THE postponement of the long pending J&K Hindu Shrines and Religious Places (Management and Regulation) Bill for the better management and preservation of Hindu temples and shrines in Kashmir province, promised to be passed in the Budget Session by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, has deeply disappointed the Kashmiri Hindu community that is upset over vandalisation and continued encroachment of religious properties in the State.
The Bill was first introduced in 2009, but was again referred to a select committee on April 5, after Mustafa Kamal, brother of Union Minister Farooq Abdullah, demanded that the Kashmiri Muslims should have role in the management of Hindu religious places.
Mustafa Kamal insisted that Kashmiri Muslims have been maintaining and preserving these shrines for the past two decades (since the forced exodus of the Hindu community), and hence, as locals and also as the majority community, they must have an official role in the management committees. The National Conference MLA claimed this would help in better management and protection of Hindu religious places as there are now no Kashmiri Hindus in the Valley (or a miniscule number only). Kamal argued that when Hindus take out a religious procession, all preparations are made by local Muslims who also allow the route for it; hence their role must be defined.
This was strongly rebutted by CPM MLA M.Y. Tarigami who said the Bill should be passed in its present form, without delay. He opposed inclusion of Muslims in temple managements pointing out that Kashmiri Pandits are not included in the Waqf Board, and said a very wrong message has been being sent. Tarigami was supported by independent MLA Engineer Abdul Rashid, who said that while the Bill should be passed, Kashmiri Pandits should also come back to the State and face the same hardships faced by Muslims. “They can’t wait till the last bullet is stopped…. Nobody had deliberately encroached upon temple land, rather people have saved it”, he emphasised.
Harsh Dev Singh of the Panther’s Party urged the government to provide financial assistance to maintain and protect Hindu religious places in the Valley and to clarify how it planned to remove encroachments. The Jammu State Morcha pressed for immediate passage of the Bill. Jammu West MLA Chaman Lal Gupta charged that had local people been preserving the temples against encroachment, there would have been no need for the Bill.
In fact, in a written reply to a query raised by Chaman Lal Gupta, the State Government admitted that over 208 out of 438 temples had been damaged over the years, but denied any encroachments had taken place. Of these, the greatest damage – which was not specified – took place in Srinagar (57 temples), followed by Anantnag district (56).
Despite this situation, in the recently concluded Budget Session, only the National Conference (Javed Dar, Nasir Aslam Wani, Dr Mustafa Kamal, Aijaz Jan, Peer Afaq) and Congress (Ashok Kumar) MLAs suggested the Bill be referred to the Select Committee. The People’s Democratic Party was boycotting the session and hence cannot be blamed for failure to pass the legislation.
The latest incident of iconoclasm at the newly discovered Shiva shrine in the Pir Panjal range in Banihal has underlined the urgent necessity for legislation to protect and preserve the Hindu religious and cultural heritage of the State. On the first day of Navratras, April 11, the All Parties Migrants Coordination Committee (APMCC) visited the cave shrine with a procession of scores of devotees and performed the first puja.
This ancient 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. On the day of the first Navratra, devotees trekked up the steep slopes to offer prayers at the shrine which had been rediscovered after over a century. The cave was huge, and the end could not be seen with naked eye.
The cave shrine and its icons are an intrinsic part of the distinctive religious heritage of Kashmiri Hindus, which find mention in texts like Neelmat Purana and Rajatarangni. Their historical and cultural value is beyond monetary value, and the protection and preservation of this heritage is a national duty. That is why Hindus have been demanding an early passage of the Shrines Bill, a promise on which the Chief Minister reneged.
Locals reported that after the yatra and puja, miscreants reputedly aligned with a separatist faction reached the cave, sprawled vulgar graffiti on the walls, and damaged and removed an icon of Shiva. 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 on April 17; the cave is reportedly sealed.
The incident illustrates the urgency for an institutional mechanism to protect and preserve the temples and shrines of Kashmir. Since the exodus of the Hindu community, the land mafia, in collusion with the staff of the departments of revenue and administration, has been annexing temple properties with impunity. Several temple lands have been sold or seized illegally, and unauthorised constructions allowed by municipal and town area authorities.
Many temples are in ruins; in March 2013, a huge fire destroyed a portion of the famous Chakreshwar Temple complex on Hari Parbat, Srinagar. In fact, 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 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).
Kashmiri Hindus have been protesting and demanding an early passage of the Bill for years. Yet, despite repeated assurances from the ruling party, and unanimous support from Opposition members to pass the Hindu Shrines Bill, the National Conference-Congress coalition referred the Bill to a House Select Committee on April 5, on grounds of alleged loopholes in the proposed legislation. MY Tarigami, and Engineer Abdul Rashid had pressed for passing the Bill as it stood and bringing in changes, if needed, at a later stage.
But it was not meant to be, and Hindus and their temples were cheated once again. Two days later, on April 7 (the session ended on April 5), Union Minister for New Renewable Energy and National Conference president Dr Farooq Abdullah promised the community that the Bill would be passed in the autumn (September) session this year. Whether or not this is just another hollow promise can only be gauged in September.