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'The quake has done what Partition couldn't'

By K J M Varma in Hasan Abdal
October 23, 2005 21:52 IST
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Over 200 Hindu families who opted to stay back in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province after the subcontinent's Partition are so devastated by the massive earthquake which destroyed the beautiful Kaghan valley that they fear to go back to their homes now.

"The earthquake has accomplished what partition failed to do. It perhaps permanently uprooted us from the land we cherished most and opted to stay even after partition," said Sevaram Rekhi, a young priest-cum-businessman who maintained a Shiva temple in the nearby Manshera town, which dates back to Emperor Ashoka and Alexander the Great.

Minutes before the devastating earthquake struck Pakistan's multicultural Kaghan valley close to Mansehra, Rekhi was getting ready in his house to go to the town to open the only temple in the entire region for the weekend darshan.

"I had my customary bath and was getting dressed to leave for the temple on, when the earth began shaking and crumbling below us.

I just managed to grab my two children and rushed out before my concrete house collapsed and was razed to the ground," said Rekhi, now a refugee along with some 200 odd Hindu and Sikh families that took refuge in the historic Panja Sahib Gurudwara in Hasan Abdal, about 60 km west of Islamabad.

Six Hindus were killed and 20 injured but all refugees were unanimous that they do not want to go back to Batagram and Shamlai and decided to leave their ravaged houses forever.

They prefer to stay at Hasan Abadal instead.

Batagram, one of the rare multi-religious towns in Pakistan, was completely destroyed with over 60,000 population displaced after the temblor.

The Kaghan valley Hindus comprise mostly of Punjabis who regard themselves as Hindus and Sikhs as they worship both the religions. Enamoured by the beauty of the place, their forefathers opted to stay put after the partition without exercising the option to go to India.

Today, they formed an estimated seven to eight lakh Hindu population, majority of whom stayed put in Southern Sindh province bordering Rajastan.

"The quake has destroyed our urge to stay in Batagram.

There is nothing left. Moreover the memories of those few seconds of quake and misery that followed were so strong that we do not want to go there. We are making representations to the Pakistan government to permit us to settle down in Hasan Aab dal or in Islamabad," said Gyanchand Viz, a homeo doctor from Batagram.

Batagram and the neighbouring Shumlai, as also Balakot near Mansehra along with their famed green terraced foot hills suffered the most as these areas were located right on the epicentre of the quake that virtually left nothing intact.

Rekhi was the priest for the Shiva temple, built before Partition by King of Nepal, which is one of the few temples of the area that survived the traumatic event.

"The temple gets filled up during the weekends as most of the minority Hindus converge there to offer puja. I wanted to be there early as Oct 8 was Saturday," he said.

Viz, along with other Hindus from Batgram and Shamlai like Sunder Malhotra praised Pakistan government for showing concern and permitting them to stay in Panja Sahib, which has the handprint of Guru Nanak on a rock where the Gurudwara was built in 1920.

They also thanked Deputy Administrator of Panja Sahib, Khalid Mehmud Hashmi, who said, "We are doing whatever we can to help them to tide over the disaster."

Religious Minister Ijajul Haq and Information Minister Sheikh Rashid visited them and assured them of all support and assistance, said Hashmi.

However Panja Sahib witnessed a commotion of sorts when refugees got together and resisted attempts by Manjit Singh, a member of the Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee of

Nankana Sahib, to evict them.

Officials and refugees in Hasan Abdal said Singh was angry after refugees objected to his decision to divert food and medicines donated by fellow Hindus from Sindh province.

Angry over the protests, Singh reportedly threatened to evict them. But Malhotra explained that the refugees were Sikhs too as they worshipped in a Guduwara in Batagram.

The dispute ended for the time being after Hashmi intervened and assured that they would be permitted to stay as long as they wished.

"No one would be allowed to disturb them," he said.

Displaced from their habitats of hundreds of years, the Hindu and Sikh community said they looked to Guru Nanak's Panja or handprint on a rock, beneath which pure water mysteriously springs out for centuries. According to legend, Guru created the spring for his devotee Bhai Mardana when a local fakir declined to provide him water.

Guru asked him to lift a nearby rock and when Mardana did, water gushed out of the spring. Angry over Guru, the fakir threw a stone, which Guru stopped with his hand. Locals believe it was the print of Guru's hand on the rock that resulted in establishing the Punja Sahib.

"Today, we look to that hand to help us in our worst hour of crisis," Malhotra said.

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K J M Varma in Hasan Abdal
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