Kashmiri Pandits Return After 34 Years: Unity Blossoms in Murren

Kashmiri Pandits Return After 34 Years: Unity Blossoms in Murren

After 34 years, Kashmiri Pandits return to Murren for a reunion, welcomed by Muslim neighbors. A symbol of hope and unity in the Kashmir valley.

For 34 years, Ratan Lal Bhat waited for Tuesday to arrive, most days alone in a shrine in his village Murren in the Pulwama district of Kashmir, 38 km from the capital Srinagar.

For 34 years, Lal, now 75, along with fellow villager and Kashmiri Pandit Badrinath, now 91, looked after the temple in a district notorious for militancy, Pulwama. This after 35 families of fellow Pandits who lived in this village, had to flee in the darkness of night on January 19, 1990, following death threats by militant groups all across the Kashmir valley.

On June 11, 2024, over 200 people, remnants and descendants of those Pandit families now settled across different parts of India and the world made their way to Murren to offer prayers to Goddess Parvati, worshipped for centuries by their ancestors in the local name of Brari Maj (divine Mother who appeared in the form of a cat).

The co-hosts of this massive reunion were the Muslims of Murren, once the neighbours of the Pandits. In the backdrop, a banner put up by the local youth forum read in English and Urdu , “Hearty welcome to Pandit brethren. Hindus and Muslims are like pure sugar and milk, dissolve sugar in milk.”

“We served parshad (food after the prayers) to 520 people,” said Chander M Bhat, one of the chief organisers of the function. That number included members of the security forces deployed in the village, and many Muslim residents who ate alongside the Pandits at the temple.

Bilal Ahmed, in whose brand new house some of the visiting Pandits were accommodated, exclaimed, “Inke saath toh bahut maza tha. It was so much fun when our Pandit brothers were here.”

Arpana Kaul, who attended the event from Delhi, said she left the village as a child, but was warmly received by family friend Latif.

The bonhomie may seem straight out of a movie script, but Chander Bhat said it is not out of line as the village always had zabardast (tremendous) Hindu-Muslim unity. There is no instance of a Pandit being harmed in this village, he said.

64-year-old Bhat, who retired as assistant director postal services, Jammu Kashmir and Ladakh, is author of many books including one on Murren, has documented all the 661 shrines and temples of Kashmir and has been working for the last 19 years on a project “595 Kashmiri Pandit villages of Kashmir”.

Ratan Lal said he was not scared to stay back when everyone else left: “ Our Muslim neighbours were our protection.” He recounted how when the dreaded militant Mast Gul was creating terror for Pandits and destroying homes, it was a young neighbour, part of another militant organisation, who came and stood before the temple to protect it.

The reunion at Murren is part of a larger initiative to resettle Pandit families back in the Kashmir valley. There are separate WhatAapp groups dedicated to ancestral Pandit villages. Sanjay Kaul, who has come back from Delhi to reside in Murren and has been joined by his 35-year-old son Sunny Kaul, said there were close to 600 such WhatAapp groups, replete with discussions on moving back.

“The taking away of Article 370 filled the Kashmir Pandits with hope and gave them confidence to break out of the fear,” said Kusum Kaull Vyass, who along with her father mother and relatives left behind a prosperous life in the neighbouring Anantnag district, and has lived in Ahmedabad ever since. A former president of the Kashmiri Pandit association in Gujarat, Vyass is chairperson of the Indo American Chamber of Commerce.

In 2019, Article 370 of the Constitution that gave a special status to Jammu and Kashmir was abrogated, junking a provision that was included as a precondition to the state’s joining the Indian Union after Independence in 1947. The controversial move came as a shock to many people in Kashmir and outside, led to resentment following measures of internet shutdown and civic activities in the Valley, but also motivated Pandits to travel back to their lost homes, where they had spent their childhood and youth.

Vyass recalled how she would switch off the TV the moment some Kashmir news would be aired, as she did not want her daughter and son to see her sad; but she admitted that Kashmiri Muslims have suffered too in their own way. Militancy claimed many young people,and civilians had to put up with life under the shadow of the army.

After the function, Sanjay Pandita, a co-organiser of the programme, posted about a “poignant momen”t when the local Awqaf committee of Babahaji Mosque invited for a reunion of Muslim and Hindus within the mosque’s serene premises over a simple cup of tea. Members from both communities gathered in large numbers, and the air was thick with emotion.

The gathering was all the more poignant and significant given the Reasi terror attack. And questions have again been raised on whether the region can ever return to normalcy. The ceremony at Murren may be an outlier, but some also see it as a glimpse of what could be. “From the moment we heard our Pandit brothers are coming back, we waited for them like we wait to see the Eid ka chand, (sighting the moon on the night of the Eid festival),” said Bilal Ahmed Source

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