Achan village (Pulwama): Tucked away inside Pulwama district is Achan, a small nondescript village that has been attracting a string of visitors, including the media, since February 14, when a young militant blew up his explosives-laden car on the Jammu-Srinagar highway, killing 40 CRPF jawans.
The reason is clear as you walk down the dusty and narrow road, dotted with tin-roofed houses.
The village with a population of over 2,200 people is predominantly Muslim. Amid them, a Kashmiri Pandit family of 10 has been living here for generations, demolishing popular notions surrounding present-day Kashmir at many levels.
At the middle of the village, a dozen Muslim labourers, most of them residents of Achan, are busy repairing a dilapidated 80-year-old Shiva temple, which was partially damaged in the violence in the early ’90s when hundreds of Kashmiri Pandits were driven out of the Valley.
The 14 February terror attack and its aftermath, including an escalation in India-Pakistan tension, the arrest of Hurriyat leaders and a ban on the Jammat-e-Islami, a socio-political organisation that Kashmiris associate with, has not deterred the villagers.
The temple stands inside a compound where a Muslim mason is giving directions to his workers. Some of them are painting the temple walls, a few others are giving final touches to a water channel that they have constructed. The channel will lead to a small water tank.
The villagers decided to join hands and repair the temple last year when 35-year-old Usha Sharma, their Kashmiri Pandit neighbour, approached them for help.
“She said that every time she came to the temple, it pained her to see the utter state of neglect it was in,” said Parvez Ahmad Bhat, a village resident. “She said that the dilapidated temple was in sharp contrast to the well-kept mosque standing in the adjoining plot.”
That got the villagers thinking. “She told us she wanted to repair it herself but did not have the wherewithal. She asked us if we would help,” Shabbir Ahmed Mir, the village painter told ThePrint.
“After all, her family has been living here for generations and is like our family,” Bhat said. “We felt bad that it pained her to see the temple’s condition every time her family went there to worship.”
Moved by Sharma’s requests, the villagers held a meeting last year and decided to approach the district administration for help.
The district administration was already carrying out some development projects such as putting up sewer lines and repairing the village roads. “We met the officials in the rural development office and told them that we want to repair the temple and wants funds,” Mir said. “We are ready to chip in with whatever we have but it will not be enough.”
After some back and forth, the rural development department accepted the proposal.
“But in the government, it takes time for files to move. It was no different in our case,” Sharma said. “It took almost a year for the district authorities to process the file and release funds.”
To start with, the rural development department in the Lasipora block sanctioned Rs 13 lakh for the renovation project. “In the first week of February this year, the first instalment of Rs five lakh was released,” said Suhail Gulzar, a junior engineer in the Rural Development Department, Lasipora block.
Work began immediately. “Over 40 labourers were engaged. But with the bulk of construction work over, now there are only 5-6 labourers at work, all from Achan,” Bhat said. “We hope to complete the renovation by next month.”
The villagers here say they are immune to straining of ties between communities.
“There is only one Kashmiri Pandit family living in Achan for all these years. They stayed back because they were confident that they will be safe here,” Shabbir Ahmad Mir said. “It will be a shame for the entire village if we don’t live up to their expectations and fail to protect them.”
Sharma says that even if she is offered, she won’t leave Achan.
“They have looked after me and my family all these years. They have been more than a family,” she said. “This whole Hindu-Muslim tension has been created intentionally to destroy peace in the family. Your media has added fuel to fire.”
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