Displaced Kashmiri Pandit devotees are returning to the Valley in numbers to participate in the annual Kheer Bhawani Mela this week, displaying renewed enthusiasm after a dull response last year because of a spate of targeted killings and in the years before that because of pandemic-related restrictions.
The Kheer Bhawani festival marks the biggest celebration among Kashmiri Pandits. Their main Tulmulla shrine in Ganderbal has traditionally attracted thousands of devotees during the annual Mela, also called Zesht Ashtami festival.
Apart from its religious significance to the Pandits, the occasion serves as an opportunity for the members of the community, who migrated to Jammu or other parts of the country following the inception of militancy, to reconnect with their roots.
K.K. Sidha, the government’s relief commissioner for migrants, said around 4,000 devotees left Jammu for the Valley on Friday in nearly 125 buses allotted by the government.
“This time, we had the biggest contingent of devotees in years,” Sidha told reporters in Jammu after seeing off the devotees. “We had sent buses to 24 points in Jammu to pick them up (for the journey to Kashmir). This is a very encouraging step that so many people are part of the entourage.”
Sidha said several initiatives, including the successful completion of the G20 meet in Srinagar and improved tourism, had facilitated the increased participation in the Mela this year. “Equally, people continue to repose their trust in the government, which helped,” he said.
Community leader Pyarelal Thusoo, who lives in the Jagti migrant camp and joined the programme to flag off the devotees, said he was seeing such enthusiasm for the first time in years.
“The administration has taken a great step to flag offthe buses a day in advance. They will reach Kashmir today and will take rest tomorrow. The festival is on May 28,” Thusoo told The Telegraph. “More devotees will join them in their private vehicles tomorrow.”
Another Pandit leader said the devotees flocking to Kashmir included many Kashmiri Pandit government employees who work in the Valley but had left for Jammu during the G20 event for security reasons.
“They had been advised by police to leave Kashmir for their own security as there were apprehensions that they might be targeted during the G20 event. They are also going back now along with the devotees,” he said.
Kashmir was rocked by targeted killings last year during which some Pandits and several non-locals were killed. The killings cast a shadow on the Kheer Bhawani Mela, with only a handful of people participating.
Thousands of Pandit employees, who had returned to the Valley under the government’s rehabilitation policy, had left Kashmir following the targeted killings last year. The employees observed a 10-month-long strike in Jammu, asking the government to relocate them out of Kashmir.