J&K has four Hindu Shrine Boards. Amidst fierce resistance to the idea of internal management and utilization of resources owned by temples in Kashmir estimated to be worth Rs 10000 crore, another board is in the offing. Fighting for the passage of a bill hanging in the assembly for last four years, Kashmir Pandit leaders accuse three influential, Jammu-based institutions and a series of satellite Pandit groups for playing spoilsport, RS Gull reports.
In 1986, Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board (SMVDSB) took over the Hindu cave shrine in Trikuta Hills of Katra. Professional management of the Board led to a change that made this temple one of the richest shrines in India. It is so resource abundant that the Board owns one of the best universities in J&K state and is funding a huge super-speciality cancer hospital.
That was just the start. As militancy started ebbing across the state, Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) came into being in 2002. As the controversy kept this cave shrine perpetually in controversy, the footfalls are up, almost every year. More people essentially mean more money.
In 2010, the government set up Shri Shiv Khori Shrine Board (SSKSB) which takes care of a Hindu pilgrimage that takes place in Reasi hills. In 2012, Congress managed the passage of another shrine board for Machhail Yatra that starts from Bhaderwah and concludes in the mountains of Padder, not far away from the Sapphire mines which are open to loot for last sixty years. The law was passed in the state legislative council. Though NC opposed the idea, the PDP supported the move. The bill will have to go to the lower house (assembly) to become a law. In March 2013, the state tourism ministry passed another law that will help create an autonomous board for managing Mata Sukhrala Devi and Mata Bala Sundari temples in Billawar.
“It is not possible that every temple will have an autonomous board,” Law Minister Saifullah Mir reacted when some members referred to other very important temples.
In this situation when J&K looks like a huge shrine board for more than two months every summer, Kashmiri Pandits are desperately seeking an autonomous board to take care of the temples and their properties in Kashmir. The law was drafted as early as 2008. It is hanging in balance for all these years. KPs, otherwise considered to be very powerful, are unable to make it happen. The reason: they are unable to fight the people from within who do not want the board to become a reality.
As militancy ebbed, talks about getting migrant KPs back home became a noisy affair. It was in this din that 900-odd KP families who did not migrate from Kashmir came out openly with an idea: ‘Permit us to manage the temples and their assets for the common good’. The explanation was impressive. “It is an identity issue,” explained Sanjay Tickoo, who floated Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Committee (KPSC) for the welfare of non-migrant KPs. “We intend to use this resource for repairs and renovations of the temples and create a kitty that will invest in some infrastructure that will also attract those who migrated.”
Militancy was a major factor behind this thinking. Post-migration in 1990s, Tickoo said quite a few Pandits stayed back and their priority was to survive rather than look after the temples. By the time situation improved, most of the temples had been taken over by the priests from outside. They did not only change the system and the language of the prayers; in certain cases they started selling parts of various properties that temples owned.
Tickoo and his group visited places and collected details about how the systems were operating. In a few cases, the caretaking Mahants became part of a powerful land-mafia that, according to journalist Manohar Lalgami, had protection from politicians, officialdom and the police.
Take the case of Sathu Barbarshah in the heart of Srinagar where three Pujaris – Gopal Dass, Ram Dass and Jairam Dass from UP and Bihar functioned as caretakers of a temple since 1988 that owned 375 kanal land across Kashmir. The caretakers allegedly leased vast stretches of land to Delhi and local residents in violation of Article 370. It, in turn, was sold out for millions. Kuldeep Narayan Jaggi, one leaseholder set up a shopping complex that fetched him Rs 2.50 crore. Even an ancient idol of the temple is missing. Tickoo says there are many such instances and their estimates suggest that assets worth Rs 500 crore are already sold out.
Destruction of temples in Kashmir has been a major issue that BJP used across India to garner support for its right-wing politics. There were surveys, contested and denied. Last week, the government informed lawmaker Vijay Bakaya in the state legislative council that there are 448 temples across Kashmir with nearly 1700 kanal land and there was no instance in which the land was occupied. “I knew it,” Bakaya told Kashmir Life. “I asked the question, just to reassure myself.”
