The great temple game in Kashmir

Yoginder Kandhari
A decade back, a European, CEO of an Indian helicopter company, upon observing Yatris jostling for a helicopter ride to Amarnathji Cave, opined that religion in India was a huge business proposition. Nothing seems to have changed ever since. Even Amarnathji Shrine Board is seen pandering to the local business wont; treating annual pilgrimage more as a seasonal commercial activity than a sacred duty enjoined upon it by the statute. On being asked how Shrine Board prevents fleecing of Yatris by unscrupulous helicopter and tour operators, a young Babu, probably on his maiden assignment, parried the responsibility to J&K police confirming latent commercial intent. But, then, that is not core to the topic here.
Hindu religious assets in the Valley continue to be plundered with impunity. With advent of Islam in the Valley, and during Islamic rule thereafter, destruction of Hindu temples/Shrines and replacing those with Ibadatgahs (places of worship) of the new faith was a sacred religious duty. For last three decades now, usurping temple assets there has turned into a ‘sacred’ loot. Most conservative estimates peg worth of Hindu religious assets in the Valley at 30,000 Cr; Srinagar itself is home to assets worth 7,000 Cr. For real estate czars that indeed is a mouth-watering business opportunity.  Hence a race to gain control of these assets.
A visit to various Temples/ Shrines/Holy Springs/Shamshan Bhoomis in the Valley leaves one aghast at brazen encroachments of their assets, either through intimidation in an environment of conflict or through fraudulent/illegal sales.  Land mafia, militants and their sympathisers, politicians, Sadhus, administration- bureaucrats, police hierarchy and revenue officials -Hindu religious bodies and Trusts and many a black sheep within the Kashmiri Pandit community are part of this nexus. A walk on erstwhile Parbat parikrama bears a testimony to wholesale encroachments of temple properties. Three full-fledged townships have come up on land which was essentially annexed to the seat of Sharika, Kashmir’s presiding deity. Encroachers of iconic Satptrishi Asthapan straight facedly retort ‘where else could we go?’. Complicity of revenue officials, administration and militant-backed land mafia is evident. Otherwise, how could commercial buildings have come upon the land annotated Ahl-e-Hanood (belonging to Kashmiri Pandits) in revenue records.
After ‘purging’ Kashmir of Pandits and wresting their properties, grabbing Hindu temple assets was a natural progression for militant-backed land mafia. Current armed uprising gifted Kashmir a lawless society wherein administration, complicit or at best indifferent, allowed trampling of these vestiges of Hindu civilization in Kashmir. Politicians and people in state administration too resorted to numerous benami transactions to construct huge commercial complexes.
Casting aside any pretention to protect faith, even Sadhus turned wheeler-dealers in this reprehensible barter of temple property for monetary considerations.  It is a common knowledge that many among sadhus impersonated different ‘visages’ to sell temple properties at different places. Shockingly, even some top bureaucrats patronised these thugs either on the pretext of them belonging to Hindus faith or as a payback for their token assistance during Amarnathji Yatra. Whenever questioned, encroachers are quick to flaunt fraudulent sale deeds to claim ownership
Angered, a team of non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits (KPs) filed a Public Interest Litigation(PIL) in Supreme Court, in 2007, against unabated sale of temple assets in the Valley. However, SC advised them to move J&K High Court for the purpose. Justice Sunil Hali, in his interim judgment, in a case involving illegal sale of Baba Dharam Das Temple land, directed Kashmir Administration, firstly, to ensure that revenue authorities do not issue any Farad of Temple land to any one, secondly, to take custody of properties regarding which no transfer has been effected and, thirdly, to ensure protection of properties by taking necessary steps in shape of demarcation and fencing of same. Needless to mention that vested interests and communal bias in the administration precluded compliance of these court directions. While adjudicating on a contempt petition filed by these KPs, Justice Muzaffar Hussain Attar passed severe strictures against Divisional Commissioner Kashmir for his failure to file status report about 27 temples in Srinagar. Taking cognizance of the lackadaisical attitude of the administration, Justice Attar reminded it of constitutional obligation to uphold secular credentials. Even the report submitted thereafter remains as wishy-washy as administration’s indifference. Notwithstanding the tardy pace of court proceedings, litigants appear committed to their cause.
Sadly, KPs who have managed to take control of some shrines treat these assets as their private fiefdom. Invariably such people, as is rumoured, enjoy support and backing of some prominent Hindu outfits. Mostly, these managements do not believe in transparency. Often, cliques within managing committees take financial and administrative decisions that are then ratified during sham AGMs. Sansthas’ constitutions have cunningly been tweaked to perpetuate hold of a few individuals or to oust those who dare question them.  Repeated requests from members to make information, like Annual Balance Sheets, decisions taken, proceedings of AGMs etc, public by posting those on websites have been ignored. Such stubbornness has naturally led to many a legal battle and to fight those in courts these managements spend lakhs out of public funds. How can public funds be squandered by those who profess to dedicate themselves to social work? Such unscrupulous people appear to be handpicks of some powerful organisations who intend to gain overall control of Hindu religious assets in the Valley by placing their ‘own men’ at helm. Some even suggest that it is part of an incomprehensible grandiose strategy to augment Hindu presence in the Valley. It can’t get weirder than that.
It has also been observed that Trusts managing some prominent shrines in the Valley need to streamline management of temples/shrines under their charge. Employees of some of these shrines have devised novel methods to earn quick bucks. We need to realise that it is now difficult to conjure up noble souls who mercilessly squandered Trust’s assets and to hold them to account. Two groups need to bury their hatchet by setting aside egos and take control of whatever is left of it.
Present dispensation in J&K has manifested callous insensitivity to a long-standing demand of Kashmiri Pandits to enact a law to ensure protection of Temples & Shines in Kashmir.  KPs have a civilizational obligation to raise voice against desecration of their identity and religious icons. Community needs to get real and leave aside political discussions, in any case inconsequential, and rise in unison to halt attempts to wipe out its proud history.