Pawan Bali/Shaheen Akhtar
Grassroots interaction across the Line of Control, despite being more than a decade old, is still in its nascent stage. Has this limited interaction percolated down to the formation of social bonds, relations, and institutions? A plurality of the respondents on both sides felt that social change is still far from reality; a minority said that the process is bringing in a change within the society, especially in the areas close to the LoC.
On the Jammu Kashmir side, 50 percent believed that no social change had taken place and 17 percent that it was limited. These respondents felt that the “larger societal participation” was missing and that the “common man has been ignored,” which was why the effects at the societal level were minimal or nonexistent.
The other reasons were described as lack of a procedure for greater social interaction, limited time for interaction or travel, lack of cultural exchange, limited to divided families, security restrictions, and lack of trust between both sides.
At the same time, 33 percent of the Jammu Kashmir respondents said that social change was taking place in the form of societal linkages, bonds, social media exchanges, cross-LoC groups, and cross-LoC marriages.
Some of the examples of existing social media collaborations included a Facebook group H.E.A.RT of J&K that aims to “share, promote and preserve common cultural heritage of both sides” and the Salamabad Cross-LoC Traders’ Group. Social interactions have expanded over the years, some respondents describing them as “virtual social bonds.”
Imitiaz Ahmed, a forty-year-old trader at Salamabad Trade Center, summed up the micro-change: “Basic political issues remain the same, but now we are sitting here with a Pakistani driver, drinking tea. That is a change.”
Cross-LoC interactions have initiated social bonds and a few cross-LoC marriages. In September 2016, Srinagar-based policeman Owais married Muzaffarabad-based Faiza, a match facilitated by cross-LoC travel.
Involving youth in the process, especially trade, is another example of social shift. A 2012 survey by Conciliation Resources reported the majority of traders in Jammu Kashmir to be younger than forty years old.
A few traders between twenty-five and thirty-one described the process as “an opportunity to engage the youth in an industry-less and land locked region.” Trade has engaged a small number of former militants, who have now laid down arms, and are earning a living through the cross-LoC trade.
A few respondents in Jammu said that the predominant social change was that the cross-LoC interactions had to some extent shifted the central focus from the Kashmir Valley to the border districts and Jammu region, which included a substantial number of divided families. The process had given a space to the border residents to be stakeholders in the entire Kashmir conflict.
On the PaK side, only 20 percent of the respondents subscribed to the view that cross-LoC interactions had revived social bonds and cultural linkages; more than 39 percent disagreed and nearly 41 percent felt that the change had been limited. Those who replied positively referred to the revival of cultural connectivity between two parts of Kashmir.
Many pointed out that people who traveled across were able to see the culture and old traditions on the other side and could share their experiences. The cross-LoC trade has developed cross-community linkages, like the traders in Poonch, who are mainly Sikhs and Hindus, constantly interacting with their counterparts in Rawalakot, who are Muslims. The traders from both sides and the Kashmir Lawyers’ Forum have formed WhatsApp groups and stay connected even during periods of high tension on the LoC.
In areas like the Neelum Valley, which were hit by cross-LoC shelling, respondents also reported that with the ceasefire and CBMs their local social and cultural activities had revived.
They could freely move around, visit relatives, participate in weddings and funerals, and even send their children to school. This was not possible before the ceasefire, when both sides exchanged constant fire and shelling.
Respondents who saw no social change attributed it to the “inability of such limited interactions to bring about a societal change.” For them, the people-to-people contacts were restricted to divided families and faced a number of procedural barriers. Distrust was high and the frequency of these visits and exchanges too low. Because of this, any broader social change in outlook was not realistic at the time.
As noted earlier, cross-LoC trade was the second CBM—initiated on October 21, 2008. It was touted as the “mother of all CBMs” and accompanied by references to changing “the line of control to the line of commerce.”
But in the eight years after that, the economic impact was limited to a “few traders” and a small “constituency of people associated with trade.” The absence of a substantial impact is attributed to the “collective failure at both central and regional levels to make these CBMs a priority.”
Despite a lack of push behind expanding trade, the trade continues and is high on symbolic and emotive value. In term of numbers, from 2008 to 2016, the total trade between both sides was approximately $754 million.
More than 1,215 cross-LoC traders from both sides of the line are registered: 585 from PAK (296 from Chakothi and 289 from Tatrinote), and 630 from IAJK (327 from Uri and 303 from Chakkan Da Bagh). The number of active traders, however, is much lower. In 2015 and 2016, active traders made up only 18 percent of the total registered cross-LoC traders.
The trade is also economically engaging laborers, associated beneficiaries such as truckers, agents, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, rental property owners and hoteliers. On the PaK side, about five thousand people are associated with trade-related activities. On the Jammu Kashmir side, spillover economic activity supports five hundred more than that.
In the overall survey, a plurality of 48 percent believed that the economic impact of the cross-LoC initiatives had been “a big boon for a select few” but had failed to seep through to the rest of society. Although 26 percent agreed that the economic impact had been substantial, another 26 percent said that no economic change had taken place.
In Jammu Kashmir, 32 percent agreed that an economic change was taking place, 31 percent disagreed, and 37 percent considered it limited to only a “few traders who can be counted on [one’s] finger tips.”
Only 19 percent of PaK respondents thought that the trade had brought in substantial economic change; 20 percent said that it had no economic impact. More than 60 percent considered the change limited, saying that the benefits were only for those directly engaged with cross-LoC trade or associated with allied services, such as loaders, local transporters, truck drivers, or producers.
Some respondents underscored change that, for example, enabled traders “to build their own houses,” “afford a better living for their families,” and “[be] financially empowered.” Khurshid Ahmad Mir, a cross-LoC trader and president of the Intra-Kashmir Trade Union Muzaffarabad, said that more than half of the LoC traders now own their homes.
