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Hindus reclaim 5,000 years of history

By restoring temples in the Muslim region of Kashmir, the Pandit community is also preserving its past. Andrew Buncombe reports

At a Hindu temple in the centre of Srinagar, Sanjay Tickoo scattered petals, lit a candle and quietly voiced the words of a prayer. He then stepped backwards, slid shut a metal grille and carefully locked-up the premises with a sturdy padlock.

Twenty five years ago, Mr Tickoo's actions would have been unremarkable. Though the Kashmir valley has for centuries had a Muslim majority, its Hindu population – commonly known as Pandits – were always an integral part of the community. Some Hindus claim their history here dates back thousands of years.

When a separatist militancy gathered pace two decades ago, up to 400,000 Hindus either fled or were driven out. Many people were killed and most of their properties and temples were sold, destroyed or taken over by the security forces who had been sent in to counter the militants.

But over the last couple of years, something special has been happening in Kashmir. Mr Tickoo and other members of the small Hindu population that remained have set about restoring the temples, shrines and other sacred places. He claims several dozen such places have been repaired or reactivated.

"After the mass exodus of the Pandits, around 98 per cent of the temples were not attended. Only 23 temples have remained in constant use," said 42-year-old Mr Tickoo, president of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangarsh Samiti, an NGO.

"We are doing it to improve Kashmiri society. But when we say we have a 5,000-year history in Kashmir ... the history belongs to me only because of my presence in the valley. My identity is directly linked to the temples. If they disappear I cannot claim we have a 5,000-year history in the valley."

The plight of Kashmir's Hindus is one of the overlooked tragedies of south Asia. While Kashmir's Muslim population has attracted international attention for its long and often violent struggle for autonomy, which has resulted in the Indian authorities dispatching hundreds of thousands of troops and paramilitaries, the Pandits are often forgotten, even in their own country. Today, it is estimated there are fewer than 4,000 still here in the valley.

The state and federal authorities insist they are doing what they can to help those Hindus who want to return and some job schemes and housing projects are under way. But after 20 years away from the valley, many are anxious about such a move – concerned about security, finding a livelihood and how their children might get on. In cities such as Delhi and Jammu, Pandit communities struggle to keep their customs and traditions alive.

Some have sought to portray the pre-militancy relationship between the Hindus and Muslims as one of gentle harmony. Others say that friendships and interactions were more likely at an individual level than between groups and that the situation was sometimes tense.

"Tension had always existed between the two communities. Pandits were used as the administrative class and were better educated," said Dr Siddiq Wahid, an activist and former vice-chancellor of Kashmir's Islamic University of Science & Technology.

Many senior figures within the Muslim community now say they regret the forced exodus of the Hindus. Mr Tickoo said his project to restore the temples involved working with Muslims who lived in the neighbourhoods where the buildings were located.

For instance, the temple in Srinagar where he performed the ritual prayer, which is next to a Hindu school and was reopened in January 2010, has an elderly Muslim guard who helped put out a fire that raged in 1994. "We hope the temple's glory slowly comes back," said 75-year-old Mohammad Bhatt, who still keeps watch over the building.

In some cases, Mr Tickoo and his supporters have resorted to hit-and-run techniques. Last year, they entered a Hindu complex in the city's Soura neighbourhood, which had been empty for a long time and was partly flooded, and lit a ritual fire to "reactivate" the temple. "Some people came in here and lit a fire, but the temple has not been reopened," a local man, Imtiaz Mohammed, said as evening fell across the city.

The challenge Mr Tickoo and others face is underscored by the fact that the 23 temples which have been active since 1989, when the militancy broke out, have units of armed paramilitaries living inside, behind barbed wire, to protect the buildings.

Security forces have been at the 200-year-old Ganesha temple in the Ganpatyar neighbourhood for more than 20 years. "There is no limit to the importance of this temple," said Kuldeep Ambardar, a government official who left Srinagar 20 years ago for Jammu, and who was visiting with his family.

CL Bhat, who heads another Hindu organisation in the city, said relations between the two communities had improved – "the government has put the troops in the temples – not us".

Yet he says the future of the valley's Hindu population remained parlous. Despite efforts to encourage people to return, numbers continued to fall. "We are trying to stop the decline of the population. But the children who are educated want jobs and they are leaving for Delhi or other places. The numbers are going down," he added.

Those involved in the project to restore the temples say they have no alternative but to continue their efforts. One of the most impressive reconstructions is at the Kathleshwar temple, alongside the Jhelum river that cuts through the city.

On a recent morning, visitors were welcomed with warm milk and almonds by Sudershan Das, a shaven-headed priest of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

Mr Das grew up in the traditionally Hindu neighbourhood then travelled for 20 years before returning to Kashmir to rebuild the temple in 2007. Today it sits amid elegantly carved three-storey wooden houses, vacated by their Hindu owners and now occupied by the ubiquitous security forces.

"When I came here, the place was a shambles. We have rebuilt it," said Mr Das. Sitting on a rush mat, looking out over a view which ended in snow-capped mountains, he detailed a story of how, when the area was abandoned, the temple was taken over by hooligans who tried to smash the stone lingam, which represents the Hindu god Shiva. "They used an axe but it broke the axe. Five days later that person died," he said emphatically.

As The Independent was leaving the temple, Archana Ganjoo was making her way in, navigating past the empty wooden houses. Ms Ganjoo said she had lived in the neighbourhood when she was a girl but that her family had left for Jammu in 1989, like so many others. This was her first time back.

As she looked up at the quiet houses, she reeled off the names of the families who had once occupied them and pointed to the location of a primary school she had attended. "It feels like I am back. I feel good," she said.

Then she made her way towards Mr Das and his temple and stepped inside to pray.

A disputed region

* Most of the Hindus, or Kashmiri Pandits, who fled the Kashmir valley, left in a matter of months between the end of 1989 and 1990 when an armed militancy by elements of the Muslim community demanding autonomy gathered pace.

* Many took the decision to leave after certain mosques broadcast demands for them to quit and newspapers printed similar messages.

* Gradually, the leadership of the Muslim community has accepted its responsibility for the exodus.

* Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, leader of a coalition of separatist organisations, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, said: "We cannot deny that they had to leave the valley in very difficult circumstances at a time when there was a lot of chaos."

* Farooq Abdullah, a former chief minister of the state and currently a federal minister in Delhi, said earlier this year: "It is our fault [that] the Kashmiri Hindus have been made homeless and forced to live outside."