We’ll call for LOC march if Pak doesn’t stop Sharda Peeth encroachment: Ravinder Pandita

Sharda Peeth
Ravinder Pandita, Head of Save Sharda Committee Kashmir (Photo: News Intervention)

Sharda Peeth is one of the most revered places and pious pilgrimage sites for Hindus and was an integral part of India. it was also an ancient place for Vedic learning. However, due to it’s illegal occupation by Pakistan the place is currently in ruins. A huge part of Jammu & Kashmir has been occupied by Pakistan which is known as the Pak-occupied Jammu & Kashmir (POJK) and regions like Gilgit-Baltistan, Sharda Peeth are all still under Pakistan’s illegal control ever since India’s independence. While deliberations for its resurrection and opening of a corridor still seems to be a far-fetched thing, efforts are being made at the civil society level. Ravinder Pandita, founder and head of Save Sharda Committee Kashmir (Regd.) has been behind such endeavours and tells Shubham Bajpai Special Correspondent News Intervention that encroachment of Sharda Peeth by Pakistan has to stop and that they are ready to take a bullet to save the Peeth.

Shubham Bajpai: Despite the Pak-occupied Jammu and Kashmir’s supreme court order in 2018, Pakistan Army has built a coffee house in the Sharda Peeth premises. What action has been taken by the Save Sharda Committee so far? Has your committee, be it here or across LOC, carried out negotiations with different stakeholders in POJK?

Ravinder Pandita: Actually, on the occasion of Diwali this year, which fell on November 12, members of our civil society from 10 districts in POJK, who are Muslims by faith, gathered. We’ve formed multiple small civil societies with like-minded individuals dedicated to the Sharda mission. They visited Chilhana, the last border village in POJK, from their side, which is  just opposite to Teetwal. Between these points lies the Kishanganga river with a wooden bridge. At the bridge’s center, a white line marks the boundary. We could only reach that line but were unable to cross, just as they couldn’t cross to our side.

This marked their ninth attempt to reach the white line since 2021 on various occasions, but the Pakistan Army didn’t grant them permission to come down to the bridge and meet & greet us on the whiteline. They intended to exchange sweets on Diwali. Denied access to the bridge, we waved to them from above and suggested placing the sweets at Sharda Peeth, resonating our voices across the border. Subsequently, they visited Sharda Peeth after 3 days. On November 16, upon their arrival, they found the boundary wall vandalized, ancient wall stones missing, and a coffee house constructed above the temple premises’ boundary wall.

When I received the video, I shared it on social media, provided it to the press and national media, and furnished details to national newspapers. Despite this, we sent letters to DC Neelam, their President Sultan Barrister, and DG Archeology & Tourism Chaudhary Meharban, but received no response, so far, obviously so. Then we mobilized our civil society in POJK, led by Tanveer Ahmad, who also wrote letters to DC Neelam and the President of POJK. Now we await the actions to be taken, considering a puppet government governs POJK. Raising the issue was our duty, and we’ve fulfilled it. We’ve also written to our PM Narendra Modi ji, Home Minister Amit Shah ji, and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh ji. The Indian government’s stance remains to be seen. Importantly, I’ve also pursued four Shankaracharya Mutts to write to PM Narendra Modi ji, aiming to escalate the matter to the highest level.

Shubham Bajpai: The order of 2018, that I mentioned, permitted Pakistani Hindus to visit the temple. Still, there seems to be a lack of enthusiasm in visiting the place. Has any concrete step been taken to promote a huge influx of Pakistani Hindus? Such an influx could create pressure on the authorities in Pakistan.

Ravinder Pandita: In terms of mobilizing Pakistani Hindus, my initial step in that direction dates back to 2019. Dr. Ramesh Vankwani, the President of the Pakistani Hindu Council, made a visit to Sharda Peeth in June of that year. When the Kartarpur corridor was inaugurated, press reporter Ravinder Singh Robin raised the question of opening Sharda Peeth to the then Pak PM Imran Khan. Subsequently, Dr. Ramesh Vankwani, who was a Member of the National Assembly in Pakistan at that time, visited Sharda Peeth with a delegation of 5 Hindus of his council. During this period, I maintained contact with him, and he assured me of “good news”. However, after encountering individuals with different perspectives and opinions, they returned to Islamabad and issued a press statement indicating that initially, they would allow only Pakistani Hindus and not Indians.

I’ve been actively encouraging Hindus in Pakistan to visit Sharda Peeth and recite aarti at the Peeth. Additionally, I motivated Ram Nath Mishra, the head of Panchmukhi Hanuman Mandir, to make the journey, but he returned halfway. I try to establish contact with every Hindu who goes there, but the challenge lies in the lack of awareness among many Hindus. And because of this lack of awareness, they become suspicious when an Indian Hindu motivates them. Consequently, Pakistani Hindus haven’t been mobilized to the extent they should be. It’s imperative for the Pakistani Hindu Council to step forward and mobilize Hindus there.

