In March, Zahoor Ahmad, a trader from Srinagar, ordered a consignment of spices worth Rs 30 lakh that he planned to send across the Line of Control, to a trader in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Once his goods crossed over, Ahmad was expecting a pre-booked consignment of teeth-cleaning twigs (miswaak) in return.

“Miswaaks are in huge demand during the holy month of Ramzan [that starts on May 5],” said Ahmad. “We wanted to have enough stock in order to reach the demand.”

But things did not go as planned.

On March 8, trade through the Uri route – one of two routes from where cross-LoC trade takes place – was suspended, with authorities citing repair work on the Kaman Aman Setu bridge as the reason. This bridge connects the Indian side of Kashmir with the Pakistan side. The authorities said the repair work would take a minimum of 10-15 days.

As cross-LoC trade halted in Uri, it continued via the second route, in Poonch, in Jammu region.

But on April 18, this too stopped after the Union Ministry of Home Affairs issued a notification suspending cross-LoC trade indefinitely. It said it had received “reports that the Cross LoC trade routes are being misused by the Pakistan based elements for funnelling illegal weapons, narcotics and fake currency etc”.

Contending that trade across the Line of Control “is being misused on very large scale”, the ministry said that the “trade has changed its character to mostly third-party trade and products from other regions, including foreign countries, are finding their way through this route”.

Under the garb of this trade, the notification said, “unscrupulous and anti-national elements are using the route as a conduit for Hawala money, drugs and weapons…”

The statement was silent on the resumption of trade. It said the issue will be “revisited” after a “stricter regulatory & enforcement mechanism” that is being worked out is “put in place in consultation with various agencies”.

Livelihood at stake

For traders like Ahmad, the sudden suspension of trade and the ambiguity over its resumption came as a devastating blow.

“Our lives and property are at stake,” said Ahmad anxiously, standing outside a shop-turned godown at Parimpora fruit mandi in Srinagar. “I have paid my supplier only half of the payment. I had planned that as soon as I get goods from across the border, I will clear his dues. Now, my entire stock is rotting inside storerooms.”

In hindsight, Kashmiris involved in cross-LoC trade suspect that the repair work on the Uri bridge was just an excuse to stop trade. “I was one of the last drivers from the Indian side to cross the bridge on March 7,” said Nazir Ahmad, a truck driver. “The condition of the bridge was not that bad. We thought they will finish the work in two to three days and trade will resume.”

He has been driving trucks across the Line of Control since 2008, when cross-LoC trade first began.

Out of work since March, Nazir Ahmad, who has three children, says the suspension of trade has caused distress to his entire family. “I don’t even have money to pay the school fees of my kids,” he said. “If trade does not resume sooner, our kids will be forced to take wrong steps to feed themselves.”

Pawan Anand, president of the Chakan-Da-Bagh cross-LoC traders association in Poonch, estimated that 2,000 families of traders, drivers, labourers and accountants derive their livelihood from cross-LoC trade. “It is the same case with people across the border,” he said. “A large number of people there rely on cross-LoC trade for their living.”

He added: “From a supplier in Gujarat and Rajasthan to a manufacturer in Faislabad and Lahore, everyone has been affected…The April 18 order broke our backs.”

In Srinagar, trader Zahoor Ahmad is left with few options to dispose of his stock. “Even if we return the goods to our suppliers, they will not take it back at the same rates,” he said. “It will fetch only half of what we paid for it. In addition, we have to pay transportation charges.”

He added: “We will be left with no option than committing suicide if trade continues to remain suspended.”

The entrance of the cross-LoC trade market in Poonch district of Jammu (left); No activity at the cross-LoC trade market in Srinagar (right).

Confidence-building measure

In October 2008, as a confidence building measure, India and Pakistan agreed to carry out trade along the Line of Control through the Uri-Muzaffarabad route in Kashmir and the Poonch-Rawalakot route in Jammu.

Both countries agreed on a list of 21 items – restricted to goods produced in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir or Jammu and Kashmir – that could be traded. The two countries agreed on a Standard Operating Procedure. Trade would take place four days a week.

The defining feature of the initiative was that there would be no exchange of money between traders – it would involve the barter system. If a trader in Pakistan sent across goods worth five lakh Indian rupees to a trader on the Indian side, that trader would send back goods of the same value as payment.

Though the initiative was launched during the tenure of the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government, its seed was planted in 2004, in the peace process initiated by the late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf.

Cross-LoC trade was the second confidence-building measure between India and Pakistan after a cross-LoC bus service, which was launched in 2005.

Apart from easing tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, the initiative paved the way for increasing interactions between the two divided parts of Jammu and Kashmir.

