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The quake push

Pushed by the October 8, earthquake in Kashmir last year, India and Pakistan came closer, and appeared to work together for Kashmiris on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC). For a moment both the countires were more concernced about the people of other Kashmir. The manifestaion of this new found proxmity came in the form of steps, which now seem to loose their sheen.Haroon Mirani reports.

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Srinagar, Kashmir
June 30, 2006:

Apart from widespread destructon, the earthquake also unleashed a wave of reconciliation between India and Pakistan, whose benefit trickled down to the worst affected Kashmir region, albeit with usual hiccups.

Just after the devastating earthquake, both India and Pakistan were on their feet to do a bit more for the people of other Kashmir, than they were doing for their side of Kashmir.

Relief exchange at the Hajipir Uri crossing point on Line of control
Relief exchange at the Hajipir Uri crossing point on Line of control
Some of the bold steps like the commissioning of five crossing points on the otherwise impregnable Line of Control (LOC), were taken. These crossing points were opened for the distribution of relief material and crossing of relatives of separated families. These included Poonch-Rawlakot on November 7, 2005, Chakoti-Uri on November 09, 2005, Nausheri-Tithwal on November 12, 2005, Hajipir-Uri on November 16, 2005 and Tattapani-Mendhar on November 28, 2005.

By this the governments tried to ease the pain of tens of thousands of separated families, who were unable to meet for the last 58 years.

Restoration of telephone links between Indian administered Kashmir (IAK) and Pakistani administered Kashmir ( PAK) was another humaintarian step taken by the government . This was however a temporary affair with just four calling points set up in Indain administered Kashmir. The step came as a relief to many families in Indian administered Kashmir who had relatvies on the other side. For many others this only proved to be a joke as the phone facility on this side was provided only when most of the infrastruture on the other side had broken down.

On the PaK side, where mobile service was earlier banned or restricted, Pakistan government eased restrictions on mobile phones. Prior to the earthquake the mobile service was available in the cities of Muzaffarabad and Mirpur only provided by Special Communication organisation (SCO), a subsidiary of Pakistan army. The service was almost equal to nothing in the region, as its exorbitant rates and non availability of features like SMS, were usually complimented by the frequent breakdown.

Due to its sensitive nature, Pakistan administered Kashmir was one of the most restricted regions in the country. “It is a forbidden land for every outsider” was the common perception about the region. But with the earthquake the blockades came tumbling down and suddenly Pakistan administered Kashmir being thrown open to every one. “Currently you can see hundreds of foreigners working in relief operation in every nook and corner of PAK, which was earlier unthinkable of”, says Arjumand Hussain Talib, a columnist in Indian administered Kashmir. Talib also heads an international aid agency Action aid in Kashmir, which was at the forefront of providing relief to the earthquake victims.

“That secrecy has been erased and a sort of real globalisation of free movement has occurred”, he adds.

During the last couple of years a sort of revolution in FM radio stations had taken place in Pakistan, but as usual PaK was a restricted place for these private FM operators also. Post quake the unwritten ban on FM was also given a farewell, as the ministry of telecommunication provided access to private players who wanted to set up a station in the area. Near about 20 operators have applied for the license with Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to start their operations in PAK, including northern areas.

 Srinagar Muzaffrrabad road after the October 8 quake
Srinagar Muzaffrrabad road after the October 8 quake
Likewise on Indian side of Kashmir people from cities were allowed to move freely in the border areas of Uri and Tanghdar, the worst hit areas. Earlier one had to aquire permission from Army authorities to enter these areas, which would take weeks, without assurance of a positive response.

“People from the two sides have come a lot closer after the earthquake as many misconceptions about each other vanished with increased interaction”. Arjumand Talib says.

The quake seems to have provided a golden chance for the two countries who had already begun a peace process. Experts however opine the two countries lost much of the opportunites the quake provided.

“It was really a blessing in disguise and it provided both India and Pakistan to bridge the distance between the divided people of Kashmir. But both of them lost it somewhere in political tangles”. says M Ashraf, a Kashmir expert.

“What five crossing points? One still has to fulfil loadfull of data in half a dozen forms and then he might get a chance to cross the LOC”, questions Ashraf. “Even the huge expectations from Srinagar-Muzaffararrabad road have died down” he adds.

Ashraf says the movement should have on the pattern of Indo-Nepal border, where people can cross the border on producing a mere I-card.

Even though another trans LoC bus has been started in Kashmir the number of people who can actually board these trans LoC buses is very low. In one year of Srinagar-Muzaffarabad service not even a 1000 people could use the service. The elaborate scrutiny measures were starkly evident as Srinagar-Muzaffrabad bus in April 2006 carried just one passenger.

The much publicised restoration of telephone links on Indian side did not last long either. "To make a phone call to PaK is still not possible contrary to the what India publicised after the earthquake” says Syed Jameel, a resident of Uri who has relatives in PAK.

Slowly the barricades and restrictions that had vanished after the quake have reappeared in the border areas of Indian administered Kashmir. As in pre-quake days the movement in border areas of Uri and Tangdhar is getting restricted again.

"The euphoria has died down. In fact if we look closely the pace was always cosmetic even during the quake," says Masood Ali, a research scholar at Kashmir University's Political Science department. " It took them too long to decide on crossing points and to materialize it. The exchange of relief was a kind of joke with officials from the two sides exchanging relief on camera. " He adds

While the quake seems to have pushed peace process a bit, experts like Ashraf likes to call it media centric peace process rather than a ground level peace process.

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