New Delhi’s decision to suspend the cross-LoC trade withPakistan is unfortunate. Unfortunate because undoing whatever progress has beenmade to resolve the Kashmir conflict is clearly a regressive step. It is also untimely because this comesat a time when the Kashmir Valley is in the middle of a hopeless spiral to abottomless pit. The suspension of the trade that began in 2008 is also perhapsindicative of the BJP-led central government’s Kashmir policy today, free ofany grand vision.
The cross-LoC trade began with a great deal of fanfare inOctober 2008, despite the rising tensions between the two sides during thosedays. 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 andthe 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 anddowns of India-Pakistan relations. To that extent then, it is depressing to seethe suspension of this very significant CBM.
Well, let me rephrase that. It is not just a CBM, the tradebrought a lot of cheer and happiness to the people on either side of thedividing line, the LoC. I have had the privilege of traveling to thenow-suspended trading points on either side of the LoC, and was witness to theenthusiasm 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 therestricted circumstances – but the local merchants saw it as a harbinger of thetimes to come, as and when things get better between the two sides. The limitedtrade showed the Kashmiris on either side that Kashmir’s glorious andregionally-interconnected past needn’t be forgotten forever. This alsohighlighted that the trade could persuade policymakers on either side toadvance it further, by way of opening more trade routes, trading more items andmaking Kashmir the hub of the South Asian regional economic engine. No, I amnot daydreaming here: go back to the narratives before and during 2008 and youwill see these were the dominant narratives of those days. During a recentvisit to trading points I witnessed how exceptional civility and calm prevailedbetween the two armies in the vicinity of the trading centres even though theywere firing incessantly at each other not too far from the sanitised tradecentres.
Let me tell you why I think New Delhi has shot itself in thefoot by suspending the cross-LoC trade with Pakistan. While the cross-LoC tradeand other CBMs, like the bus service, were being negotiated with the Pakistaniside in the mid-2000s, there was a certain amount of hesitation there whicharose from the argument that New Delhi’s focus on CBMs is to obfuscate thepolitical resolution of the Kashmir conflict. Put differently, many in Pakistanbelieved that India was laying a well-planned “CBM trap”, and Pakistanshouldn’t fall into that because once the CBMs were in place and begin tofunction properly, New Delhi would argue that CBMs are the resolution to theKashmir conflict. For Pakistan, on the other hand, CBMs are at best a pathwayto reach the larger endgame which is the resolution of the Kashmir conflictitself in a political manner. In a sense then, the current resistance withinPakistan to the Musharraf formula is also a reflection of this thinking, thatMusharaff formula for the resolution of the Kashmir conflict reduces it to thelevel of CBMs, thereby diluting Pakistan’s stated positions on Kashmir.
In that sense then, not only has New Delhi given up on thisnuanced national interest-based position on CBMs, it has gone to the otherextreme today by saying that it is simply not keen on resolving Kashmir thoughdialogue and concessions. By arguing, if not practising, that ‘talks and terrorcannot go together’, New Delhi has, for sometime now, decided to normaliseKashmir through sheer force which clearly helps the ruling dispensation from adomestic political point of view.
That said, it is also true that there is palpabledisinterest in both the capitals in taking the cross-LoC trade to the nextlevel. Why, for instance, can the two countries not invest in full-body truckscanners to ensure that explosives or contraband do not find their way intoeach other’s’ countries? Why is it that there is little enthusiasm today forenhancing the items on the trading list or putting in place proper bankingmechanisms to support the trade? The currently-suspended barter, blind trade isa farce and should be called so. While there may be some merit in New Delhi’sconcerns about the Hawala transactions linked to the cross-LoC trade, doingaway with trade altogether to stop that is like throwing the baby out with thebathwater.
The natural question that arises now is whether this is theend 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 temporaryhalt. If not, the undoing of Kashmir CBMs will take the Kashmir discourse backto a zero sum game where an ‘all or nothing’ narrative will prevail with littlerole for midway approaches like the pursuit of CBMs. Let me end by reiteratingthat the cross-LoC CBMs are not just CBMs, they are part of a broader visionfor conflict resolution and we must not allow that vision to disappear intothin air, at the altar of narrow political worldviews and immediate electoralgains.