Tears Flow As Hindu Refugees Pray At Abandoned Kashmir Shrine

11 June 2008

Srinagar: Thousands of Hindus who fled their homes in revolt-hit Indian Kashmir nearly two decades ago prayed on Wednesday at a revered temple many had not visited for years. Thousands of refugees converged on the Kheer Bhawani temple in Tulmulla, 30 kilometres (20 miles) northeast of Indian Kashmir's summer capital Srinagar, showering petals on Hindu gods inside. An estimated 200,000 Hindus fled the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley where Srinagar is located after the insurgency against Indian rule erupted in 1989 and settled in the southern part of the state, Jammu, and other parts of India. They hugged and kissed and many wept amid tight security as they visited the temple for the annual festival, which officials said saw its largest turnout in years. The strong attendance for the festival came against the backdrop of a four-year-old peace process between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, who have fought three wars, two over Kashmir. 'I don't want to die in Jammu. I want to return to Srinagar to die in peace,' said Roshan Lal, 68, who said he and his family of four fled Srinagar in 1990 after several Hindus were killed by suspected militants. Lal said the peace process had given him a hope that he can return one day to the city, considered the urban hub of the revolt. 'I sincerely prayed for everlasting peace and our return to our ancestral homes,' he said as he laboriously climbed the stairs to the temple. Some Muslim Kashmiri separatist politicians have urged Kashmiri Hindus, known popularly as Pandits, to return. However, most have sold off property. Others have lost it to arson attacks. 'Kashmiri Pandits are our brothers and they should return to their homes,' said Shabir Shah, a key Muslim separatist leader who was present at the temple to welcome the refugees. The average number of daily insurgency-related deaths in the region has fallen to two from 10 at the start of the decade. In April, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said refugees who wanted to return to their homes would be given 750,000 rupees (18,600 dollars) per family. 'The time is ripe for their return,' said Muslim shopkeeper Mohammed Yasin as he stood outside the temple. 'They are part of us and we are incomplete without them.'