The traders, however, said economic impact was hindered by the lack of a banking system, minimal trader-to-trader contact, poor communication linkages, absence of full-scale scanners, limited tradable items, lack of a local dry port, and no access to market.
They also complained that traders from Lahore, Faisalabad, Amritsar, and Delhi had hijacked this trade, that mainstream traders from India and Pakistan were using local traders as proxies to channel their goods through this route and exploit the zero duty benefit.
The grassroots sector on both sides of the Kashmir LoC is largely unorganized politically and has failed to tap its full potential. The only organized joint platform is the Joint Chambers of Commerce and Industry, which was initially formed in 2008 and reorganized in November 2011.
It comprises more than ten business entities, including the heads of four chambers and federations of industries from both sides of the LoC, and has been recognized by the governments, indicating its acceptability at the policy level.
Grassroots traders are in the process of forming a cross LoC joint federation, increasing their ability to affect policy and political changes.
Cross-LoC interaction remains government driven. More than 54 percent of respondents overall thought that grassroots efforts had been unable to sway policy or politics; 46 percent believed that civil society had effected small changes and had the potential for further impact if organized properly.
In Jammu Kashmir, a majority of the respondents (54 percent) believed that the grassroots could bring in policy and political changes if they were organized and strengthened; 46 percent did not.
One micro-level policy change was the influence of traders’ lobby to increase the number of trading days from two to four, and the number of trucks from twenty to forty. The lobby also pressured the government to exempt the trade from Value Added Tax (VAT).
In 2011, a three-month strike by the traders against the VAT prompted the state governor to pass an amendment to the Sales Tax Act, which officially recognized the cross-LoC trade as being “across Line of Actual Control,” thus exempting it from VAT. The traders’ protests also forced the Indian home ministry to lift the ban on trading bananas in 2014.
Civil society stakes have also prompted political parties such as the local unit of the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) and separatist leaders to extend their support to cross-LoC collaborations. Kashmiri separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani, who heads the hard-line faction of All Party Hurriyat Conference, had initially opposed the cross-LoC bus service and later toned down the opposition to say that the cross-LoC interactions should be substantive, not symbolic.
The local wing of right-leaning BJP, which formed the coalition government with the People’s Democratic Party in March 2015, has also supported these collaborations. The PDP-BJP coalition had listed “enhancing people-to-people contact on both sides of the LoC, encouraging civil society exchanges, taking travel, commerce, trade, and business across the LoC to the next level” as a part of its coalition agenda.
In 2016, the coalition government approved the use of banking facilities for cross-LoC trade and authorized the Department of Industries and Commerce to work out modalities for establishing banking facilities.
On the PaK side, more than 62 percent believed that grassroots could not directly affect policies. The general feeling was that governments were strong and people too weak to make an impact at political level and that neither government had enough political will to support grassroots efforts. PaK civil society is considerably weaker than Jammu Kashmir’s and not well organized. More than 38 percent of the respondents felt that grassroots had the potential and that sustained efforts by the people could have an indirect impact at the policy level.
More specifically, the respondents believed that increased cross-LoC interactions could help in reducing hostility, building spaces for dialogue, and expanding acceptability of increased grassroots interactions, which could in turn lead to political changes.
In 2003, India and Pakistan announced a mutual ceasefire along the LoC that has proved fragile and is frequently violated. A majority (55 percent) of respondents thought that grassroots interactions and CBMs had contributed positively to sustaining the ceasefire; 45 percent considered the impact nominal.
Responses were significantly different on either side of the LoC. Jammu Kashmir respondents were less positive, 77 percent saying that “military actions are delinked from grassroots.” Only 23 percent thought that the civil society could have some impact on militaries and contribute to maintaining the ceasefire.
The respondents who saw no impact said that “grassroots could not dare to challenge militaries,” that “military action should be delinked from civil society,” and that armies were “sacred” and “could not be touched.”
Respondents who supported the role of civil society in maintaining the ceasefire said that the “border residents have close ties with local commanders,” which is significant to maintaining peace. They also said that “regular trade was increasing positive militarily interactions on both sides.”
Civil society has had some impact on sustaining the ceasefire in issuing joint petitions urging both New Delhi and Islamabad to maintain it.
“Local traders are affected by shelling and border firing and they have ties with local army commanders to influence them,” remarked Dipankar Sengupta, head of the economics department at Jammu University and a cross-LoC trade analyst. Given greater involvement of the locals and traders on the LoC, he said, armies were being careful about collateral damage.
On the PaK side, an overwhelming majority (87 percent) said that grassroots interactions and ensuing cross-LoC linkages had positively contributed to peace and normalcy on the LoC. A journalist from Kundal Shahi, in Neelum Valley, remarked that despite the lack of any “major policy shift in strategies . . . resistance from people from either side has influenced governments to maintain peace.”
In 2013 and 2016, after Neelum Valley locals protested the tension along the LoC, the two governments listened and avoided escalation.
In August 2013, a group of women from Neelum Valley led a rally from Athmuqam, the district headquarters in the Neelum Valley, urging the militaries to maintain the peace. The local military commander assured the demonstrators that he would convey their concerns and demands to the authorities.
In 2011, after three Pakistani soldiers were killed in Indian shelling, Neelum Valley residents rallied in Athmuqam on Eid-ul-Fitr, calling on Islamabad and New Delhi to exercise restraint and maintain the truce.
More than 13 percent of respondents, however, said that grassroots and CBMs efforts were not enough to sustain the ceasefire or affect military action, and that “other than the crossing points, shelling and firing continue along the LoC.”
To be concluded.
This report was first published by USIP.