MUZAFFARABAD: A five-member delegation of Pakistan Hindu Council, led by ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) MNA Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, visited an ancient temple site in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) on Tuesday in what was believed to pave way for throwing the area open for religious tourism.
Located in Sharda, some 137 kilometres northeast of here in the upper belt of Neelum valley, the temple is revered by the Hindu community, particularly the Kashmiri Hindu Pandits.
In India-held Kashmir, a committee by the name of ‘Save Sharda’ has been campaigning for opening up of an exclusive crossing along the Line of Control for “pilgrimage” to Sharda by the Hindu community.
The committee is led by Ravinder Pandita.Sources in the AJK government told Dawn that immediately they had no plans to allow visitors from across the divide to this site.
According to them, a few months back AJK Prime Minister Raja Farooq Haider had indicated at a high-level meeting that Pakistan-based Hindu community would be allowed, in the first place, to visit Sharda.
It was in the wake of this decision thatsenior civilian and military authorities hadundertaken a joint visit to Sharda to see for themselves the facilities and requirements in the event of influx of religious tourists.
Both authorities had resolved to take joint measures “on an urgent basis” to protect archaeological sites and promote ecotourism in AJK.
According to sources, prime minister Haider had made up his mind around same time to invite Dr Vankwani as a first Hindu visitor to the area.
Dr Vankwani arrived in Muzaffarabad late on Monday along with four other members of Pakistan Hindu Council, and called on Mr Haider at a dinner in the PM House.
Speaking to him, Mr Haider pointed out that Kashmir washome to the followers of different religions and faiths since centuries and enjoyed exemplary religious harmony.
“Religious extremism had never found space in Jammu and Kashmir, particularly in Kashmir Valley… Even the struggle against autocratic Dogra regime was not on religious lines but it was aimed at achieving long suppressed political and civil rights,” he said.
Mr Haider however recalled that the 1947 pogrom against Jammu-based Muslims had vitiated disputed Himalayan region’s peaceful and harmonious atmosphere.
He told the visitors that his government had conceived a comprehensive plan to protect and revive the worship and other sacred places of non-Muslims and only recently he had visited a Hindu temple in the heart of Muzaffarabad city to see for himself its repair and renovation work.
Dr Vankwani expressed his gratitude to the AJK premier and said since Sharda was a revered site for Hindus they wanted to work in close coordination with the AJK government for its renovation and preservation.
According to sources, Dr Vankwani and his colleagues were accompanied to Sharda by AJK Secretary for Tourism and Information Ms Midhat Shahzad, Director General, Tourism and Archaeology, Pirzada Irshad Ahmed, and some other officials on the direction of Mr Haider.
However, they could not be reached on phone due to weak mobile phone coverage in themountainous area.
Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2019