Soon afterwards, Tickoo and other Pandit leaders started a campaign. They met separatists first. Then they went to various mainstream leaders with only one suggestion: why do not we create a Board by a law that will help the community to manage these properties well. “Nobody opposed it and we started getting positive responses,” Tickoo said.
During last coalition government’s tenure, Abdul Rahim Rather, the then leader of the opposition, came with a private members bill suggesting the creation of a board for the Hindu temples and shrines in Kashmir. The government was positive. Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad stated in the house that the government appreciates the efforts but is keen to get an official bill on this front. Rather withdrew his idea.
The bill was slated to be introduced in the house on January 11, 2008, but it was not tabled at the last moment. It was finally introduced in the first session of the assembly after Omar Abdullah took over. The Kashmiri Hindu Shrines and Religious Places (Management and Regulation) Act, 2009 envisaged setting up of 12-member Kashmiri Hindu Shrine Board (KHSB) for preserving, protecting, administering and using the notified properties. While two members would be appointed by the government, 10 would be local Hindus who would come to the Board through an electoral process repeated after every three years. All the members had to be KPs.
For the KPs who were spearheading the campaign, it was a major success. “It was introduced and is still there,” recalls Bakaya, former Chief Secretary who is a member of the upper house. “It was never discussed and is still hanging.”
Every year, the KPs are meeting almost everybody who matters. But there is no change in the situation. This year eight bills were passed by the lawmakers. The KHSB bill was reintroduced this year and sent to the Select Committee for more debate to accommodate the viewpoints of various stakeholders before it can be passed.
“At one point of time when I was discussing with a senior officer I got the impression as if the separatists are opposing it,” remembers journalist Lalgami. “Then and there, I told him ‘if you are referring to any opposition from Geelani or any other leader, I will get it signed for you right now’.”
With the proposed bill getting antiquated, Pandit leaders have understood the crisis. “It is a property worth Rs 10,000 crore right now,” says Tickoo. “There are many people who think they have stakes in it and that is the main roadblock.”
NC leader Bushan Lal Bhat is clear. “I have been telling throughout that the government is playing with the aspirations of four lakh people just to please one family,” Bhat said on phone from Jammu. “For all these years, almost every is assuring us that they will do it but they are simply ignoring it at the last moment and behind it is just one family.”
Chuni Lal Bhat spearheads another KP body, the Hindu Welfare Society. “The problem is Dharmarth Trust that is controlled by the influential Karan Singh,” Bhat said. “Every time the issue crops us, he vetoes it and we are barely 900 families (in Kashmir) and we lack resources to fight this highly connected politician.” At one point of time, he said, the community wanted to go to the court but the lack of resources was the main problem. “Last time when this Trust wanted to sell part of the property, we used local influence to stop the deal. But the Trust being influential, they transferred some officers and managed the deal,” Bhat said. He and Tickoo-led groups had at one point of time sent volunteers to repair some of the temples but they were accused of trespass by the Trust and arrested.
Dharmarath, Tickoo said, is just one of the “stakeholders”. There are many other institutions and Trusts, “We even have list of individuals in politics and police who does not want it happen.” He said the list of 448 temples is not the exact count because it does not list the temples that are affiliated with the Jammu based Trusts.
Till recently, quite a few people knew that apart from dozens of local committees that were managing affairs of small temples, there were three major organizations controlling most of the major temples and the assets they owned: the Dharmarth Trust, Sanatan Dharm Pratap Sabha and its later subsidiary Chinar Trust. Tickoo alleges that neither of the three institutions controlling the wealthiest temples in Kashmir have any consequential representation from KPs.
Sanathan Dharam Pratap Sabha and its later subsidiary Chinar Trust was constituted by a partition migrant from Mirpur in Pakistan administered Kashmir. It manages certain good properties and the Chinar Trust is actually the main money-making institution in Srinagar that owns some of the most costly properties in the heart of the city. Tickoo said the Sabha and Chinar Trust own the most prized properties in the heart of Srinagar city and run the Acharya Shri Chander College of Medical Sciences and Hospital in Jammu since 1996. Acres of prime land belonging to Mahavir temple in Srinagar that these organizations owned were sold recently using attorney route.
