In two rented cars with a team of about half a dozen interns and photographers, I was on my way to Katas Raj in March 2011. An ancient Hindu temple in the embrace of hills, it is not far from the popular tourist destination of Kalar Kahar. Constructed around a sacred pond, believed to have been created by a tear drop of Lord Shiva on the death of his consort, Parvati, the temple complex boasts several monuments – some ancient, like a Buddhist stupa constructed well before the birth of Christ, and a series of Shiva temples built some time around the 8th century, while others not so old, like the haveli of Hari Singh Nalwa, the ferocious general of the Sikh king, Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

There was particular excitement in the group. How often does one get to celebrate Shivratri at the site of ancient Shiva temples, where devotees for centuries have honoured this deity of destruction, and that too in Pakistan? Mahashivratri, before Partition, must have been a grand affair here, at one of the most sacred Shiva temples in Punjab, whose mention, it is reported, is also found in the Mahabharata.

For years after 1947, the temple was abandoned, its ancient structures becoming a rendezvous spot for young lovers, hidden from the gaze of prying eyes. As a testimony to their love, their initials with a heart around them have been chiseled on its walls. Young boys flocked to this temple every day, competing with each other for the highest and deepest jumps into the holy pond, standing at the roofs of these sacred temples.

But things changed in 2005, when Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani, on a trip to Pakistan, visited Katas Raj, resulting in the Pakistani state turning its attention towards this neglected temple. An office of the archaeology department was set up across the road and work on the renovation of the temple began. The next year, Indian Hindu pilgrims were invited to celebrate Shivratri at this ancient Shiva shrine. The temple was under the government’s gaze, and even though the visits by lovers and boys from neighbouring villages continued, the appointment of government officials at the site meant minimal damage, unlike in past years.

The optimism soon faded away when a group of young boys took it upon themselves to wage jihad on an infidel India. The terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008 brought the two nuclear-armed neighbours to the brink of war. Hindu pilgrims did not return the next year, or the year after. It seemed as if a beautiful tradition, songs of devotion, lamps of spirituality lit almost 60 years ago were once again fading away. Katas Raj, which had become a temple in the past few years, without its devotees, would have once again become a museum, gorgeous, yet lifeless.

Two assassinations

It is in this situation that the Hindu community of Pakistan, represented by various organisations such as the All Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement, Shiv-Kabir Mandali, Balmik Sabha, Hindu Sudhar Sabha and Scheduled Castes Rights Movement, based in different cities of the country, came forward to reclaim their sacred space, by deciding to organise the celebration of Shivratri at Katas Raj in 2011. They requested the state for special protection and patronage, provided to Indian pilgrims on the occasion of this festival, but none came forward. The community arranged its own transportation, food and living arrangements.

Aware of my project, the documentation of oral histories of religious minorities in the Punjab, culminating in my first book, A White Trail, Amar Nath, a resident of Lahore, and one of the organisers of the event, invited me.

On March 2, we were still half-way there when I received a call from Amar Nath telling me the festival might be cancelled. Earlier in the morning, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic Christian and the serving federal minister for minorities affairs, had been sprayed with bullets in Islamabad, soon after he left his mother’s house. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan accepted responsibility for the attack.

The assassination came a little less than two months after the murder of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, by his bodyguard. Both politicians prior to their assassinations had spoken vehemently against the blasphemy laws of Pakistan and their misuse for the persecution of religious minorities. And for the past several months, they had taken up the cause of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, on death row, accused of blasphemy. They were killed for their criticism of the blasphemy law, which was perceived to be a blasphemous act by the hardliners.

Perhaps it was not clear at that time, but in the next couple of years, it became apparent that these two back-to-back assassinations forever changed the political landscape of the country. The debate on amending the blasphemy law, which had begun at that time, quickly ended. Fearing for their lives, politicians, journalists, writers stopped talking about it altogether. This was a paradigm shift. An overwhelming crowd came out in support of Mumtaz Qadri, Taseer’s assassin. The myth of the tolerant silent majority of Pakistan was busted once and for all. A process that had begun with Salman Taseer’s assassination was sealed with the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti. For the religious minorities in Pakistan, it was as if time had been divided into two parts – pre- and post-Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti.

What makes the killing of these politicians even more symbolic is the slight hope of optimism that had emerged before their deaths. For the first time, a major politician, Salman Taseer, had publicly taken up the case of a blasphemy-accused Christian woman. Shahbhaz Bhatti was the first minister of a newly created and empowered Ministry of Minority Affairs. His short tenure of a little over two years saw an active engagement with minority affairs in the country, resulting in their mainstreaming. Only a few months after his death, the ministry, due to decentralisation, lost much of its power. Truncated, it now exists as a part of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, dominated by Muslim affairs.

While these two leaders were alive, there was much hope that the condition of religious minorities in the country might change. After more than six decades, it felt as if Pakistan was finally heading in the right direction, as far as its religious minorities were concerned. All such hope died within the first three months of 2011.

Moving on

The Shivratri celebration continued at Katas Raj that fateful night. Hundreds of Hindu devotees slept out in the open under a constant drizzle because of the lack of arrangements, while others, on the interference of the district superintendent of police, slept in the accompanying government office. However, the next morning, when government officials returned to their offices, unaware of the happenings of the night, the pilgrims were brutally thrown out. Resilient and determined to make their festival a success, the celebrations continued into the next day, despite the reluctance of the state authorities.

The relationship between India and Pakistan, after the horrendous Mumbai attacks, has moved on. Indian pilgrims started coming to Katas Raj for Shivratri once again. This year, too, at the end of February, they came to Pakistan for a week-long tour.

This is great theatrics for the state. A country besieged by terrorism and religious extremism presents its softer image. In January, just a few days after the death anniversary of Salman Taseer, Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister of the country, visited Katas Raj and approved funds for further renovation. While such acts have their own significance and are essential, given the current environment of the country, one wonders if they result in any changes for Hindus and other religious minorities living here. Are these symbolic acts, more so for the external world to see, rather than for the benefit of religious minorities in the country, still learning to live in a post-Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti world?

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books, most recently, Walking with Nanak.