Maha Kumbh in Kashmir:Spate of proposed yatras puts Valley on edge

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A Maha Kumbh is being organized in Kashmir at the confluence of the Jhelum and Sindh rivers in Ganderbal district on June 14. The religious event that will coincide with the now aborted new yatra to Abhinavgupta cave at Beerwah in Badgam district is creating a deep unease in Valley where the successive attempts at starting new yatras coupled with planned Sainik and Kashmiri Pandit colonies are perceived as a part of a larger design “to dilute Valley’s Muslim identity and change its demographic character”.

The event is being held by the Maha Kumbh Celebration Committee after 75 years, says its convenor Dr A K Kaul. The last Kumbh, he recalled, was held on 4 June 1941 and was attended by thousands of Hindus who had come from many parts of the then undivided India. 

“Then there was no India, Pakistan. Devotees had come from Lahore, Karachi, Gujarat, Delhi and as far away as Chennai,” Kaul said. But tragically, the seven members of one Tickoo family had lost their lives when their boat capsized while crossing over to the little islet in the middle of the Jhelum-Sindh confluence marked by an old Chinar tree. “Their bodies were never found”.

 The spot of confluence also has a Shiv Lingam under the Chinar trunk. People reach the islet in a boat and worship there. However, the Kumbh is fundamentally about a bath in sacred waters of the merged holy rivers – Jhelum, also called Vitasta in Kashmir and Sindh (Indus).

Kaul expects thousands to turn up. The event will be attended by the Kashmiri Pandits who have returned to Valley to attend the annual Kheer Bhawani festival at the nearby Tulamulla village. “We also expect devotees from the other parts of the country,” Kaul said adding the place was well know in India. “First Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru and the Bollywood actor Shammi Kapoor’s ashes were immersed at the confluence as per their respective wills”.

However, the planned congegation is playing to a deep seated  fear in Valley about the attempts being made to interfere with J&K’s demography. More so, with a parallel yatra being led by a Sangh Parivar allied organization  Acharaya Abhinavgupta Sheshadri Samroh Samiti to Abhinavgupta cave in village Beerwah of the central Kashmir’s Budgam district on June 11.

 “We will be organizing Pooja at Kheer Bawani in Ganderbal on June 10 and other temples before starting the yatra to the Abhinavgupta Cave the following day for holding Pooja there too,” the conveyer of the yatra, Ajay Bharti told media.

 The Samiti, Bharti has said, is an alliance of various organization with members from all over India and is headed by the founder of the Art of Living foundation Sri Sri Ravi Shanker.

 Earlier this year, RSS revealed its plans to commemorate Abhinavgupta, a tenth century Kashmiri Shaivite philosopher. RSS general secretary Suresh (Bhaiyyaji) Joshi said in a statement that a yatra to the philosopher’s cave will celebrate his literary and spiritual contributions 

 “It would be a true homage to Acharya Abhinavgupta to enlighten the whole world, especially the youth of Kashmir, with the life and deeds of the legend who interpreted the ancient spiritual and cultural heritage of Kashmir in a new unifying philosophy with the challenges of times, in this era of ideological fanaticism,” the statement read.

 Soon after the plan for yatra was made public, a Muslim religious organisation from the Beerwah, Anjuman Mazharul Haq  threatened to hit the roads if the pilgrimage went ahead. The organization said the cave was used by a Muslim saint Mian Shah Sahab for prayers and that there was no historical evidence to support the RSS claim about its use by Abhinavgupta. .

 “It is our request to not to forcibly hold a yatra to the cave. And if it is still done, it can disturb the traditional amity between the communities,” Anjuman Mazharul Haq patron, Moulana Syed Abdul Lateef Bukhari told media in Srinagar in an informal meeting after state government denied him permission to hold a press conference. ‘

 He displayed a court judgement of 2014 which, according to him, stated “that the tale of Abhinavgupta was not based on any historical evidence but it seems to be a story concocted by the petitioners”

 However, earlier a Muslim activist Tanveer Ahmad had got the court to stop the mining near the cave by the state’s Geology and Mining Department, pleading it had religious significance for Hindus.  

 But in Valley, where a discourse about the centre’s alleged moves to change demography has acquired a deep resonance, the yatras seem part of a deliberate design. In 2015, a Kashmiri Pandit group,  All Parties Migrants Coordination Committee’s decision to start yatras to the  freshwater high  altitude lakes of Kausarnag and Gangabal had threatened to tip Valley into mass unrest.  This is despite the fact that the yatra to Kausarnag had been going on for the preceding five years through Reasi in Jammu province, but the Pandits wanted to mount it from Valley, with Kulgam town as its base camp.

But after the pilgrimages  faced public opposition, the state government held back permission for them. And this, in turn, triggered an equal and opposite reaction from Jammu province, providing politicians handy constituencies to pander to. 

 What alarms people more in Valley more is that these pilgrimages do not seem to have evolved naturally out of a sense of religious obligation. Their sudden and coordinated emergence in recent years have bred suspicions.

 And when Kashmiri Pandits oppose this denial, demanding a right to restore their religious practises in Valley, it often triggers a full scale identity war where Kashmir gets pitted against the rest of the country.

Adding to this smouldering cauldron  is the contemplated government plan to build a Sainik colony for ex-servicemen and a ‘transit accommodation’ for Kashmiri Pandits. State Government’s assurances that the colonies would not violate J&K’s constitutional safeguards under Article 370  haven’t helped calm the nerves.

“Kashmiris are not against the Indian people or their religion but they are struggling for their birth and basic rights. We have always welcomed the Yatris and tourists from India but we cannot compromise with our Muslim and cultural identity,” Hurriyat G chairman Syed Ali Geelani said.  “We will resist every such move which is aimed to challenge the Muslim majority status of the state”.

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