On Pilgrimage, Kashmiri Hindus See Hope For Return
23 June 2007
Khirbhawani: After 17 years in exile, Hindus who fled Kashmir following a revolt against Indian rule believe the time is ripe to return to their homeland. Chanting Sanskrit hymns and carrying roses, thousands of Kashmiri Hindus attended an annual pilgrimage to the heavily-guarded Khirbhawani temple on Saturday. Rebel violence is falling in the Himalayan kingdom and Sarla Bhat, a civil engineer now settled in New Delhi, noticed the improvement. 'I am visiting this place after seven years, I can see the situation has improved a lot,' he said. 'And that gives us hope ... hope for a return, to live in peace in this beautiful part of the world.' Outside the ancient white-marble temple, dozens of Kashmiri Muslim boys and girls were selling flowers, plants and lamps to Hindus. Police searched for explosives and frisked worshippers. Officials say more than 250,000 Hindus, known as Pandits in Muslim-dominated Kashmir, migrated to more secure homes across India at the start of the rebellion in 1989. It was the largest mass movement of people here since the 1947 partition of the subcontinent. 'Peace is returning to our homeland, I am sure. A long wait has ended, we will return,' said Raj Kumar, a 45-year-old Pandit now living in the mainly Hindu city of Jammu, winter capital of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. From the 13th century, when Islam became a majority religion in Kashmir, until 1989, Muslims lived side by side with Pandits. Violence has declined in Kashmir since India and Pakistan, who claim the region in full and have fought two wars over it, launched a cautious peace process in 2004. The state government and moderate Kashmiri separatists have been urging Pandits to return for years but the Hindus have been deterred by a series of attacks on those who stayed behind. 'Most of us want to return but we don't want security from the police or army, we want security and assurances from our Muslim brethren,' Mohan Lal Raina, 54, said. 'They (Pandits) are part of us and we are incomplete without them. We will ensure the safe and dignified return of Kashmiri Pandits,' said Muslim separatist leader Shabir Ahmad Shah after joining the Hindus at Khirbhawani.