The Union home ministry has decided to suspend trade across the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir at two locations — Salamabad and Chakan-da-Bagh. The government’s contention was that this trade was being misused by locals on both sides of the border to send illegal weapons, narcotics and fake currency into India. Government officials reportedly identified at least 10 militants — essentially residents on the Indian side of the LoC from places such as Budgam, Sopore, Baramulla and Tral — using such trade openings to cross over to Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and joining terror outfits such as Hizbul Mujahideen. The officials asserted that under the garb of local trade such individuals were assisting militants and separatists within Kashmir. There was also the issue of trade rules being violated in the form of under-invoicing and exchange of third party items such as California almonds. On the face of it then, the government’s decision looks justified. The reality, however, is that it is yet another misstep by the government when it comes to its Kashmir policy.
The first thing to understand is the nature and origin of this trade. It is essentially in the form of barter trade that allows locals on both sides of the LoC to come together and trade without being straitjacketed by the onerous requirements of international trade. This kind of trading was started roughly a decade ago and was conceived as one of the confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan. The whole point was to allow locals, who often have strong family and cultural ties across the LoC, to mingle and create an atmosphere of trust that was more conducive to allow for a thaw at a higher political level. Many observers believed that given a chance, the social and cultural interconnectedness achieved through such barter trade would eventually lead to a more structured economic and political coming together of the region. To be sure, over the years, such trade has not only created hundreds of thousands of jobs for the local population. According to one estimate, last year, such barter trade was valued at over Rs 5,000 crore.
Suspending this trade abruptly serves little purpose apart from further antagonising and alienating the locals. Security concerns must be addressed through greater scrutiny by border patrol officials, more in-depth background checks, better intelligence, etc, and not by stopping exchange of goods and putting at risk the livelihood of the people on both sides of the LoC. A summary trade ban is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and is at best a short-cut measure. What makes this decision even more unfortunate is the timing. India is in the middle of the Lok Sabha elections and the ruling party has made no bones about its intent to remove Article 370 from the Constitution and strip the troubled northern state of its special status. Already, the recent government decision to close the national highway between Udhampur and Baramulla to civilian traffic for two days a week in order to facilitate troop movement has caused a lot of unrest. Clearly, the government could do without yet another ill-advised move.