October 22, 2007 / 8:47 AM / 11 years ago

Kashmiri Hindus mark festival after 18 years

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Hundreds of chanting Hindus burnt a huge effigy of a demon king to mark one of their biggest festivals for the first time in Kashmir since Muslim militants launched a revolt 18 years ago.

Devotees burn an effigy of Ravana during Dussehra celebration in Srinagar, October 21, 2007. REUTERS/Danish Ismail

The celebrations late on Sunday came at the end of the nine-day Dusshera festival, which celebrates god-king Ram’s victory over the mythological king Ravana, symbolizing the triumph of good over evil.

Although the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley is home to about 10,000 Hindus, they had stopped celebrating Dusshera in the open due to fear of Islamist militants who targeted the community after the anti-India insurgency erupted in 1989.

But with militant violence falling to an all-time low this year, more than 400 Hindus, known as Kashmiri Pandits, marched through the streets of Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, and burned Ravana’s effigy in a highly guarded cricket stadium.

“Kashmiri Pandits living in the valley have been totally ignored by the world community,” said a statement from the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, an organization representing Hindus in the valley.

“We decided to start the age-old traditions and religious functions to mark our presence,” it said.

More than 250,000 Pandits fled Kashmir after the insurgency broke out in 1989, in what officials say was the biggest migration since the subcontinent was divided into mainly Hindu India and Islamic Pakistan in 1947.

Many of them live in filthy refugee camps or in poor residential areas in northern Indian cities, still struggling to rebuild their lives.

Kashmiri authorities have appealed to them to return but the Pandits have refused due to a fear of militants who have frequently attacked Hindus and Sikhs in what traditionally was a moderate and tolerant Islamic society.

The disputed Himalayan state is at the heart of 60 years of India-Pakistan rivalry. Although their peace moves, launched in 2003/04, have not made much progress over the row, it has led to lower violence levels and revived cultural and social life.

More than 42,000 people have been killed in Kashmir since 1989, officials say. But human rights groups put the toll at about 60,000 dead or missing.

“Kashmir is incomplete without Pandits, I wish they would return,” said Shabir Ahmad Shah, a prominent separatist politician, who participated in Sunday’s celebrations.

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