With tears and roses, Kashmiri Hindus pray for return

via Reuters published on June 4, 2006

TULMULA, India, June 4 (Reuters) – Thousands of Kashmiri Hindus, who fled an Islamic insurgency in the Himalayan state years ago, gathered on Sunday at a holy shrine in the strife-torn region to pray for an early return to their homes.

More than 250,000 Kashmiri Hindus, known as “Pandits”, left their burning homes in droves when a revolt broke out against Indian rule in Kashmir in 1989.

Since then, thousands of migrant Pandits gather every year on this day at the white marbled shrine surrounded by huge green chinar trees and shimmering streams, chant hymns, and walk barefoot carrying marigolds, rose petals and earthenware lamps.

Hundreds of gun-wielding policemen and soldiers guarded the Kheerbawani temple, the holiest shrine of Kashmiri Hindus in the disputed region, as the pilgrims prayed.

“Oh Goddess! return peace to mother Kashmir, so that we return back,” 75-year-old Mautharaji Koul cried in front of the temple. “I want to die here,” Koul told Reuters as tears rolled down her eyes.

Koul was visiting Kashmir for the first time since the outbreak of the revolt that has killed more than 45,000 people.

While some Kashmiri Hindus have made their way to New Delhi and other parts of the country, thousands of bitter and disillusioned Pandit migrants live in abysmal conditions in the state’s winter capital, Jammu, with families of five to six packed in a room.

“The shade of the chinars, the cool breeze of my Kashmir. These memories bring tears and make us feel quite nostalgic most of the times,” said Bansi Lal, a 45-year-old government employee.

“From the past 16 years we have lived in a pathetic condition in Jammu.”

The National Human Rights Commission puts the number of migrant Kashmiri Hindus at 300,000, the largest migration since the 1947 partition of the subcontinent into mainly Hindu India and Islamic Pakistan.

Kashmiri Hindus, most of them teachers and government employees, and Muslims had lived in harmony since the 13th century when Islam first became the majority religion in the region.

Although Kashmir’s moderate separatists and the government have been repeatedly urging them to return for some years now, many young Pandits remain sceptical.

Separatist militants have said they would not allow the minority Hindus to return to their ancestral homes in Kashmir and have attacked those who stayed back.

“I don’t want to die here like my father, I still remember the horrible day when two terrorists came to our home, killed my father. He was writhing in blood, I was too young to help him,” said Rajkumar Bhat, 23.

“I will never return to this place,” added Bhat who along with her mother and sister now lives in the Hindu-dominated area of Jammu.

In one of the bigger and more brutal attacks, guerrillas shot dead 24 Pandits, including 11 women and two children, in a remote hamlet in 2003 provoking outrage across India.



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