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Samjhauta Express: The Friendship Express connecting divided people

Tridivesh Singh Maini |

In spite of the strained relations between India and Pakistan, attempts have been made on numerous occasions to facilitate greater people to people interactions, and to give a fillip to bilateral trade between both countries. The ultimate aim of such initiatives is to create goodwill and make the relationship less acrimonious. A substantial percentage of commentators and analysts on both sides of the Radcliffe line are totally dismissive of people to people links and subscribe to the view that bus services or rail connectivity do not serve any purpose.

Some on both sides are not just sceptical, but also oppose such initiatives. It would be pertinent to point out, that bus and rail services are especially useful for two sets of individuals; divided families on both sides, and religious pilgrims (groups of Sikh pilgrims, known as Jathas, who want to visit historical Gurudwaras in Pakistan, or Muslim pilgrims who visit shrines especially on occasions such as Urs). These services are affordable and while individuals from divided families or pilgrims on both sides have to go through numerous travails, the fact is that these links are important.

Jathas travel to Pakistan on religious occasions, or on occasions such as Urs of Saints the number of passengers travelling increased.

One such initiative, which began as a goodwill initiative between both countries, and is especially important for two sets of individuals discussed above, is the train service known as ‘Samjhauta Express’ (commonly referred to as the Friendship Express). The Samjhauta Express, established in July 1976 (in the aftermath of the Simla Agreement in 1971), ran between Delhi and Lahore. The initial agreement signed between both countries was for a period of 3 years, and it began as a daily service.

Later on, the train distance of the Samjhauta Express was reduced, due to security reasons. From the Pakistani side, passengers alight at Attari for security and customs checks, and they travel by another train (Delhi-Attari Express) to New Delhi. From the Indian side, the train connects Attari to Lahore, but passengers have to alight at Wagah for checks, etc. In 1994 another agreement was signed between both countries, and the frequency of this service was reduced from daily to bi-weekly. When Jathas travel to Pakistan on religious occasions, or on occasions such as Urs of Saints the number of passengers travelling increased.

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In the period between 2016-2017 (largely due to tensions across the LoC) there was a significant decrease in the number of passengers travelling both ways. Between April-September 2017, the number of passengers travelling from India was 1064 (for the same months in 2016, this figure was over 2,200. The number of Pakistanis who travelled on Samjhauta Express between April-September 2017 was 3,667, while for the period between April-September 2016 the figure was well over 7,600.

Samjhauta: A Preferred Mode of Travel

Individuals undertaking a journey on Samjhauta have to face a series of challenges, yet this is a preferred mode of travel because unlike the bus services which connect both sides, there is no need for any security verification. Samjhauta Express also happens to be the only other train service apart from the Thar express (which began in 2004) which runs between India and Pakistan. The ticket is also reasonable Rs. 150 (Indian) which is approximately 300 Pakistani Rupees. The train service is used by passengers from all over India. Passengers from different parts of the country (both members of divided families as well as religious pilgrims) travel by this train.

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Suspension of Samjhauta Express after 2007 Terror Attack

A number of changes have been introduced to the Samjhauta Express ever since it began – the frequency of the train as well as the distance was reduced. It has also been suspended on a few occasions. The first time the service was suspended in the 1980s during the phase of militancy in Indian Punjab and then resumed in 1990. The service was then suspended after the attack on Indian Parliament in December 2001. This attack had brought both countries on the brink of war. The service was resumed in 2004 – a year which witnessed an overall upswing in the bilateral relationship between both countries.

A substantial percentage of commentators and analysts on both sides of the Radcliffe line are totally dismissive of people to people links.

After the assassination of former Pakistani PM, Benazir Bhutto on December 2007 the service was suspended for a few days. The terror attack in February 2007, in which a total of 68 people were killed (including a large number of civilians (mostly Pakistanis) and Indian security personnel guarding the train) was a major setback. While a charge sheet was filed against individuals belonging to a Right Wing group, called ‘Abhinav Bharat’, the main accused Swami Aseemanand was acquitted due to the lack of evidence, Pakistan reacted strongly to the acquittal of Aseemanand. At the same time, Pakistani witnesses have not shown up in Indian courts. This heinous terror attack drew a lot of attention to the train service – albeit for the wrong reasons.

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Problems with the Train Service

While the Samjhauta Express still remains an important source of connectivity especially for Jathas and individuals belonging to separated families. There are numerous complaints regarding train service. The first complaint of passengers is poor maintenance of the train (this includes levels of cleanliness and abysmal condition of train compartments, which are ram-shackled). Apart from this, the customs and security checks are tedious, and passengers have to face harassment at the hands of customs officials. The train service also has a poor record in terms of punctuality and is perpetually late.

This heinous terror attack drew a lot of attention to the train service – albeit for the wrong reasons.

The writer got a chance to talk to a journalist who works with a publication in Indian Punjab (who travelled as recently as January 2019 on the train), as well as some passengers (Sikh pilgrims) who have travelled through the train, they all echoed the above views, however despite the arduous train journey, they do not have many options. Another major challenge with regards to the train service is that it is also used for smuggling (of fake Indian currency), and drug consignments have been caught on numerous occasions.

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Challenges to Confidence Building Measures

The problems discussed above are not unique to the Samjhauta Express, but with all Confidence Building Measures – especially those started with the aim of enhancing connectivity. Even bus services between the two Punjabs, which began with great fanfare have failed due to the logistical hassles. The bus service between Amritsar and Nankana Sahib, which was inaugurated by former Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh was a failure because passengers needed security verification even after obtaining the Pakistani visa, which in itself was cumbersome.

The opening of the Kartarpur Corridor, for Sikh pilgrims, is another important initiative, and while it is easy to be sceptical, it could play an important role in bridge building. It is only hoped, that red tape, bureaucracy and the politics of the nation states does not convert such an important initiative into a mere tick in the box. Both New Delhi and Islamabad will hopefully learn from the failures of previous CBMs and ensure that archaic rules do not play spoilsport.

India and Pakistan do not need to look to any other region for making their CBM’s a success, even if they can reach a level of pre-1965 connectivity they will do well. Hopefully, both sides will learn that mere speeches are not enough and that secure borders do not mean closed borders and closed minds.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Strategic Analyst associated with OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat India. Author of ‘South Asian Cooperation and the Role of the Punjab’s’ (New Delhi: Siddharth Publications, 2007) and co-editor of ‘ Warriors after War: Indian and Pakistani Retired Military Leaders Reflect on Relations between the Two Countries, Past, Present and Future’ (Peter Lang, 2011). The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.