| Women pray at the shrine of Sufi saint Khawaja Naqashband in Srinagar on his death anniversary. (Reuters)
Jammu, May 6 (Reuters): Cut deep into a cliff with spectacular views of the Tawi river far below is one of Jammu and Kashmir’s most ambitious and optimistic projects — India’s first hi-tech aquarium.
When it opens, the cheerful and quixotic state fisheries chief, N.A. Jan, hopes the Rs 61.49 million attraction, complete with musical fountain and home-made sea water, will draw hundreds of thousands of tourists and researchers every year.
As India and Pakistan edge warily closer to peace talks, the cliff-top aquarium is a monument to Kashmir’s stubborn faith in a brighter future.
“I am not mad,” Jan explains.“I wanted to do something unique. When we throw open the door, there will be a rush.”
After 13 years of terrorism that killed up to 80,000 people and left no family untouched, Kashmiris are tired of the killing.
Security forces today killed six suspected militants in separate gunbattles in the south of the state, officials said.
Despite the violence, many in Kashmir see fresh, if fragile, hope in a thaw between the nuclear-armed neighbours after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee pledged a final and decisive bid for peace.
No one expects a solution overnight; some not even in their lifetime. But many now dare to hope for tiny first steps. “This time, it seems that they do mean some dialogue,” said Kashmir University political scientist Noor Ahmed Baba.
“Kashmiris are now against any solution by the gun, whether they are satisfied or not with the present situation,” said Ved Bhasin, editor-in-chief of the Kashmir Times group. “A solution is possible, but Kashmir has become a matter of life and death for both countries.... You have to rise above these jingoistic passions.”
Analysts say one early step towards healing the wounds of war could be to make it easier for locals to cross the heavily militarised frontier, which has split families since Islamabad backed an invasion by tribesmen in 1947.
“In 1947, our heart was broken in two — half is there and half is here,” said Ali Akbar, village chief at Ashim, which is often hit by cross-border shelling along the ceasefire line. “Only God and we know how much we suffer. But if they (India and Pakistan) talk, it is good for us.”
Another way to build trust could be a formal ceasefire on the Line of Control.
“South Asia will be peaceful only when there is a meaningful... dialogue on Kashmir,” said moderate separatist leader Shabir Shah.
But analysts say hardliners on both sides could try to block any compromise over the region that stirs deep passions among millions of Indians and Pakistanis. “There are very powerful forces who don’t want this detente in Indo-Pak relations,” Baba said.
Chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed said the road to peace would be long and rough. “It is a very tortuous and difficult task to carry on the process of reconciliation,” he said. “There may be many ups and downs. But you have to start somewhere.”
The people of Kashmir, from Mufti to separatists to border villagers, are unanimous on one thing: “Peace with dignity”.
Defining it is a little harder.
”It must be something acceptable to both India and Pakistan as well as Kashmiris,” said Shah when asked to explain.
“It must involve some sort of concession from India, they must give us some room to move,” said one local journalist.
One option could be to give Kashmiris more control over their own affairs, as they once had: until 1953, Kashmir had its own Prime Minister, Parliament and flag.
The land one Persian poet called “paradise on earth” stirs deep emotions on both sides. It has given national leaders and great artists to both India and Pakistan.
In the cliff above the river Tawi, as he put the final touches to his hi-tech aquarium, fisheries chief Jan is certain one day peace will come. “We don't lose hope. You know, aquariums are good luck.”