When a teary-eyed Mehbooba Mufti offered milk to Goddess Ragnya Devi at Kheer Bhawani, 27 kilometres from here on Sunday, she became first head of Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir in a long time to perform puja at Tulmul’s famous Hindu temple.
The chief minister, later, raised her hands in prayer for peace and prosperity in the state, a gesture that touched the hearts of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits gathered for the ceremony, who seek separate colonies to be able to return to the militancy-affected homeland. “She is head of the state; and our religious texts say that if a king or queen offers puja, it’s good omen,” said Sanjay Tickoo of Kashmiri Sangarsh Samiti, an association of Pandits who stayed back in the valley.
The CM’s visit did evoke protest, as pilgrims complained about the lack of facilities at the shrine. “What is she doing? We have never seen so much ill management. There are no mobile toilets and no electricity in the ones we have. We were not even given blankets,” said Maharaj Krishan, a Pandit from Jammu.
Kashmiri Pandits from all over the country return to the state on this most important festival of the community. While Kashmiri Muslims make arrangements for the fair, the Hindus hold night-long prayers at the temple. Nasir, a local Muslim, sells not only ‘chunris’ (long scarf) and essence sticks for the puja but also homemade ‘prasad’ (food offered to the Goddess). After 30 years, the Kheer Bhawani festival and the Muslim holy month of fasting, Ramzan, have coincided.
At Tulmul, many (mostly Pandits who did not migrate) seem to be affected by the recent controversy over the proposed resettlement townships in Kashmir.
National and regional political parties, as well as separatist groups had reacted, and the valley shut down in protest many times in the past one month. For the first time in many years, a pilgrim car was pelted with stones, injuring a women and a girl of 16. Krishan, a displaced Pandit, sees politics behind the controversy. “Give me 2 marlas in my village, I will return. All this is drama; no one wants us to come back. They create the controversy every year, days before the Kheer Bhawani festival, and then forget it again,” he said. Daisy Pandita, another migrant from Jammu, agrees. “There is no political will. The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) has absolute majority in the Centre and a government in the state. If they decide, who can stop them. They have been tossing us like football. For them, Kashmiri Pandits are just a poll plank; why would they the issue to be resolved,” she said.
Daisy’s husband, K Pandita, migrated from Handwara in North Kashmir at 21. “From a palatial house, we moved into a tent; and lived there for five years and in a one-room accommodation for another four. Why wouldn’t I want to come back,” he said. Daisy says a transit accommodation is “best till we feel it’s safe to return to our villages”.
A little away from the Panditas, two elderly women recall old times. Jai Kishori Dhar and Manasi Kaul have both returned to the valley after 26 years. “I cried when I saw the roads and the shrine after such a long time,” said Kaul. While the elderly are yearning to return to their roots, the generation born away from Kashmir doesn’t see resettlement as an option. “There are no job avenues here. Kashmir is a beautiful place that has no future for us,” say Vivek Bhat, in his 20s. “Why would we come to a place where people don’t consider self Indian. I think they are taught this in school. I went to my father’s friend once and everywhere in the streets was graffiti saying ‘Indians and dogs not allowed’,” says Vivek, while friends Praful Bhat, Rishab Bali, and Ashish Raina agree.
Navin Raina, who left Kashmir at 6, says the resettlement issue will die down when the older generation is no more. ``We get peace when we come to Kashmir but I wouldn’t want my two daughters to come and study here amid strikes, shutdowns, and no system of schooling,” he adds. Raina and friend Sunil Bhat, however, hope for the return of normalcy. `”Saner voices from both communities have to come forward and forget the past,” says Raina.
If there are opportunities and jobs, they believe the youth might be tempted to return.