It was 6.00 am and the day was dark and threatening as we turned off the Srinagar bypass onto the Baramulla road,. Heavy clouds hung low over the fields and mountains, their swollen bellies pregnant with rain. National Highway 1 'Alpha', as the army calls it, was empty, its black top slick and gleaming with last night's rain. There was a palpable tension in the air. In a short while 19 bus passengers for Muzaffarabad would run a 120km-gauntlet, in the face of terrorist threats to attack the bus and kill them either on the road or when they returned. The terrorists had demonstrated their reach by publishing the list of passengers, and phoning them at their homes to dissuade them from travelling.
Five had taken fright and complied even before the rest assembled in Srinagar. But the authorities had been in two minds over how seriously to take the threat, because a call to a passenger who had caller ID on his phone had revealed that it had been made from London. Their doubts were set at rest by the burning of the Tourist Reception Centre on April 6. An apex meeting of security force chiefs was hurriedly called in the evening and went on till late into the night. No one slept well that night, and as the cold, wet morning dawned and Kashmiris donned their all-concealing pherans, everyone kept their fingers crossed.
The emptiness of the road made me feel vulnerable. In a crowd of vehicles , one disappears. Here even my rented Toyota with J&K plates stood out. But the road was not really empty. All the way till the LoC, there was a soldier in full battle gear every ten to fifty metres. In the fields on both sides, a hundred yards or more behind them was a second line of Jawans. They were there to prevent a sneak attack across the fields. The last time I had seen such intensive patrolling had been during the 2002 elections.
This time the security arrangements went many leagues further. J&K policemen in twos and threes manned the entrance of each hamlet and every crossing. Squads of the Central Reserve Police could be seen walking along the muddy berms of the highway holding metal detectors to detect improvised explosive devices - mines for short. Many were accompanied by dogs trained to detect explosives in non-metallic casings.
The soldiers had been on guard duty in the freezing rain since the previous night. The CRPF patrols had been clearing the road since first light, as they did every single day of the year. This time they were being extra careful. For the terrorists had developed ingenious methods of lulling them into complacency. One favourite trick was to plant two IEDs , one on top of the other. The patrol was expected to find the first and go away, not suspecting that there was a second below it waiting to do its lethal work.
"Three IEDs were found and exploded last night," Naib Subedar Sajjan Lal who had been detailed to get me past the check posts, informed me. He was trying to make me feel safe but I wondered how many more remained undetected.
There was some civilian traffic - a few buses and a few Toyotas and Sumos - till Baramulla, 40-odd kilometres from Srinagar, and an occasional bus or van till Uri, where Kashmir valley ends and the narrow gorge through which the Jhelum enters POK begins. After that there was nothing.. Every few kilometres our vehicles were stopped, searched and sniffed while we were lined up to be frisked. A journey that took two-and-a-half hours on the way back the next day, took four hours on the morning of the April 7. But no one minded the frisking. For the first time in 15 years soldiers and civilians were on the same side.
The Jhelum divides Baramulla. On the left bank, where the road runs, is a modern nondescript city. But the old town on the right bank, across two wooden footbridges and a newly constructed 'cement bridge', is a huddle of beautifully carved Kashmiri houses that still looks much as it had in 1947, when the raiders, locally known as kebailis, invaded the city. The St Joseph's convent is on the left bank, beside the road. The raiders raped and killed most of the nuns, and scores of local residents who resisted the plunder, and the rape of their women. Today its high compound wall, painted white for peace (the nuns objected to green) houses a school and a hospital in addition to the convent.
Baramulla was the first town the raiders sacked. But today it is a hotbed of separatism. Such is the power of disinformation that most of its residents believe that it was the raiders who came to liberate it in 1947 and Indian army that raped the city when it drove them out.
Beyond Uri, the road was empty. The Jhelum had become a foaming torrent, its roar rising above the sound of our engine and of the tyres on the road. The prosperity of the valley was far behind us. The hills were clad in scrub, and the villages were few, far between, and desperately poor. We had entered the region whose economic life had been snuffed out when the Muzaffarabad road was closed in 1947. As I had seen from the other side in 2000, the poverty stretched all the way to Kohala , the original border of Kashmir, and beyond it almost till Murree, above Islamabad.
