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Swastik Bhat’s family has great faith in Ragnya Devi, better known as Kheer Bhawani, one of the most revered deities for Kashmiri Pandits. Bhat visits the temple frequently and was last here in January amid the snow, in search of solace.
Each year, thousands of Kashmiri Pandits from across the country throng the Kheer Bhawani temple in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district to celebrate Zyeth Atham, on the eighth day of the Hindu calendar’s Jyestha month.
Devotees begin arriving at the temple days ahead of the Zyeth Atham, and camp at the temple’s premises. “It used to be a huge affair, but this time, there are only a few people,” said Bhat. “I miss the festivity and the rush. Something feels missing.”
Only a Fraction of the Usual Turnout
Every year, devotees would jostle to pray before the idol of the deity, housed in a marble temple inside the sacred spring whose waters would be carpeted by offerings of flowers and milk. But this year, only a few people were seen practising the usual rituals, a fraction of whom were Kashmiri Pandits.
The number of Kashmiri Pandit devotees arriving at the temple this year paled in contrast with even 2021, when the Union Territory was battling COVID-19, said Bhat. “This time, it is not even a fraction of that. Most of the devotees here today are tourists [non-Kashmiri Hindus] and VIPs [officials of the J&K administration],” he added.
The annual festivities were muted in the last two years owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a trickle of devotees coming in to pay obeisance. But this year, on 8 June, the Kheer Bhawani Mela lacked fervour for another reason: an unabated wave of target killings by militants.
'I am Looking at a Loss of Rs 70,000'
The deterioration of the security situation in Kashmir, evident in the wave of targeted killings by militants across the Valley, has led to heightened security measures for the pilgrimage this year. Additional troops were deployed to guard the route to the temple, in addition to metal detectors and x-ray scanners.
There was a perceptible unease among devotees. Several Kashmiri Pandits refused to speak to the press, and those who did declined to speak about the situation. “There are very few people here because of the targeted killings,” said a woman devotee, a resident of Srinagar, requesting anonymity. “There is an atmosphere of fear.”
Some decided to make the pilgrimage at the last moment. Ravi, a former government employee who now lives in New Delhi, said he was initially apprehensive of the security situation. “We were apprehensive because there was a call for boycotting the pilgrimage,” he said. Ravi booked a flight for himself and his wife just a day earlier, after “assessing the situation via those who had already come here”. He said, “We asked them about the ground situation, and even though there were very few who had come, we decided to take a chance at the last moment.”
The dampened festivities have also hit local traders who put up stalls in the temple each year. This year, the number of stalls was lower and there was little business. Nisar Ahmad, a local from Tulmul, is one such stall owner.
Ahmad is a carpenter but takes a few days off to put up a stall of pooja essentials each year to make a quick profit. This year, he estimates that the pilgrim rush was down by 75 per cent. “I am looking at a loss of Rs 70,000 for the supplies I had bought in anticipation of the pilgrim rush.”
'Attention Being Diverted from Protests'
This year is also the first time that the celebrations were officially held at the temple since the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019. In the last nearly three years since then, militant attacks have been scattered but more targeted.
A widely held belief that New Delhi is effecting a demographic change in Kashmir — fuelled by a series of laws allowing outsiders permanent residency and land ownership, and, more recently, the delimitation — has propelled minorities on the radar of the militants.
Since October last year, militants have killed more than a dozen members of minority groups as well as local Muslims, accusing them of collusion with the state. Ahead of the mela, the Mata Kheer Bhawani Asthapan Trust, a Kashmiri Pandit non-profit based in Jammu, had appealed for the cancellation of the annual pilgrimage.
A large number of the Kashmiri Pandits displaced in the 1990s live in Jammu, about three hundred kilometres from Ganderbal. They make the annual pilgrimage in scores of buses and private vehicles but have avoided the pilgrimage this year owing to apprehensions about their safety.
According to reports, a little more than 200 Kashmiri Pandits had been ferried from Jammu to Tulmul ahead of the Zyeth Atham.
The Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, a grouping of Kashmiri Pandits who never migrated, criticised the administration for politicising the annual affair to further its narrative of normalcy.
“Finally, Govt succeded in sending few busses under heavy security to Kashmir to Kheer Bhawani Asthapan & with them Normalcy returned to Valley,” the organisation said in a tweet on 7 June. “In between target killings and relocation demand by employees, Kheer Bhawani Mela became point of Ego for Adm. (sic)”
The KPSS said that “stooges of the ruling government” were using the annual affair to divert attention from the ongoing protest by Kashmiri Pandits government employees, who are demanding relocation from the Valley.
Kashmiri Pandits, the group said, are living “in a depressed environment due to continuous life threats”.
'Go Back, Go Back, Tourists Go Back'
On 6 June, an unidentified devotee shot a video inside the premises that went viral. It showed the Kheer Bhawani premises deserted. “The entire premises is empty,” the grief-stricken woman is heard saying as she pans the camera, with a prayer for mercy and for punishment for those who have pushed the community into despair.
In another video circulated online recently, a group of angry Kashmiri Pandits were seen heckling non-Kashmiri devotees at the Kheer Bhawani temple. They were angered by the killing of a Hindu teacher, Rajni Bala, in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district. “Aren’t you ashamed, Hindus are being killed?” a woman is heard shouting at the devotee while police officers attempt to pacify the crowd. Others shouted, “go back, go back, tourists go back”.
As the Jammu and Kashmir administration struggles to curb the targeted attacks, several Kashmiri Pandits have begun to feel that they have been used for politics.
In several protests held since the killing of government employee Rahul Bhat last month, Kashmiri Pandits have repeatedly asserted that they were being used to further the Modi government’s narrative of normalcy in Kashmir.
Mohit Bhan, a Kashmiri Pandit with the People’s Democratic Party, said the Kheer Bhawani mela was symbolic of Kashmir’s syncretic culture, and that it was the first time in the last decade that the annual pilgrimage saw such low participation.
On Claims of 'Normalcy'
The pilgrimage is a major event for Kashmiri Pandits, for whom paying obeisance at the temple is also a physical link with their roots in their homeland. It also serves as an occasion for reunion with their Muslim friends and neighbours.
The mela was promoted by state governments with high-ranking officials, including sitting Chief Ministers, ensuring their presence at the temple to greet devotees.
“This festival used to be a platform for everybody to bridge the gap that has been there since the 1990s,” said Bhan, adding that the way the Jammu & Kashmir administration has responded to the ground reality has given rise to scepticism, because of which “the enthusiasm is missing”.
“The administration doesn’t want to accept that there is a problem because they have said so much about the situation post-abrogation [of Article 370], that everything is hunky-dory,” he said. “To take a U-turn from that is going to hurt them a lot, but in turn, it is hurting us.”
(Rayan Naqash is an independent journalist based in Kashmir. He tweets @rayan_naqash)