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Signs of thaw in bitter South Asian dispute

Trade reopens after 60 years along Kashmir's 'Berlin Wall.'

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 26, 2008

Cross-border harvest: A worker in the Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers Association’s packing facility prepares apples for shipment.

Mark sappenfield

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Baramullah, Indian Kashmir

Ghulam Rasul Butt believes the solution to Kashmir could begin with 1,038 boxes of apples.

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That's what he sent to Muzaffarabad in Pakistani Kashmir on Oct. 21, marking the historic reopening of trade between the two halves of Kashmir – split between India and Pakistan – for the first time since 1947.

Trade, Mr. Butt says, could succeed where UN resolutions and three wars have failed. From cement to natural gas, India and Pakistan are turning to commerce to help forge common ground. The trade is largely symbolic, but it represents the first seeds of trust between the nuclear-armed enemies, whose squabbles have continually unsettled the region – including Afghanistan.

Kashmir trade "will help end the prolonged animosity between the two countries," says Butt, the president of the Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers Association.

Renewed trade across Kashmir's so-called Line of Control (LoC) – the 450-mile ribbon of Himalayan frontier that splits Kashmir and is lined on either side by nearly 1 million troops – is the most dramatic example of a gradual strengthening of economic ties between India and Pakistan. It is part of a broader trend.

Pakistani President Asif Zardari's government has steadily increased the number of items that India can export to Pakistan, adding 136 items in July – from diesel fuel to mining equipment – bringing the total to 1,938.

In September, Mr. Zardari and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to open a new trade corridor between Gujarat and Sindh. Previously, only one cross-border trade route existed.

Pakistan is also leading an effort to establish a $7.6 billion natural gas pipeline from Iran through Pakistan to India, a plan which remains in negotiations.

In total, trade between the two countries has increased from $345 million in 2004 to $2.2 billion this year. The numbers might appears small – for India, trade with Pakistan represents less than 1 percent of its total trade.

But the measures are key first steps aimed more at establishing trust than turning South Asia into free-trade bloc, says D. Suba Chandran, an analyst at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi.

"Trade is seen as a political confidence-building measure, not an economic confidence-building measure," Mr. Chandran says.

A loosened 'Kashmir knot'?

The nascent cross-border commerce also reflects a growing realization in New Delhi and Islamabad that the two countries must somehow overcome past grievances. "The last four years have been the best in the India-Pakistan relationship," says Raja Mohan, a professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.