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Pilgrimages deepen India's Hindu-Muslim divide

Local leaders skeptical over motives for Jammu Kashmir trek

Aasha Khosa, New Delhi

Aasha Khosa, New Delhi

Published: August 07, 2014 08:47 AM GMT

Updated: August 06, 2014 11:59 PM GMT

Pilgrimages deepen India's Hindu-Muslim divide

The Jammu Kashmir region has long been riven by Hindu-Muslim disputes. File picture: Shutterstock

A revival of Hindu religious pilgrimages to the holy glacial lakes in the Himalayas is sharpening a religious divide in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Tensions have been on the rise since a 40-member Hindu pilgrim group was prevented last week from trekking to Kaunsar Nag, a two km. high-altitude glacial lake located in south Kashmir's Peerpanjal ranges.

Kaunsar Nag is a freshwater lake fed by the glaciers in the mountains in south Kashmir district of Kulgam.

Hindus believe the lake was formed after the Hindu deity Lord Vishnu set foot in the area. Devotees perform prayers at the lake and stop eating meat two days before embarking on the pilgrimage.

A day before the pilgrimage was to begin, Nissar Ahmed Wani, deputy commissioner in Kulgam, withdrew his order for local officials to make arrangements for the pilgrimage.

"Around 35 pilgrims had arrived when suddenly the officer called me to his office and tried to persuade me to give up the trek," said Vinod Pandit, president of All Kashmir Migrants Coordination Committee, which organizes the Kaunsar Nag pilgrimage.

"This was bizarre and shocking," he said.

Radical Muslim groups in the Kashmir Valley oppose the pilgrimage, claiming that Hindus do not have any claim over the Kausar Nag and it was just a plot to grab and occupy their land.

Jammu and Kashmir is a Muslim majority state. Islam is practiced by 97 percent of the population in Kashmir while Jammu has a large community of Hindus.

However, Kashmiri Pandits worry about their next pilgrimage -- a two-day trek to another holy lake, Gangabal, located in central Kashmir, scheduled to begin on August 31.

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"We have been organizing this pilgrimage for seven years, but I am not sure what will happen this time," he said

"I have no idea how to deal with this without provoking Muslim radicals, to whom the government seems to be bowing to," he told ucanews.com.

Meanwhile, Kashmir's separatists, led by Sayeed Ali Shah Geelani, have called the spurt in organized pilgrimages by Hindus a conspiracy by the Sangh Parivar, a coalition of Hindu nationalist organizations.

Geelani alleged that the government of Narendra Modi was planning to resettle outsiders around pilgrimage sites in order to change the Muslim-majority character of the state.

About 250,000 Kashmiri Pandits, or native Hindus live outside Kashmir since fleeing the region two decades ago after a pro-Pakistan armed insurgency began battling Indian forces.

The pilgrimage is an assertion of their right to remain relevant, community members said.

"If we are not allowed to go on a pilgrimage, just imagine the treatment we will get in case we choose to return to the valley," said Sanjay Khushu, an entrepreneur based in Delhi.

"Going on the pilgrimage is my fundamental right and it is also a way to maintain an organic link with the Muslims there," said Sushil Pandit.

However, Muslims say there is a genuine anger over the prolonged Hindu pilgrimages in Kashmir.

Maqbool Sahil, a local author, said the yearly pilgrimage causes the administration in Anantnag district to come to a halt for two months as thousands of people come to the valley to take part in the pilgrimage.

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