Furthermore, I’ve extended invitations not only to Pakistani Hindus but also to Nepali Hindu organizations due to their favorable diplomatic relations with Pakistan. Similarly, I’ve approached Hindu organizations based in Bangladesh also. Look it takes time, and traveling across Pakistan presents challenges. There’s a rule in Pakistan that you can travel to Islamabad and Rawalpindi, but to enter POK, you require a NOC, which they never grant. The Ministry of Interior complicates matters by denying travel within five miles of the LOC. Sharda Peeth falls within this five-mile range, and they use excuses to refuse NOCs. Nonetheless, I believe Pakistani Hindus should make the journey, and I’ll persist in making it feasible.

Shubham Bajpai: The Sharda Peeth is not only significant to Kashmiri Hindus but also to Hindus across the world. What is your course of action to make it open for all Hindus?

Ravinder Pandita:  This Shakti Peeth holds immense significance for all followers of Sanatan Dharma; it’s a seat of Adi Shankaracharya. However, there has been a treaty in effect between India and Pakistan since 2005 concerning J&K residents. According to this treaty, Kashmiris from either side can traverse the LOC, but this privilege is limited to those who have relatives across the LoC. This restriction poses a significant limitation. In the 10 districts of occupied Jammu and Kashmir, there isn’t a single Hindu resident. I have no relatives living there, and despite applying twice for an LOC permit, it was rejected due to this reason astonishingly by the Indian Govt. People from that region come here, and those from here also travel there. The Uri-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalakot routes facilitate this movement through operational bus services.

Hence, there seems to be no necessity for a separate corridor. However, the Ministry of External Affairs has imposed a condition that the LOC permit will only be issued to J&K residents wishing to cross for family visits. Therefore, for the rest of the Hindus as well as any J&K domicile, we might need to contemplate about this in subsequent steps. Our primary objective is to break the initial barriers. The inaugural delegation should comprise J&K Hindus possessing the LOC permit as per the treaty. Subsequently, we can explore modifications to that treaty to facilitate a general annual pilgrimage allowing all Sanatanis to visit Sharda peeth from all over India.

Shubham Bajpai: Indeed, conducting the yatra is important, but the resurrection of Sharda Peeth is also a major concern. Are there any deliberations ongoing regarding that?

Ravinder Pandita:  The resurrection question that you have raised, I prefer to call it exploration of Sharda Civilization. This is not just a temple, but a civilization, which needs exploration to know the extent of civilization on the lines of Miami civilization in USA. We have got the satellite imagery of the site done through ISRO, but we didn’t get the extent. Scientists wrote for GPRS method but because it can only happen on ground it failed to materialize.  We then wrote to occupying POJK government to use the GPRS (Ground Penetration Radar System), but again it fizzled out after Article 370 got abrogated. Prior to it, the matter was looked into at a faster pace, but since it is “Nation First” we have some other priorities.

Besides, the puppet government of POJK crafted a rehabilitation plan for Sharda Peeth, however, I wrote a letter to them showing our disagreement. Their plan was to construct a dome like structure resembling Islamic culture. Even our civil society there also objected to this. They demanded that the Kashmiri Pandits should be called and as per their instruction, the renovation should be done. Hence as of now, the matter is in a state of stagnation. However, the exchange of books related to Sharda peeth is still going on. From this side,” Sharda – Tareekh ke aaine mein” authored by Raja Nazar Buniyari while from that side Khawaja Abdul Ghani authored “Sharda Taareekh-ke- irtiqaiMarhil” has been exchanged. I too have written a book called “Sharda: The Quest for Shared Heritage.” All these deliberations are going on. Besides we are also trying to establish Sharda University and also revive Sharda lipi.

Shubham Bajpai: We’ve seen how sweet exchanges were denied by the Pakistan Army during Eid and Diwali on LOC. The same Pakistan Army is encroaching on Sharda Peeth land. Since Pakistan Army operates above the law, how do you envision that the ends you seek would materialize?

Ravinder Pandita: See, we saw this in 2021 on 14 September during our first attempt. Our idea was akin to the Indian Army and Pakistan Army exchanging sweets during Diwali, Eid, Republic Day and Independence Day, civil societies should also be granted permission. We called the members of our civil society from across LOC, but Pakistan Army is restricting such exchanges. They are not allowing our members to come down to the bridge. But still we are trying and this time on Diwali, as I said earlier, it was the ninth time that Pakistan Army denied the permission but one day we will be successful. The exchange of gifts and pleasantries should take place.

However, for this Pakistan Army and the local puppet government should also agree and they are not agreeing because of their intent. They think that if people will unite, that is, people-to-people contact becomes strong, they will lose all the balls in the game. So basically, it is their problem not ours.

Shubham Bajpai: In India, there’s a visible embrace of diverse religions, with Hindus often seen attending churches and mosques. However, this seems less prevalent in Pakistan. Can you share how many local individuals, beyond your civil society members, have rallied behind and genuinely supported your cause for Sharda Peeth ?

