Rediff News
All News

NewsApp (Free)

Read news as it happens
Download NewsApp  » News » US exhibit whips up support for Kashmiri Pandits

US exhibit whips up support for Kashmiri Pandits

By Aziz Haniffa in Washington DC
Last updated on: September 23, 2005 00:33 IST
Get Rediff News in your Inbox:

It was called A Glimpse of a Tragedy Without an End.

This exhibition, held at the George R Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas, USA, focused on the fate of Kashmiri Pandits and apparently attracted some 15,000 viewers.

A special guest on the first day was Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee. A Texas Democrat, she is longtime member of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, (a group, established in 1993, of Congress members who push the Indian-American community's agenda on Capitol Hill ie in Congress). She is also current co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Pakistan and Pakistani Americans.

Jackson-Lee said she is "very involved with this matter (the alleged ethnic cleansing of the Kashmiri Pandits by Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in the Valley)" and pledged to follow up on the issue.

Earlier last month, the exhibition had a successful launch in the Rayburn Congressional Building Foyer on the Hill, before embarking on a road show across the US.

The exhibition was created by India-based journalist, author and rediff India Abroad columnist Francois Gautier and was hosted by the Foundation Against Continuing Terrorism, an India-based organization focused on Kashmir. It will now travel to the Bay Area of northern California, followed by stops in Boston, Massachusetts and New York City.

Dr Rahul Pandit, one of the founder-directors of FACT-USA, told the audience at the Houston convention centre that "the Kashmiri Pandits were driven out of Kashmir in 1990 due to terrorism. The scale of the exodus was larger than in Kosovo, yet the world has remained silent.

"We often hear about the Kashmir conflict, and hear about the freedom struggle and self-determination, and human rights abuses by the police and army, but we forget that this whole issue started with the influx of fundamentalism and terror -- the same fundamentalism that the US has been facing since 9/11."

FACT was founded by Gautier as a non-profit organization in 2004, to raise awareness about terrorism and its impact on the lives of innocent people. Pandit told rediff India Abroad that FACT-USA was founded to spread awareness in the US about the alleged ethnic cleansing and genocide of the minority Kashmiri Hindus in the Kashmir Valley.

The Srinagar-born, US-raised Pandit, 33, an ophthalmologist practicing in Houston, Texas, says Gautier had returned to India after the Capitol Hill launch, "but we may bring him back in the fall if we find it helpful or useful to help promote the exhibit." He says FACT-USA had been in a year-long discussion with Gautier about bringing the exhibition to the US to help raise awareness for the Kashmir problem.

Pandit, who says his entire family "was driven out (of the Valley) in 1989-1990", says the goal of FACT-USA would "also be in the long run to bring other exhibits and raise awareness about other issues of terrorism affecting Hindus in the South Asian subcontinent." Initially, he said, much of the organization's efforts would be focused on the terrorism aimed at Kashmiri Hindus.

The exhibition's opening at Capitol Hill, Washington DC drew tremendous support. Present were the likes of Congressmen Frank Pallone (New Jersey Democrat), Joe Wilson (South Carolina Republican) and Joe Crowley (New York Democrat), Jim McDermott (Washington Democrat); Raminder Singh Jassal, deputy chief of mission at the Indian embassy in Washington DC; Yossef Bodansky, director of research at the International Strategic Studies Association (an organization of professionals involved in national and international security and strategic policy) and also director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare of the US House of Representatives; and Dr Vijay Sazawal, president of the Indo-US Kashmir Forum, a leading lobbying outfit working for the Kashmiri Hindus and the catalyst in convincing US lawmakers to put pressure on the US Department of State to include the plight of the Pandits in its annual human rights report.

Pandit says Pallone (who established the Congressional Caucus for India and Indian Americans) was instrumental in helping the exhibit get a Capitol Hill showing, which in turn helped with fund-raising efforts aimed at helping to sustain the road show. The exhibition is being managed by iPremm, a public relations company headquartered in Boston and headed by Kanchan Banerjee.

Gautier in his remarks at the opening said western journalists and human rights groups have consistently neglected the atrocities and injustices perpetrated against the Kashmiri Hindus by Islamic militants. 'In the year 1990,there were one million Kashmiri Hindus, and today there are hardly few hundred left in the Valley,' Gautier said. 'It is a shameful tragedy that about 400,000 of them are living as refugees in their own country.'

Pallone noted that the FACT exhibit was the first of its kind to visually depict the terrorism in Kashmir. He expressed concern over the lack of visible effort to return the displaced Kashmiri Hindus to their homeland.

'As chairman of the Kashmir Task Force, a subcommittee within the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, I have been advocating for peace and prosperity for the people of Kashmir,' Pallone said. 'Even though Kashmir is rightfully a state within India, its citizens, the Kashmiri Pandits who had been living in the Kashmir Valley for 5,000 years, suffered a long history of attacks throughout the 1990s, leading to mass migration of Pandits from the Valley, most of whom were either murdered or forced to live in wretched refugee camps.'

Dubbing their elimination as 'genocide', Pallone hoped the exhibit going on the road in America would result in increased rights and protections of Pandits.

Wilson, who like the other Congressmen present is a former co-chair of the India Caucus, praised Gautier's work in highlighting 'the brutal human rights violations committed by the terror groups'.

Linking the terrorism in Kashmir ideologically with the 9/11 attacks on America, Wilson said 'Together, as allies, our two nations must continue fighting this scourge which afflicts all free nations.'

Joe Crowley said that as a representative of the second largest community of Indian Americans (New York) in the US and a frequent visitor to India, he was well aware of, and closely monitoring, Kashmir-related issues.

He said it was imperative to ensure that Kashmir remains a part of India, and that the cross-border terrorism Islamabad was encouraging across the Line of Control was Pakistan's way of "trying to avenge the loss it suffered in Bangladesh."

Yossef Bodansky recalled that he had raised concerns about the threat of global Islamic terrorist groups as early as 1993, based upon his research of the more than 50-year-old Kashmir imbroglio.

He argued that as long as the Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, maintains an active terrorist program to support Taliban and Kashmiri jihadis, there is no possibility of the Kashmir issue being resolved peacefully.

'There is already too much invested by pan-Islamic terrorists to simply abandon their jihad at this time,' Bodansky said.

Sazawal recalled Washington Post columnists like the conservative Charles Krauthammer and the liberal, late Mary McGrory, who had both raised concerns in the early 1990s about the terrorism in Kashmir. 'This was well before 9/11 and well before everyone actually believed that there was a jihad underway in Kashmir,' Sazawal said.

He recalled a McGrory column in which she had written, '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, the Hindu minority that has lived in Kashmir for 5,000 years, would like to go home.'


Get Rediff News in your Inbox:
Aziz Haniffa in Washington DC