The initiative was a success, with the value of the trade rising year after year. In 2008, goods worth only Rs 1.3 crore were traded but by March, this figure crossed Rs 3,000 crore.

At the same time, the initiative has been plagued by problems since the very beginning. These include the lack of banking facilities, laborious manual checking of goods by security forces at multiple spots, and the lack of communication channels for traders to interact with each other.

For security agencies in India, cross-LoC trade has always attracted strict surveillance. They have, over the years, seized weapons, fake currency and narcotics being transported from the Pakistan side.

Despite these incidents, trade has largely continued. Though it has been temporarily suspended multiple times, it has survived several tumultuous periods of tension between India and Pakistan, particularly after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and the 2016 terror attack on an Army camp in Uri in which 19 soldiers were killed.

The first truck carrying goods from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to India crosses the Line of Control at Kaman Bridge in Uri on October 21, 2008. (Photo credit: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP).

‘No secret’

The Centre’s April 18 notification did not come as a surprise to the security establishment in Kashmir.

“Since the beginning, security agencies in Kashmir have sent comprehensive reports to the state government as well as central government about how the trade is being used by Pakistan to pump in money for separatists and militants,” said a senior officer of the Jammu and Kashmir police on the condition of anonymity. “Despite that, things did not move.”

He added: “It has to be understood that the Centre as well as subsequent state governments were highly hopeful of cross-LoC trade as a peace measure.”

According to this officer, the barter system facilitated the flow of money illegally into the Valley.

“Suppose a trader from Kashmir sends goods worth Rs 10 lakh to a trader along the Line of Control, he is expected to get goods worth the same value back, despite having a different currency,” explained the officer. “But that is not the case. The goods coming from the Pakistan side are grossly under-invoiced. When they enter the Kashmir market, they are sold at high prices, and the additional profits made are used for illegal activities.”

This modus operandi was at the centre of a National Investigation Agency investigation launched in December 2016 in a case that involved the import of California almonds from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir into Jammu and Kashmir. It was alleged that the money made from selling these almonds in India was being used to fund militancy and separatist activities in the Valley.

The police officer said that there was another way to channel money illegally from across the border. Assuming a trader in Pakistan sends a truck of goods worth Rs 5 lakh to the Indian side. Instead of sending a truck of goods worth Rs 5 lakh back to the Pakistani trader, the Indian trader would send him goods worth only Rs 2 lakh and hand the remaining Rs 3 lakh to a hawala operator in the Valley, said the officer.

According to the officer, such offences are highly complex and difficult to investigate. Most times, the cases hit a dead end. “NIA [National Investigation Agency] has not moved much ahead in the California almonds case,” he said.

Another senior police officer, who has studied the trade issue closely, said that security agencies have for long asked for banking facilities to be set up for cross-LoC trade. “If the nature of trade changes and it is conducted through a banking system, there will be much more transparency and it will be easier to follow the money trial,” said the officer.

Asked why the Union government has decided to take the issue seriously only now, the officer said: “The timing of this ban is important. First, this is a different government and second, this is election time.” emailed a detailed questionnaire to Sulekha, director, Jammu and Kashmir division, Ministry of Home Affairs, seeking the government’s reasoning behind its decision to suspend cross-LoC trade indefinitely. No response had been received till the time this story was filed. The report will be updated if a response comes.

Traders want more transparency

A week after the Centre’s April 18 notification, the Intelligence Bureau and National Investigation Agency released a list of 10 Pakistan-based militants who were allegedly using cross-LoC trade routes to pump in “weapons, narcotics and fake currency” into Kashmir. All the militants named in the list are former residents of Jammu and Kashmir who crossed over the Line of Control during the 1990s for arms training.

In Kashmir, traders as well as police officials admit that most of the traders on the Pakistan side are Kashmiris who crossed over the Line of Control decades ago.

“In 2017, we submitted a memorandum to Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti in which we clearly said that most of the traders on the other side are Kashmiris who had crossed the LoC illegally during 90s,” said Hilal Turki, president of Salambad cross-LoC traders union in Uri.

According to Turki, they had asked the government for advice on the matter. “Until now, we haven’t heard anything from the government,” he said.

Turki was hopeful that the new regulatory framework alluded to in the Centre’s April 18 notification will help increase transparency.

“Security concerns are paramount,” he said. “After that comes the interest of traders. If the trade is hassle-free and foolproof, it is for the benefit of us only. We are hopeful that the government will work out something and trade will resume.”

But as the days go by, small traders like Zahoor Ahmad are becoming increasingly anxious. “I wish the government had informed us first and let us clear our stocks,” he said, ruefully. “Then we could have waited easily and for long for new guidelines to come up.”