The leaders of India and Pakistan are meeting for crucial talks Sunday in the Indian city of Agra home of the Taj Mahal. Nowhere are the talks being more closely watched than in the disputed territory of Kashmir, two-thirds of which is controlled by India, the remainder by Pakistan. Senior Indian and Pakistani officials are playing down expectations for the summit. Nevertheless, the Kashmiri people continue to hold out hope for an end to violence.
Seema Javed is getting married. Her sisters, female relatives and friends are singing traditional Kashmiri wedding songs for her and her wedding guests, celebrating the most important day in her life.
Seema, a 27-year old teacher, lives in a quiet neighborhood on the shores of Lake Dal, just outside the ancient city of Srinagar in the Kashmir Valley. Five hundred years ago, Kashmir was described by India's Moghul rulers as "paradise on earth", and it is still stunningly beautiful. It is also a bloody place. More than 35,000 people have died over the past decade as a separatist insurgency has wracked the Indian-administered part of Kashmir.
Seema says she wants freedom for Kashmir, but she also wants an end to the violence. "The atmosphere has gone very dull (bad) here, thousands of people have died," she says. "So we want to be free here, we do not want a crisis here. So I hope for the best so I pray to God, Inshallah, I hope he listens."
Seema says because of her marriage she is not paying much attention to the details of the Agra summit. She says she hopes Atal Behari Vajapayee and Pervez Musharraf will find some way to ease tensions in Kashmir so she and her husband can live in peace.
All across Indian-administered Kashmir, people are weary of the violence. Sheikh Mustafa Kamaal is a senior member of the local Jammu and Kashmir government. His brother is the state's Chief Minister. Their family has dominated politics in India's state of Jammu and Kashmir for 75-years. Mr. Kamaal says if Mr. Vajpayee and General Musharraf can break the ice in Agra, tensions will ease in Kashmir. "An understanding between two countries will usher in peace," he says. "We have seen misery and death and destruction a dance of death. The merchants of death have had a field day and therefore everybody wants freedom from the shadow of death and uncertainty."
Even Kashmiri nationalists such as Hamida Naim are encouraged by the summit. Ms. Naim, a professor of English at Kashmir University, is a human rights activist in Srinagar. She says Prime Minister Vajpayee appears for the first time to be willing to recognize other points of view on the Kashmir issue. "Bloodshed is there, but we also say that Vajpayee has become more realistic," she says. "He has in a sense conceded that that the Kashmir issue is to be resolved in the letter he sent to Musharraf. So for the first time an Indian Prime Minister has talked about the Kashmir issue which is a very ticklish issue for Indians, they will always say everything will be talked about including Kashmir, that this will come as the last issue on the priority list. But this time the Prime Minister has taken a bold step by saying this, but I do not know how far his own party will stand by him."
In recent days Indian officials have toughened their stand on Kashmir, saying their main concern in talks with Pakistan will be what they call "cross-border terrorism" from the Pakistan side of the Kashmir border.
Indian officials have also excluded Kashmir separatist political leaders from the summit, and have even voiced opposition to a meeting between General Musharraf and a delegation of separatist leaders.
Most Kashmiris on both sides of the debate over their homeland say they are not optimistic that the summit will lead to a breakthrough, but many are encouraged that, after a two year break, the leaders of India and Pakistan have begun to talk about the issue of Kashmir. Talking about Kashmir, they say, could lead to a reduction in violence in the troubled territory.