The J&K Hindu Shrines and Religious Places (Management and Regulation) Bill, a long-standing demand of the besieged Hindu community of Jammu & Kashmir, which was deferred to the House Select Committee in the Assembly session on April 5, has become an urgent imperative in view of the wanton destruction of an ancient Shiva shrine in Banihal, during the Navratras.
Miscreants sprawled graffiti on the walls of the recently discovered cave temple and damaged and removed an icon of Shiva on the very first day of the Navratras, after members of the All Parties Migrants Coordination Committee (APMCC) visited the shrine and performed the first puja. This shocking iconoclasm has cast a pall of gloom upon the entire State.
Far from catching the culprits, the Jammu & Kashmir Government forcefully detained APMCC leaders King C Bharti and Vinod Pandit when they tried to visit the cave again on April 17, and registered cases against them under different sections.
The cave of Mahadeo was recently rediscovered in the Pir Panjal range at a height of 11,500 feet above sea level in the Banihal area of district Ramban; it contained several icons of great antiquity. It became a focal point of devotion on the first Navratra on April 11 as scores of devotees braved the steep mountain to offer prayers at the shrine. The procession led by APMCC chairman Vinod Pandit was visiting the forgotten shrine after over a century; they found a huge cave, the end of which could not be seen with the naked eye.
The cave and its icons are clearly an intrinsic part of the distinctive religious heritage of Kashmiri Hindus, which find mention in texts like Neelmat Purana and Rajatarangini. The protection and preservation of this heritage is a national imperative, and is the reason why the Hindu community is demanding an early passage of the Shrines Bill, which Chief Minister Omar Abdullah promised to do in the budget session.
The Bill has been pending for five years, and in the absence of an institutional mechanism to protect and preserve the temples and shrines of Kashmir, the land mafia has been annexing properties with impunity. The staff of the departments of revenue and administration colludes with the mafia, which the result that several temple lands have been sold or seized illegally, and unauthorised constructions allowed by municipal and town area authorities.
Many temples are completely in ruins. In March 2013, a devastating fire destroyed a portion of the famous Chakreshwar temple complex on Hari Parbat, Srinagar, but nothing was done about it. Indeed, the temples and shrines are the worst victims of the genocide and exile of the Hindu community, as they lost their trustees, caretakers, and devotees in one brutal stroke. The State Minister for Revenue, Relief and Rehabilitation Raman Bhalla admitted in a written reply in the Assembly that at least 170 temples had been damaged in two decades of militancy in the valley.
Some of these are truly historic and ancient temples, such as the sun temples at Parihaspura, Mattan, Naran Nag and Awantipura; there is the revered Kshir Bhavani in Tulamula; the Jwala temple in Khrew; and innumerable temples in the springs of Anantnag, Mattan, Pahalgam. Every hill and every valley is the repository of some portion of a once vibrant culture.
A rough inventory of the temples as they existed at the time of the exodus in 1989-90 shows 499 temples spread almost uniformly over the nine districts of the Valley. These include Anantnag (116); Baramulla (79); Bandipora (17); Budgam (44); Gandarbal (16); Kulgam (48); Kupwara (66); Pulwama (47); Shopian (22) and Srinagar (44).
All Parties Migrant Coordination Committee chairman Vinod Pandit went on a hunger strike for 15 days in February this year, to protest against the encroachment of the valuable properties of Hindu shrines and to press for passage of the long pending bill. In March, members of several Hindu organisations organised a mass dharna in Jammu to urge all parties to pass the bill in the current budget session. They lamented that despite publicly expressed support from Revenue Minister Raman Bhalla, Agriculture Minister GH Mir, PDP patron Mufti Mohd Sayeed, CPI (MLA) MY Tarigami, and some BJP and NC MLAs, no progress had been made in the matter.
Sadly, on April 5, despite a unanimous demand from opposition members to pass the Hindu Shrines Bill, the National Conference-Congress coalition referred the bill to a House Select Committee on grounds of alleged loopholes in the proposed legislation. MY Tarigami, and Engineer Abdul Rashid suggested that the Bill be passed and necessary changes be made later.
But National Conference members insisted that Kashmiri Muslims must be involved in the management committees of Hindu temples and shrines in the valley as they are locals and also the majority. The regime claimed this would help in better management and protection of Hindu religious places as there are now no Kashmiri Hindus in the valley. Tarigami opposed the inclusion of Muslims in temple management, pointing out that Kashmiri Pandits are not included in Waqf Board; he said a very wrong message was being sent. He was supported by Engineer Abdul Rashid.
Harsh Dev Singh of the Panther’s Party pressed the Government to provide financial assistance to maintain and protect Hindu religious places in the Valley and clarify how it planned to remove encroachments. But for Hindus and their temples, it was back to square one