By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 8, 2008
SRINAGAR, India -- After Hindu protesters blocked the only road connecting predominantly Muslim Kashmir with the rest of India last month, Altaf Bukhari, like many business owners in this disputed Himalayan region, became convinced of the need for an alternative trade outlet.
The most logical solution to the impasse is reopening a historic road that was closed to trade when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned in 1947. Part of the ancient Silk Road connecting Europe with Asia, it winds from Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, to the bustling market town of Rawalpindi, in Pakistan, 100 miles away.
It's a direct route to a city far closer than Kashmir's trading partner of New Delhi, India's capital, about 400 miles away. But several political twists and turns must be navigated before the road can be used again for commerce.
India says it is ready to open the old trade route but has taken few steps to do so. It blames Pakistan for the delay. Pakistan has blamed India. But last week Pakistan proposed a meeting with the Indian government to discuss reopening the route as quickly as possible.
Kashmiri business leaders say everyone is watching eagerly. If India and Pakistan reopen the road, it could go a long way toward building confidence among entrepreneurs in Indian-controlled Kashmir, which has seen some of the largest pro-independence demonstrations this summer since an uprising against Indian rule broke out in 1989.
Tens of millions of dollars were lost in the fruit industry alone during the blockade, said Bukhari, an agricultural businessman. Family farms fell into debt, he said, adding that the business community learned how vulnerable it is under Indian rule.
"This blockade has changed our psychology completely. There is a real fear psychosis now," Bukhari said, adding that he lost almost $1 million when his plums, pears and freshly packed apple juice couldn't make it to Indian markets last month. "For us, business is business, and India is a good market, but it's now created a fear in our minds."
Along with chants of "Azadi," or "Freedom," demonstrators in Srinagar this summer were chanting, "Kashmir's market is in Rawalpindi."
"Everyone has woken up to the fact that economic independence would be completely powerful. India can shut us down any time it wants, and that is a terrifying thing," said Nisar Ali, an economics professor at the University of Kashmir. "Opening the trade route to Pakistan, a nearby and logical road, is an idea whose time has come. Opening the road would go a long way to cooling down temperatures -- a long way."
Pakistan and India have fought three wars, two of them over Kashmir, since 1947. Both claim Kashmir but control only parts of it. Human rights groups estimate that the conflict has left 77,000 people dead and as many as 10,000 missing.
Tensions appeared to be easing. But a crisis erupted in Kashmir in June when Muslims launched protests over a government decision to transfer land to a Hindu shrine, saying it was a settlement plan designed to alter the religious balance in India's only Muslim-majority region. After the plan was rescinded, Hindus took to the streets of Jammu city, in the predominantly Hindu part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, demanding its restoration.
At least 35 unarmed protesters were killed by Indian security forces during peaceful self-rule demonstrations after the land dispute. A nine-day curfew was imposed late last month, and several separatist leaders were arrested.
A degree of calm has since been restored. The curfew was lifted last week at the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, and the separatist leaders were released from jail, although they remain under house arrest. The land-deal controversy was settled, in what many observers see as a draw: The Hindu shrine would be able to use the land during the three-month pilgrimage season but would not own it. The roadblocks that caused the economic blockade have been removed.
Still, the reopening of the road to Pakistan remains a powerful rallying cry among Kashmiris.
"The blockade was really an act of war that left children without milk and patients without medicine," said Yasin Malik, a separatist leader. "It really woke up the business community to what azadi and what self-reliance would mean. It won't be forgotten."
For the Ahmed family, the reopening of the road would mean food on the table, money for schools and safety for the two oldest sons, who ply the dangerous route to New Delhi.
Sitting on the floor of his family's kitchen with his head wrapped in gauze, Wahid Ahmed, 23, and his brother Munir, 24, said they were attacked while trying to bring a truckload of about 100 sheep from New Delhi to Kashmir.
The Indian army said it would escort them, the brothers said. But the soldiers later left them, saying all was safe. Soon afterward, the brothers said, they were pelted with stones by groups connected to India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which was protesting the overturning of the land deal.
"We are afraid to try again," said Wahid, who had 15 stitches. Family members, listening nearby, said they needed the brothers' earnings. "We have no other road to choose," Wahid said. "We just hope things are safe now."