Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee begins a two-day visit to the country's restive Kashmir region on Friday. Officials in New Delhi say Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's visit to Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar, will focus on the challenges of development in the state. He also aims to demonstrate to Kashmiris that New Delhi wants them to join the national mainstream.
Mr. Vajpayee will address a heavily guarded public rally in Srinagar, the first by an Indian prime minister in 15 years. Srinagar lies at the heart of an Islamic separatist insurgency that has torn apart India's only Muslim majority region since 1989. Since then, few national leaders have made a public appearance in the city.
But elections last year installed a popular regional government, and raised hopes of returning peace to the valley.
"The importance of Prime Minister Vajpayee's visit lies in the fact that with a new government in Kashmir, which has raised popular expectations for peace and progress, he's going to engage the government, he is going to reach out to the people, and the visit is symbolic" said C. Rajamohan, a strategic affairs analyst with a Hindu newspaper.
Separatists say peace cannot return to Kashmir without their involvement. The All Party Huriyat Conference, an alliance of more than 20 separatist groups, did not participate in last year's elections, calling them a sham. The Huriyat Conference has called for a two-day strike during the prime minister's visit.
But the Huriyat also calls for a dialogue with the government.
"We believe that dialogue and negotiation is the only way forward if we are to have permanent peace in Kashmir," Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, a prominent Kashmiri leader elaborated. "We hope the prime minister will address that need and he will not just go on repeating the rhetoric, but start or initiate a dialogue with the people who have a problem, not with the elected representatives of the government who already toe the state line."
It may not be easy to restore peace to Kashmir, which both India and Pakistan claim, and which lies at the heart of their bitter relations.
After months of relative calm, violence in Kashmir is again on the rise. There was heavy shelling [Thursday] along the Kashmir border, that Indian officials said killed one civilian and injured several others. Two other people were killed and several wounded in separate incidents of violence in the state.
India blames the violence on Pakistan, accusing it of continuing to support Islamic militants waging the insurgency.
New Delhi says it is willing to talk to the separatists, but will not open a dialogue with Pakistan until it stops militants from crossing into Kashmir. Islamabad says all incursions by militants from its territory have stopped.
Analysts say the stalemate between the two countries is holding up the return of peace to Kashmir, where more than 38,000 people have died in insurgency-related violence.