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Fear reduces number of Pandit pilgrims for annual mela to a trickle

The annual mela at the revered temple, also known as the Ragnya Devi temple, is among the most significant religious programmes for the Kashmiri Pandit community.

Kashmiri Pandits leave for Kheer Bhawani mela from Jammu Tuesday. (PTI)

Only 250 pilgrims from Jammu Tuesday left for Central Kashmir’s Kheer Bhawani temple in a heavily-protected government convoy — a sharp drop in footfall that comes amid the targeted killings in the Valley.

The annual mela at the revered temple, also known as the Ragnya Devi temple, is among the most significant religious programmes for the Kashmiri Pandit community.

In 2019, around 2,500-3,000 pilgrims had left for the temple in Ganderbal district’s Tulmulla village from Jammu in government-arranged buses, a senior official said. There was no yatra in 2020 and 2021 owing to the pandemic.

On Tuesday, a day before Ashtami — considered the most auspicious day at the temple — only 400-500 pilgrims were present, said sources. In 2019, a total of 20,000-25,000 pilgrims had arrived, said a Kashmiri Pandit leader, King C Bharti.

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Initially, 1,400 pilgrims had got themselves registered with the Jammu and Kashmir administration’s Relief and Rehabilitation Department for Migrants. The department accordingly arranged 50 buses to take them to Kashmir under security cover.

Many of them later cancelled their registration. And on Tuesday, only 14 buses left from Nagrota on the outskirts of Jammu city— two of these vehicles were spares in case of a breakdown.

Some officials attributed the decreased footfall this year to the targeted killings as well as the resultant boycott calls by protesting Kashmiri Pandit employees.

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Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner (Migrants) Ashok Pandita, however, said more pilgrims will arrive on Ashtami. “We have kept 25 buses at different locations in the Valley for transportation of Kashmiri Pandits,” he said, adding that two buses carrying pilgrims were coming from Delhi as well.

But the official source mentioned above said the number of pilgrims having a darshan at the shrine during the mela is not likely to go beyond 1,000-1,500.

Militants have killed eight people from the minority community in Kashmir since May 1 — five of them were civilians and three were off-duty policemen.

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Asked about the low turnout amid the killings, Jammu Divisional Commissioner Ramesh Kumar, who flagged off the buses, told reporters: “The government has facilitated the pilgrims who registered for the yatra… The pilgrims will not face any difficulty in performing the yatra. Security will be ensured en route and at the shrine.”

Kumar said the pilgrims will have ‘darshan’ at the temple on Wednesday and return to Jammu a day later.“The government has made all necessary arrangements for the pilgrims for safe and secure pilgrimage,” said the Divisional Commissioner.

Most Kashmiri Pandit employees posted in the Valley under the Prime Minister’s employment package will likely not participate in the mela amid the protests over their security.

Kashmiri Pandit organisations that usually organised langars at the temple and en route from Jammu had already announced their decision to stay away in order to express solidarity with the agitating migrant Pandits and other minority community employees working in the Valley.

The Ramakrishna Mahasamelan Ashram in Achabal area of Anantnag, which has been organizing langar for visiting pilgrims inside the temple for over two decades, has decided not to do so this year.

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“We had procured ration and made arrangements for providing food to 20,000-25,000 pilgrims and had even sought permission from Dharmarth Trust which manages the temple and the district administration as well,” said B L Bhat, chairman of the administrative council of the mission. “However, in view of the incidents of targeted killing of minorities following a sense of fear and protests by them, we have decided to cancel our programme this time.”

Police officials said a three-tier security system, comprising J-K Police, army and paramilitary forces, has been placed around Tulmulla, the village that houses the temple. There will be heightened security on the road leading to the temple as well.

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Officials said local residents have also been taken into confidence to give a sense of security to the pilgrims.

Kheer Bhawani melas are organised at five shrines across Kashmir — Ragnya Bhagwati in Ganderbal, Manzgam in Kulgam, Devsar in Kulgam, Logripora in Anantnag and Tikkar in Kupwara. Among these temples, the Tulmulla temple, nestled in the shade of mammoth Chinar trees, witnesses massive gatherings of Pandits from Kashmir and different parts of the country.

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A number of minority community employees, including Kashmiri Pandits posted in the Valley under the PM’s employment package, have returned to Jammu for safety reasons.

Between 30-40 families returned to Jagti township near Nagrota on Thursday night following the killing of two minority community people, including Vijay Kumar of Rajasthan, who worked as a bank manager in Kulgam.

“Do you think we can stay there when we are getting killed at point blank,” asked a migrant Kashmiri Pandit employee who also returned to Jammu from the Valley.

Meanwhile, those leaving Jammu for darshan at Kheer Bhawani temple said that though targeted killings have caused fear among the community, they were going there as they could not during the past two years. One of them said: “We will pray for peace in Jammu and Kashmir.”

(With inputs from Basharat Masood in Srinagar)

First published on: 08-06-2022 at 04:25:05 am
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