Srinagar: Having suspended all bus and trade services between India and Pakistan through the Poonch-Rawalkote route on the Line of Control (LOC), traders in Jammu and Kashmir have now been asked to get police clearance and deposit at least Rs 5 lakh with the state government, to continue trading on the only other route that is the Uri-Muzaffarabad road.
The new instructions have come amid growing hostilities between India and Pakistan following the attack on an Indian Army camp in Uri in September 2016 and cross-LOC strikes, and an ongoing NIA investigation probing the role of cross-LOC traders in raising funds for separatist leaders and fuelling the Kashmir unrest that started in July 2016.
LoC trade takes place only via two routes in Jammu and Kashmir. With the Poon-Rwalkote route being shut for over two months, traders are left through two routes only.
As per an order of Industries and Commerce Department, it has been directed that "all existing and new trader firms intending to engage in cross-LoC trade shall have to get themselves registered with the respective Custodian Trade and Facilitation Centre by filing an application in this regard".
The state government has also asked traders that besides submitting essential documents like Permanent Account Number (PAN), they must deposit Rs 5 lakh as security in the form of a fixed deposit (FD) or bank guarantee to carry out the trade.
Further, it has been instructed that the firms should get a police verification report to continue with the trade and also submit bank account statements and balance sheets. The registration will be valid for two years and has to be subsequently renewed.
Trade route was suspended two months ago
The Poonch-Rawalkote trade and bus service was suspended on 10 July after a mortar shell completely damaged the government building in Poonch where officials used to oversee the cross-LOC trade. After the shelling, civil government officials from both India and Pakistan also suspended communication.
Recalling the suspension of trade along the Poonch-Rawalkote route, Mohammad Tanveer, custodian, cross-LOC trade in Poonch said that earlier, frequent meetings were being held between the civil government authorities to sort out issues related to the cross-LOC trade.
"But now it's the army of the two countries who communicate with each other on cross-LOC trade and there is no contact with civil government officials of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (Pok)."
Tanveer informs that following the suspension of bus and trade services along the Poonch-Rawalkote route in July, 116 passengers from Pakistani side were stranded in India and three Indian passengers who were stranded on the other side of the LoC.
"Contact was established with Pakistani government through the Ministry of External Affairs and the passengers returned only via the Uri-Muzaffarabad road on 21 August," he said.
Ambiguity over cross-LOC trade
Tanveer informs that unlike in March 2017 when the trade was suspended for only two days after shells had landed in the office of Custodian LoC trade in Poonch, this time there has been no word from the authorities over starting the trade or bus services on the Poonch-Rawalkote route.
"And this is even though firing has stopped along the LoC," says Tanveer.
Even though the PDP-BJP government led government has called for increasing cross-LOC trade, its policies have been completely opposite.
It's for the first time since the PDP-BJP government came to power in Jammu and Kashmir over two-and-half years ago that that trade and bus service has remained suspended for such a long time along the Poonch-Rawalkote road in Jammu region.
Cross-LOC businesses had continued along the Uri-Muzaffarabad road, but the new instructions are likely to further discourage the traders, who are already battling per day restrictions over trucks crossing the LOC. Earlier, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti government had restricted the number of trucks that cross each day along one route to 35.
NIA probe on separatist leaders finance has affected cross-LOC trade
The suspension of cross-LOC trade and bus service is said to be a result of the ongoing NIA investigation on the finances of separatist leaders in Kashmir.
A senior police official said that the NIA has recently questioned some traders to ascertain their involvement in raising money to fund the unrest in Kashmir. NIA officials carried out raids on 27 locations in Delhi and Srinagar on 6 September during which they found that some of the hawala operatives had links with the cross-LOC traders.
Earlier, in a statement, the NIA had said: “The places searched include houses and business establishments of traders and hawala operators who are suspected of channeling funds to fuel secessionist and anti-India activities in Kashmir. During the searches, cash amounting to approximately Rs 2.20 crore was recovered, besides incriminating documents pertaining to financial transactions. The diaries pertaining to contacts of hawala operators, traders, ledger books containing accounts of cross-LOC trade of various trading companies have been recovered."
The NIA, however, had started investigating the supply of money through cross-LoC trade to the separatists just a few months after the unrest began in Kashmir.
The Valley had erupted with protests and incidents of stone-pelting following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant commander, Burhan Muzafar Wani, in July 2016.
Now in order to clamp down the alleged funding of anti-national and separatist activities via cross-LOC trade, the state government has asked traders who are already engaged in the cross-LoC businesses to get registered for carrying out the trade.
Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM) Uri, Sagar Doifode, said that 23 traders have already completed the registration formalities. He also said that the government will extend the time to receive documents for new registrations and for those traders who have not yet complied with the instructions.
"As of now, there are around 327 traders who are allowed to carry out the trade on the Uri-Muzaffarabad route. They are enlisted with us, but have been asked to get registered."
However, registration doesn't necessarily mean a ticket to cross-LOC trade. As Shailendra Kumar, commissioner secretary, Industries and Commerce Department, Jammu and Kashmir has pointed out in its order "the competent authority may suspend or cancel the registration of any trader or firm due to administrative and security reasons".