Temple Tragedies

When temples turn into agencies of violence , any secular country will find it very hard to maintain its social fabric. Something is going awfully wrong with our shrines as of this moment; awfully, ominously wrong.

I am talking of two shrines in particular- the Amarnath shrine and the Naina Devi shrine.

First, I shall talk of the latter. Located 150 kms away from Shimla in Himachal Pradesh’s Bilaspur district, the Naina Devi temple was a witness to a stampede that killed 147 people, mostly children and women, on August 3. What’s more, it is believed that a prank ‘rumour’ about a landslide was the perpetrator (some sources however said that the rumour was about a bomb explosion). This was the seventeenth such incident in the past 3 years. 411 people have lost their lives in stampedes since 2005.

According to Temple officials, around 25,000 worshippers had gathered for the Sawan Navratra, an annual festival, that began on Sunday. A false alarm of a landslide was raised, triggering panic among the devotees waiting in long lines for a glimpse of their deity. This caused them to run down the narrow hill path where they crashed into the pilgrims trekking up the 4 km road to the temple.

However, the Temple Officer also said that the flow of pilgrims didn’t stop through the night – such is the faith of the people. A large number of police officers have been stationed at the temple after the tragedy occurred, along with the ITBP rescue team comprising of 100 jawans and doctors.

The government plans to introduce Vaishno Devi shrine model to regulate pilgrim movement in the state’s shrines where devotees will be allowed to proceed in batches only after registration.

Why is it that we always need something ugly to whip us into action? In this case too, it seems as if the government was waiting for the people to die before they came up with proper plans to ensure their safety.

Let me now go up further north, to a state divided, Jammu and Kashmir.

“This is the worst communal situation in the state since 1947. It is unimaginably bad.”

-Major General Goverdhan Singh Jamwal (Retd.)

Said Hindustan Times on Tuesday –

“In 61 years, the religious divide has never been so wide. And it is all over a plot of land no bigger than the Nehru Stadium.”

It all started when the People’s Democratic Party withdrew support from the government because of a particular plot of land being handed over to a Hindu shrine board (Sri Amarnath Shrine Board) for the construction of facilities for pilgrims undertaking the Amarnath Yatra. Ultimately, the land allotment was canceled and as a consequence, we had massive demonstrations throughout the country and an extremely volatile situation in Jammu and Kashmir.

And then the fire which started in Jammu soon engulfed the whole country as the issue was politicized and political parties from all over the country indulged in mudslinging.

As the unrest completes 38 days, about 15 people have lost their lives and more than 900 trucks are stranded on the highway, cutting off Kashmir from the rest of the country. Two army battalions and 16 CRPF companies have been deployed but no durable solution to the issue seems to have emerged.

As the latest development, 38 political parties met in the capital to come up with viable solutions to the problem.

There have been suggestions that the land should be given back to the Amarnath Shrine Board, while others have opposed it vehemently.

The problem actually lies in how we define our “secularism”. In Indian politics secularism has always been synonymous with appeasement. Ideally it should mean that the state shall not involve itself in any aspect of religion. However in India, it has held a completely different meaning.

Why can’t tradition be restored in the Valley? The pilgrims can use the 100 acres of land for rest and shelter every year for two months as they have always done, and locals can be appointed to the Shrine Board. We must remember the secular history of the Amarnath temple which was rediscovered by a Muslim Kashmiri family- the Malik Family.

If Jammu and Kashmir desires to be the peaceful heaven that it once was, it has got to be at peace with itself. The common people have to learn to respect and tolerate other faiths, and the state has to refrain from involving itself in religious matters.

Are we so divided in terms of our diversity that our fall as a society, as a civilisation is destined? This question needs to be answered. And answered before we have the ‘Two Sisters of the North’!

Purav Goswami

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