Kashmiri Pandits, the peaceful followers of non-violence are victims twice over. First, they lost out to religious zealots and terrorists who forced them to flee in fear from their homes and, second, they have lost out by languishing in poorly run refugee camps, that have deprived them of their remaining dignity.
What is merely a statistic for the rest of the world is a very personal experience for me. My family had lived in Kashmir since antiquity. I was born in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), in a house which had been our family home for over 150 years. My parents relocated in 1954 to a newer dwelling in Srinagar, and after retirement in 1975 wanted nothing more than just to live their sunset years in the land of their forefathers. In spite of the fact that their son – their only biological child – moved to the US, they never even once thought of moving permanently here even though they frequently visited my adopted country to be with their grandchildren from time to time.
Their world, as the world of other Kashmiri Pandits - who are in a minority in the valley – fell apart when the armed insurgency started in 1989-1990. What the world saw then as a demand for separation was in reality a cleverly cloaked jihad for religious and ethnic cleansing. Kashmiri Pandits became its first victims.
My parents like most other Pandits left with not much more than the clothes on their backs and made it to safety in New Delhi. Unfortunately, my father could never overcome the trauma of forced exile and displacement. He died in New Delhi not too long after reaching there. It was not until June 11, 1999 that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of India would declare the turmoil of Pandits as "near genocide", but even then that pronouncement was mostly ignored by the Indian civil society not yet ready to accept that true version of events that took place in Kashmir in 1989-1990.
Today even those who organized the insurgency in Kashmir from late 1980s and early 1990s acknowledge the role of mujahideen in propping up a miniscule separatist movement in Jammu and Kashmir. The former prime minister of Pakistan-administered "Azad Jammu and Kashmir" (AJK), Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan, had this to say on May 15, 2005:
"Jihadi groups have caused the worst damage to the Kashmir cause. But militancy has benefited the Kashmir cause because the cause had almost died and militancy gave it a new life."
This man should know. After all, he is the executive that established a new budget line item for the "Kashmir Liberation Cell" in AJK Budget in 1987 and got it endorsed by the AJK Legislative Assembly subsequently. It was while talking about these funds, which paid for fidayeen (suicide squads) and other means of death and destruction in the Indian side of Kashmir, that a visiting former terrorist from Indian Kashmir commented in the joint session of the AJK Assembly on June 3, 2005:
"The romantic aura created by AJK leadership about militancy had attracted very talented Kashmir youth who later lost their lives."
What was left unsaid was how these terrorists and thugs, trained and armed by money raised in AJK and elsewhere, destroyed families and lives of civilians who neither supported jihad nor the gun culture that was let loose in Kashmir.
Let me take you back ten years when we arranged a conference on the same subject on these hallowed grounds of the U.S. Legislature. It was an event that had the bi-partisan support of Congressmen Rob Andrews, a Democrat, and Bill McCollum, a Republican. This was well before 9/11 and well before everyone actually believed us that there was a jihad underway in Kashmir – many knowledgeable people who thought they knew a lot about the Kashmir issue were unprepared to accept that new ground realities of a changed neighborhood were affecting geo-politics of the entire region surrounding Kashmir.
But three exceptionally wonderful people have to be acknowledged. First, Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post columnist, who wrote on February 16, 1990 that Kashmir was being drawn into a "global intifada" movement by Islamists who were in a majority in a tiny region of India known for its secular traditions in the past. Second, the late Mary McGrory, who wrote in a column in the Washington Post on August 27, 1992: "Kashmiri Pandits have been driven off their ancestral lands by Islamic guerrillas who wish to annex Kashmir to the crescent of fundamentalist countries in the area." And finally Congressman McCollum, who chaired a Special House Republican Task Force on Terrorism, came out on May 21, 1994 with an authoritative analysis of terrorist organizations in Kashmir operating at the behest of the Pakistani intelligence (ISI).
Again, in the words of Ms. McGrory, "In Kashmir, an earthly paradise, blameless people are suffering hellish persecution not for anything they did but for being who they are. The Kashmiri Pandits, a minority Hindu sect that has lived in Kashmir for 5,000 years, would like to go home."
Let me conclude by reading you the last paragraph from the speech I made at that historic conference on June 28, 1995 in the U.S. Capitol:
"Let me leave you with following thoughts. If people as diverse as Charles Krauthammer and Mary McGrory can agree on what has happened to Kashmiri Pandits, if Congressmen McCollum and Andrews can stand on the same platform and talk about Pandits and about other victims of global terrorism, then surely we are making a humble beginning. Perhaps there is some hope that all is not lost yet. Perhaps lessons from this painful experience can be translated to this country so that American citizens do not have to suffer like Kashmiri Pandits. Let us hope that incidents in New York and Oklahoma City are not repeated. We do not wish on Americans what has happened to Kashmiri Pandits. Terrorism is evil. We have to stop it in all its forms and shapes, and wherever it happens. That, in my opinion, is the greatest challenge the civilized society faces in the new world order."
Sadly, ten years later I wonder if we will ever learn from history. The tragedy of Kashmiri Pandits appears truly without an end.
Vijay K. Sazawal, Ph.D. is president, Indo-American Kashmir Forum (IAKF), Washington, DC. This article is adapted from a speech given by him at an event organised by The Foundation Against Continuing Terrorism (FACT) in the U.S. Congress, Rayburn House Building on July 11, 2005