Dharmarth Trust was founded in 1846 by Gulab Singh with a personal grant of Rs 5 lakh. It is managing about 175 temples and shrines, mostly in J&K. Hari Singh, Kashmir’s last Maharaja who fled in wake of tribal raids after the fall of Poonch, separated the Dharmarth Trust from the state government in 1935 and vested its management in Dharmarth Council In January 1959, Dr Karan Singh became its sole trustee. Kashmir’s both well-earning temples, the Khir Bawani and Shankaracharya temples, are with this trust that makes around Rs 50 to Rs 60 lakh a year. Outside Srinagar, the better-earning temples are at Gulmarg and Pahalgam and both are with this trust.
Of late, however, Dharamarth is facing a problem. Though the trust has taken Vijay Bakaya as a member in its council, it has not addressed the core concern. It was the government that invested Rs 20 crore in creating world-class infrastructure in Tulmulla (Ganderbal) by debit to tourism grants. Same is true with other temples where investments were made by local MLAs by debit to their constituency development fund. “They may or may not have money but if they fail to repair the temples, why should they keep it with them,” Bushan Lal said. “I am perplexed. If Maharaja fled Kashmir, why he did not restore the temples to us?”
Karan Singh’s Trust is facing the music in Jammu as well. In May 2012, Rajput leader Narian Singh filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) requesting the High Court to grant Trust’s takeover by the state government. The Trust, he alleged, is under alleged illegal management of the Congressman and his two sons Ajatshatru and Vikramaditya Singh.
While it did not invest in the upkeep of properties it has, the Trust continued selling part of the properties. As recently as March 2012, it reportedly issued and sold around 100 kanal land in south Kashmir using the issuance of attorneys.
“It is a political game,” admits Ashok Bhat. “Why is family so important when it was unimportant in other cases?” explains Tickoo, adding, “Is it not a fact that Amarnath was also with the same Trust?” That time, he asserted, ‘nobody took care of Dr Singh’s interests because they (the government) had to tell the Kashmiri Muslims that they can still get Hindus from India to the pilgrimage despite them not wanting it.” Shiv Khori, another Hindu shrine in Jammu was with the Trust and even Vaishno Devi had its own set up prior to the making of the Board.
But that is not the only problem. A senior official of the law ministry says there are some influential KPs who are running committees and they want to retain that autonomy. “One case is that of Martand temple near Mattan and another is about a north Kashmir formation led by Hira Lal Chatta,” the officer said. “There is a requirement of consensus within the community first.” A Pandit leader, on the condition of anonymity, said that a number of Pandit trusts have mushroomed in the name of various temples who are foreign-funded. “They all do not want this to happen because it will hit their commerce,” the leader said.
That is perhaps why everybody is emphasizing over consensus, something that was ignored in the creation of four Hindu shrine boards that are mandated by law. In February when a huge delegation of migrant KPs met NC’s Provincial President Devinder Singh Rana, they were told the law required a consensus. “The issue requires to be deliberated upon threadbare by the community as also the entire political spectrum for building consensus and facilitating its expeditious passage,” Rana was quoted as saying.
But there seems to be three groups within the NC who think on separate lines. Dr Mustafa Kamal, who apparently represents the organization, said there is no requirement of having a board for every shrine. “I believe Dharmarth Trust is in place so there is a system taking care of the temples,” Kamal told Kashmir Life. “But I am not opposed to the idea of having a separate body.”
Law Minister Mir Saifullah met a delegation of KPs and assured them that the bill will be “introduced” in the ongoing session. This is in addition to the huge group that seeks consensus on the issue. “I think this (Board) could be a huge CBM for the KPs,” says Bakaya. “It is political symbolism of the act that matters. Let it happen.”
But will it?