Till a month ago the road had ended at Salamabad, a little township about eight kilometres short of the Line of Control. A few kilometres beyond it the LoC , which had been following a deep ravine from north to south, debouched into the Jhelum valley and turned west along the river. For the next four kilometres Indian and Pakistani bunkers faced each other across the river at a distance of less than a hundred yards and, till two years ago, regularly exchanged potshots.
The road had therefore ceased to exist: the asphalt had long disappeared and boulders that had fallen on it from the heights remained uncleared. In recent years it, and the surrounding slopes, had been mined and the mines were lost in a heavy undergrowth of secondary vegetation. The bridge across the Jhelum, over which 300 lorries had brought 6,000 to 8,000 raiders in the early hours of October 22 1947 , was no longer capable of bearing traffic. Time, and periodic floods in the Jhelum, had eroded its brick abutments at their base.
The task of opening the road was given to the Army's XV corps on March 10. The Army cleared the boulders and the undergrowth, removed or exploded the mines, laid a new roadbed, put down a new layer of macadam, rebuilt the abutments of the bridge and reinforced them with ferro-concrete, pushed out the nearly 100 metre span of the bridge, and built a reception centre for the passengers in 26 days!
Bulldozers swept away the rocks and the undergrowth, and defused the mines by simply driving over them. When I looked aghast, Army officials laughed, "They were only anti-personnel mines. They went off under the 'dozer tracks like giant firecrackers". The reception centre is a prefabricated hut with polished stone floors and wood panelled walls and ceiling. It was built in three days.
We arrived at the Kaman post - the end of the road - at 10.30 in the morning. The bus from Muzaffarabad was expected at 12.30 but arrived at 2.00. So we had plenty of time to waste. In a small clearing beside the original bunker just above the road, I found a collection of village elders who remembered the old days, had relatives on the other side, and had been brought by the army to greet the passengers from POK. Most were in their '70s and '80s.
Maulvi Manzur, whose father had been a gardener at a British residency in the North West Frontier where, he claimed, Mountbatten had stayed during his Frontier visit in 1946, was their unofficial spokesman. "When you go back please tell the authorities that while we heartily welcome this bus service it will not meet our needs. Can the two governments not issue the people of the villages on both sides with a simple identity card that will enable them to do visit each other whenever they want? They can make all the inquiries and verification once. But after that is done, can we not come and go as we please, as in the old days?"
Manzur had a great deal to say about terrorism and jihad. Dismissing the terrorists with contempt he said: "unki dukan bund hone wali hai" (Their shop is about to close). He also dismissed their claim to be waging a jihad. "If someone prevents me from saying my namaaz or going to the mosque, then it is my duty to wage jihad. But if I can pray whenever I want; if the mosques are open and I can hear the azaan five times a day; if no one interferes with my customs and ceremonies, then where is the need for jihad?" Thus did Manzur consign scores of learned tomes and think tank papers, containing hundreds of pages of rationalisation, to the waste paper basket. Mohammad Usman, Mohammad Suleiman, and the others nodded sagely.
At last the Muzaffarabad bus arrived. It stopped at a bend in the road for the exit formalities, and then inched forward to the bridge, preceded by scores of Pakistani journalists and local notables. A white flag was lowered at each end, the gates opened and the walk to reunion began.
On the way back to Srinagar, the visitors' buses were forced to halt at Salamabad where a 10,000-strong reception party was waiting for them with a kashmiri wazwan. But as a result ours was the first vehicle from Kaman post on the road for the next 50 kilometres. We therefore had a ringside view of the huge crowds, the holiday mood that enveloped them, the colourful dresses and excitement of the women and the rough good humour of the men in which, for almost the first time in 15 years, I found myself included.
Between Sheeri and Baramulla 25,000 people crowded the road, and the roofs and balconies alongside it. All security arrangements had broken down and the army could do nothing but mingle with the crowds and hope for the best. What struck me was the absence of hostility, and fear. It was a far cry from the silent streets, the blacked out nights, the 24 hour curfews and the blaring loudspeakers of the mosques, of 1990.
* The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former editor of the Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Financial Express, and a former information adviser to the prime minister of India. He is the author of several books including, The Perilous Road to the Market: The Political Economy of Reform in Russia, India and China, and Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and a regular columnist with several leading publications.