Srinagar: Last week, Union minister G. Kishan Reddy said the government of India will restore and reopen 50,000 closed temples in the Kashmir Valley.
The statement took Sanjay Tickoo, a prominent Kashmir Pandit leader, by surprise. Fighting for preservation of temples in the Valley since 1989, Tickoo said 50,000 temples never existed in the state.
“These are exaggerated figures,” he told The Wire. “I don’t know where the minister has got the number from.”
‘No more than 4,000 temples’
According to Tickoo, there were 1,842 holy places including temples, springs, caves and trees in Kashmir.
“This includes 1,100 big and small temples,” Tickoo said. “In the entire state of J&K, we have not more than 4,000 temples.”
Tickoo heads Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS), a body of Kashmiri Hindus who stayed in the Valley and did not migrate, following the onset of militancy in 1989. Kashmiri Hindus are locally called Pandits, even though the term is understood to also specifically mean Kashmiri Brahmins.
The KPSS, according to Tickoo, works for the welfare of Pandit families and maintains a record of their population and assets, including temples.
The Pandit body has been persistently seeking out temples across Kashmir. In 2007, it filed a petition in J&K high court seeking directions to the state government for renovation of the temples.
“That time, we submitted a complete list of temples to the high court, following which directions were issued to the government to undertake a survey to locate and protect these religious places across the Valley,” Tickoo said.
“After completion of the survey, government informed the court that there are 464 temples in Kashmir, out of which 174 were damaged.”
“[However] we stand by our figure [of 1,100 temples]. Majority of them awaits renovation,” Tickoo said.
While Srinagar city is home to 125 temples, south Kashmir has the most number of religious places.
Tickoo said the Union minister’s statement has endangered the lives of Pandits living in the Valley.
“We feel insecure after the minister issued the statement,” Tickoo said.
When an anti-India armed insurgency broke out in Kashmir in 1989, a majority of Kashmiri Pandit families migrated to Jammu and other parts of India.
However dozens of families including that of Tickoo’s chose to stay back and live in Muslim neighbourhoods.
According to KPSS, there are 808 Pandit families, comprising 2,765 people, living in Kashmir.
Tickoo lives in the Barbarshah locality of Srinagar, an area inhabited by three Pandit families. It is close to Habba Kadal, another locality where some Pandits families live on the banks of river Jhelum.
Tickoo said members of the community from across Kashmir would meet once in a fortnight. But for past two months no such meeting has taken place because of the communication blockade and restrictions.
“We have no information about the well-being of our members,” Tickoo said.
On August 5, the government of India unilaterally read down Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and bifurcated the state into two Union Territories. The move stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its separate flag and constitution.
Fearing backlash from people of Kashmir the state authorities had imposed restrictions on public movement and enforced a communication blockade. Though the government has lifted movement restrictions, the gag on internet and mobile services is still in force.
‘We fear worst’
Tickoo fears the reading down of Article 370 would polarise the situation in the Valley.
“We fear worst for us. Many among us are now thinking of leaving our homeland,” said the KPSS president.
He said the Pandit families who didn’t leave Kashmir have seen tougher times in the past. “But we are feeling insecure now,” he said.
Tickoo termed the reading down of J&K’s special status as an attack on the identity of Kashmir and questioned the method that was adopted by New Delhi for doing away with the constitutional provision.
“When you put 1.25 crore population in a cage and arbitrarily take decisions, it doesn’t send a healthy message to people,” Tickoo said.
He criticised the government’s move to put a gag on the internet and snap mobile service.
“With no internet and working mobiles, I feel as if we have been pushed back to the Stone Age,” said Tickoo.
There is no word from the government on the restoration of the services. In a press conference on September 12, government spokesperson Rohit Kansal justified the gag, saying there were fears Pakistan and militants might misuse the internet to foment trouble in the Valley.
The situation in Kashmir continues to remain far from normal. While markets are closed in the Valley, public transport is off the roads and educational institutions are shut.
The government’s repeated attempts to reopen schools have failed. Students have not been attending schools as parents prefer to keep their children at home, fearing for their safety.
‘Kashmir a political issue’
Tickoo said the voice of Kashmiri Pandits who have stayed back despite facing all odds hardly matters for New Delhi.
“They (government of India) are not concerned about what 808 Pandit families living in Kashmir have to say. They are more concerned about migrants who have given their reaction on the issue,” said Tickoo. “If we speak the truth we will be labelled as anti-nationals.”
He said the KPSS has criticised the government when needed.
“We have issued statements criticising the government, and against militants and separatists also. Today, there is so much of uncertainty and fear that you think it is better to maintain silence,” said Tickoo. “Else they can book you under the Public Safety Act.”
Hundreds of people in Kashmir including mainstream politicians, separatists, lawyers and businessmen have been booked under the Act. Under PSA, a person can be jailed without trial up to two years.
“In democracy, criticism and voice of opposition cannot be labelled anti-national. They too are important,” he said.
Tickoo believes Kashmir is a political issue. He says BJP’s claim that the reading down of Article 370 would pave way for development and end corruption in the state was eyewash.
“Have the rest of the states in India seen development in the past five years (of BJP rule)? Has the government ended corruption in other states?” Tickoo asked.