.
The cross-LoC trade began with a great deal of fanfare in October 2008, despite the rising tensions between the two sides during those days. It was indeed a historic moment as many in the Valley might recall. Despite the Kabul embassy attack and the 26/11 terror attacks, the trade and the bus service continued unabated with minor disruptions. As a matter of fact, this is perhaps the only major CBM that remained unaffected by the ups and downs of India-Pakistan relations. To that extent then, it is depressing to see the suspension of this very significant CBM.
Well, let me rephrase that. It is not just a CBM, the trade brought a lot of cheer and happiness to the people on either side of the dividing line, the LoC. I have had the privilege of traveling to the now-suspended trading points on either side of the LoC, and was witness to the enthusiasm of the local trading communities about the future prospects of the limited, symbolic and barter trade that has been going on for 11 years now. The trade, limited as it has been, did not achieve much – it could not have under the restricted circumstances – but the local merchants saw it as a harbinger of the times to come, as and when things get better between the two sides. The limited trade showed the Kashmiris on either side that Kashmir’s glorious and regionally-interconnected past needn’t be forgotten forever. This also highlighted that the trade could persuade policymakers on either side to advance it further, by way of opening more trade routes, trading more items and making Kashmir the hub of the South Asian regional economic engine. No, I am not daydreaming here: go back to the narratives before and during 2008 and you will see these were the dominant narratives of those days. During a recent visit to trading points I witnessed how exceptional civility and calm prevailed between the two armies in the vicinity of the trading centres even though they were firing incessantly at each other not too far from the sanitised trade centres.
Let me tell you why I think New Delhi has shot itself in the foot by suspending the cross-LoC trade with Pakistan. While the cross-LoC trade and other CBMs, like the bus service, were being negotiated with the Pakistani side in the mid-2000s, there was a certain amount of hesitation there which arose from the argument that New Delhi’s focus on CBMs is to obfuscate the political resolution of the Kashmir conflict. Put differently, many in Pakistan believed that India was laying a well-planned “CBM trap”, and Pakistan shouldn’t fall into that because once the CBMs were in place and begin to function properly, New Delhi would argue that CBMs are the resolution to the Kashmir conflict. For Pakistan, on the other hand, CBMs are at best a pathway to reach the larger endgame which is the resolution of the Kashmir conflict itself in a political manner. In a sense then, the current resistance within Pakistan to the Musharraf formula is also a reflection of this thinking, that Musharaff formula for the resolution of the Kashmir conflict reduces it to the level of CBMs, thereby diluting Pakistan’s stated positions on Kashmir.
In that sense then, not only has New Delhi given up on this nuanced national interest-based position on CBMs, it has gone to the other extreme today by saying that it is simply not keen on resolving Kashmir though dialogue and concessions. By arguing, if not practising, that ‘talks and terror cannot go together’, New Delhi has, for sometime now, decided to normalise Kashmir through sheer force which clearly helps the ruling dispensation from a domestic political point of view.
That said, it is also true that there is palpable disinterest in both the capitals in taking the cross-LoC trade to the next level. Why, for instance, can the two countries not invest in full-body truck scanners to ensure that explosives or contraband do not find their way into each other’s’ countries? Why is it that there is little enthusiasm today for enhancing the items on the trading list or putting in place proper banking mechanisms to support the trade? The currently-suspended barter, blind trade is a farce and should be called so. While there may be some merit in New Delhi’s concerns about the Hawala transactions linked to the cross-LoC trade, doing away with trade altogether to stop that is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The natural question that arises now is whether this is the end of the road for the cross-LoC CBMs or whether this is a temporary hiatus. Will the bus-service be suspended as well? I seriously hope it is a temporary halt. If not, the undoing of Kashmir CBMs will take the Kashmir discourse back to a zero sum game where an ‘all or nothing’ narrative will prevail with little role for midway approaches like the pursuit of CBMs. Let me end by reiterating that the cross-LoC CBMs are not just CBMs, they are part of a broader vision for conflict resolution and we must not allow that vision to disappear into thin air, at the altar of narrow political worldviews and immediate electoral gains.