Shoots of peace are “sprouting” in Jammu and Kashmir and the government is now working to ensure that the people in the State can be uplifted with dignity, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti says.In an interview on Monday night, the 58-year-old Chief Minister welcomed recent attempts by the Centre and the ruling party to reach out to Kashmiris, starting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech where he asked countrymen to embrace Kashmiris. This was followed by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement that the Centre is willing to hold talks with all stakeholders and then BJP leader Ram Madhav saying talks can be held with anyone. In his Mann ki Baat speech on Sunday, Mr. Modi praised a poor Kashmiri youth, Bilal Dar, for his attempt to clean up a lake.“These are welcome signs” in the Kashmir Valley where people are eagerly waiting for peace to return, Ms. Mufti said.“The shoots of peace have started sprouting. They have to be watered and fertilized, and I am sure that the fruits of peace will follow,” she said, speaking at her home. Ms. Mufti, who retains the Tourism portfolio, gets a report on tourist arrivals every evening, and the figures are grim — arrivals have now fallen to between 4,000 and 5,000 daily from a peak of 10,000 to 12,000. Most hotels and houseboats are vacant, taxi operators have virtually no business and shops are shut.The Chief Minister said it was wrong to project the entire 70 lakh population of the Valley as pro-militant when Intelligence figures show there are 200 to 300 home-grown militants.Sense of alienation“You talk about the 200 militants but don’t talk about the thousands of Kashmiris in the Indian Army,” Ms. Mufti said. However, she did not deny that there was a sense of alienation among Kashmiri youth, and even children as young as eight, because of the severe security crackdowns that follow stone-throwing incidents.However, the recent statements from the highest level are an opportunity to build peace and give Kashmiris back their dignity, Ms. Mufti said. “All that is required now is to hold their (people of Kashmir) fingers with dignity intact,” she said.The first woman Chief Minister of the sensitive border State said her government favoured holding talks with everyone as had been enshrined in the Agenda of Alliance between the PDP and the BJP.She indicated that she supported the peace talks strategy employed by the Vajpayee government in the early 2000s when Kashmiri separatist leaders were allowed to talk to Pakistan as part of peace-building efforts, while New Delhi and Islamabad were also simultaneously engaged.“There is a need to take the bull by its horns and finding a way out for bringing in a ‘permanent’ peace in the State,” Ms. Mufti said, adding that she was in regular contact with Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who she described as “very supportive”.She noted that Mr. Madhav, the BJP general secretary, had a clear understanding of Kashmir and had been extremely supportive of the alliance government. “I am sure together, we will be able to steer the State to new heights.” Ms. Mufti said Mr. Modi’s mention of Bilal Dar had sent a wave of pride among the youth of the Valley.