India, Pakistan open historic Kashmir trade route

The longtime rivals exchanged goods across the divided territory for the first time in 60 years.

By , Correspondent

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    Bridge: Trucks carried goods from Pakistan's side of Kashmir into India's Tuesday. The trade route had been shut for 60 years.
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    An Indian policeman checked cartons containing fruits and vegetables with a metal detector, northwest of Jammu.
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Trucks piled high with containers of apples, nuts, and honey became symbols of the slow-moving peace process between India and Pakistan when an old trade route across Kashmir reopened Tuesday after 60 years.

The reopening of the route, which runs across the Line of Control (LoC) that divides the Himalayan region, is one of several "confidence-building measures" agreed on as part of a peace pact made by the two nuclear-armed neighbors in 2004.

But passing as it does through hotly disputed Kashmir, the reopening of this route is especially potent. Kashmir, which both countries rule in part but claim in full, constitutes the core of the disagreement between India and Pakistan that has sparked three wars since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947.

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The timing of the road's reopening heightens its significance, after months of growing antagonism between India and Pakistan.

Earlier this year, India accused Pakistan of allowing militants to sneak across the border. Terrorist bomb attacks in India, and on the Indian Embassy in Kabul – which India explicitly blamed on Pakistan – have further shaken the peace process.

Indian-administered Kashmir, meanwhile, has in recent months seen the biggest pro-independence demonstrations since a violent separatist insurgency broke out in 1989 and killed tens of thousands of people. Since 2004, and the advent of peace talks, the region had experienced relative calm.

But a government plan to transfer a plot of land in Muslim-majority Kashmir to a Hindu group, later rescinded, unleashed new calls for independence – and violent protests – in the summer.

"This is a very substantive move, very much to be welcomed," says Maj. Gen. Ashok Mehta, a retired military officer and now security analyst in New Delhi. "In fact I would describe it as almost a breakthrough. It's especially welcome on India's side after three months of tension in the Kashmir Valley and in Jammu.

From an economic point of view, too, the reopening of the trade route – one of the few big, all-weather roads in a region that is heavily snowed upon in the winter – is momentous. It is believed that without restrictions, cross-border trade could reach $6 billion a year.

Currently, only 21 approved items can be moved along the trade route, one day a week. "But it could expand to other areas, like tourism," says General Mehta.

Indian Kashmir's Governor Narendra Nath Vohra described Tuesday as "a historic day which will surely help the economy of both parts of Kashmir," adding that he hoped "it will herald peace in the region."

Across the border, Pakistani Kashmir’s prime minister, Sardar Attique Ahmed Khan, said he was confident “that this beginning will lead us to proper and regular trade and commerce,” but warned it was unlikely to lead to a quick resolution of the dispute.

Another historic step in Kashmir three years ago – the opening of a bus service between the two sides – has since petered out.

In the short term, India in particular hopes that the road’s new life will bring calm to its portion of Kashmir. Over the weekend, it announced that staggered state elections – always a security concern here – would kick off in November.

Indeed, though the demand of many Kashmiri Muslims for independence from India remains unanswered, some have been placated, somewhat, by Tuesday's move. Earlier this year, Hindu groups protesting the government's decision to renege on the land transfer blocked the main highway from the Kashmir Valley to north India. Back then, Kashmiri salesmen demanded they be allowed to sell their produce to Pakistan-administered Kashmir. On Tuesday, that demand was met.

Television footage showed hundreds of people gathered at both sides of the heavily militarized border to cheer on the departing trucks. On the Indian side of the border, the vehicles were decorated with banners reading: "Long live trade across the two sides."

On the Pakistani side, schoolchildren chanted, "Long live Pakistan" and "Kashmir will become a part of Pakistan" – a reminder that Tuesday's move was only a tiny step forward in a long-running and complex dispute.

For truck drivers, fruit salesmen, and apple farmers, however, the reopening of the road was a simple cause for rejoicing. "I was 12 years old when I last saw baskets of fruits being packed to be sent to Rawalpindi [a town in Pakistan]," Haji Abdul Ahad Bhat, an apple farmer from the Indian side, told the Associated Press.

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