Ravinder Pandita: See, our first success came in November 2016 when we facilitated a visit by the civil society from POJK to Sharda Peeth. They reverently offered flowers at the sacred site, displayed placards with my name, and sent videos from there. Subsequently, I requested them to send those flowers and sacred soil from the site to an address in Delhi. On numerous occasions, we’ve received sacred stones and soil, which we’ve also distributed to all four Shankaracharya Mutts. Recently, we successfully obtained water from the sacred pond all the way from the United Kingdom. These achievements are the result of our valuable civil society, which is our asset.

In March 2017, I sent a large picture of Ma Sharda, which I vividly recall was dispatched via postal service to Muzaffarabad on a Rs. 968 postal ticket. They framed it and installed that picture at Sharda Peeth. On September 10, 2021, I sent another picture of Ma Sharda and Swami Nandlal Ji, but the Pakistan Army consistently removes it after installation; they don’t favor such actions. The civil department claims the Army is there to protect, whereas the Army contradicts this stance. They seem to shift the blame onto each other to hinder our progress. Nevertheless, our efforts persist.

Later in 2021, one of our group from Pakistan, comprising of Muslims, went there and offered sindoor (vermillion) for the first time. So to an extent, we have been successful in our attempt but physically going there has not been possible so far and we are making requests in that direction. Undoubtedly, the government of India will also have to take steps in this regard, they will have to make amendments in LOC permit rule or they could give us a special permission after negotiating with government of Pakistan, so that we could be allowed. Like Kartarpur, where I have been to myself on November 24, 2019 after getting clearance from India & Pakistan both. The prime question is why are they denying permission to visit Sharda Peeth?

So these are some questions that we asked from our minsters too that took them to back foot. Pakistan is already on the backfoot, they would never want Sharda Peeth to open. It’s a very strategic location from the defence point of view. Entire villages there, be it Athmuqam or Shardi village are very strategic locations, and its part of Pakistan’s strategy that this should never be opened.

Shubham Bajpai: Since we all know this is not a cakewalk and you are at the center of the movement, what is the future plan of action of Save Sharda Committee Kashmir?

Ravinder Pandita: As we are inching towards our end goal, our future plan is focused on four of our ancient routes. The first one is 17 k.m. long route between Liddervan-Juma Gund in Kupwara to Dudhnial in POK. This was the very same route that was used by Kashmiri pandits and our Swami Nandlal ji who presided the peeth till 1948 to travel to Sharda Peeth. This is the shortest route. Second is the Keran route by which the Sharda Peeth is just 20 k.m. away. This was the same route that Kashmiri Pandits used to migrate to Tikker Kupwara after the tribal invasion ( Pak proxy) in 1948.

Third route is Charri Mubarak route which passes through a base camp in Teetwal, where we have constructed Sharda temple. Like for Amarnath Yatra there is the Baltal route and Pahalgam route (Charri Mubarak route), similarly for Sharda Peeth it is Charri Mubarak route. Using this route, Sharda Peeth is 70 k.m. away. Lastly, there is a route in Bandipora district also via Tarbal Gurez which was used by most of the travellers and pilgrims. So we have to explore all of these four routes. Amongst all the four routes, we have visited three, but Tarbal Gurez is left for us to explore.

We have also warned Pakistan that our base camp is again ready in Charri Mubarak, Teetwal and we are coming. Our next plan is that the encroachment of Sharda Peeth should be vacated otherwise, we will call for a LOC march. We, along with 10,000-20,000 Shankaracharya followers, will forcibly cross the bridge. Whether they start firing or kill us, we should pursue this struggle. Also, we are looking to write to both the government in India and Pakistan to amend LOC permit rule and cross-LOC heritage and religious tourism should begin. We have given it to the ministry that muslims from POK should get permission to visit Hazratbal Dargah Sharif and we should get permission to visit Sharda Peeth and Ali beg Gurudwara in Bhimber.

In the initial phase, it could start on an annual yatra basis with a small group of 4-5 people. I remember when I met with NSA in 2018, we discussed it for about one and half hours before concluding that we should also keep an eye on the issue of infiltration and other security point of view as it is a conflict zone. Then we suggested that 4-5 people at max would go from here with same reciprocity from across. It’s merely a one-day visit. In 6 hours, the visitor will be back to the territory. They would use Muzaffarabad-Uri route. We would use Teetwal route. So, Teetwal is ready as a base camp, pilgrims have started coming here, there is a huge influx. A huge temple has been constructed similar to Sikh gurudwara and Sharda mandir, as used to exist in 1947.

Also, this should be a warning as we have also concluded a symbolic Chhadi Mubarak yatra till white line in both 2021 and 2022. We marched till the white line with chhadi (holy mace) in our hands. This symbolic yatra is a signal and our efforts will continue to shape it into a final yatra by Save Sharda Committee Kashmir Regd.

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