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'The Panun Kashmir homeland concept is something we have to push for'

February 10, 2010 20:30 IST

The Kashmiri Pandit leadership from across the United States, led by California-based community activist Jeevan Zutshi, last week met senior Obama administration officials at the State Department and lawmakers on Capitol Hill to implore them to help address the plight of the Pandits in India.

Two decades after being forced to flee the Kashmir valley in the wake of ethnic cleansing by the terrorists, the Pandits, Kashmiri Hindus, continue to languish in refugee camps in Delhi and other parts of India. 

Zutshi, chairman, International Kashmir Federation, told India Abroad that besides bringing to the attention of the State Department and lawmakers the continuing plight of the Pandits, it was also to educate administration officials and Congress of the concept of 'Panun Kashmir' ('My Kashmir') which calls for a separate homeland "where Kashmiri Pandits can live in peace while holding onto their culture and traditions."

He said that for the past 20 years he had not thought this was such a viable concept, but in recent months following brainstorming sessions with the Kashmiri Pandit leadership, "I have come to the conclusion — as have the others — that this is the only option for the Pandits so that they can have a homeland of their own."

"We are not asking for a separate state," he continued, "nor do we want it to be only exclusively for the Pandits and we would welcome our moderate and secular Muslim friends to be part of it — who don't sympathize or favor the militancy and with whom the Pandits lived for hundreds of years in peace and harmony."

He said the Indian government had not done a thing to help the Pandits or help them "in their rehabilitation and to go back to their homes with dignity and to recover their land and property," but were only "engaged in a policy of appeasement" with Kashmir's political establishment.

Zutshi acknowledged that for the past several years that the IKF lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill and elsewhere had been "too focused on terrorism perpetrated from Pakistan and the cross-border elements."

But of late, he added, "we believe the Panun Kashmir homeland concept is something we have to push for because we now believe that is the only alternative for the more than 350,000 Pandits -- who were driven away from their homes after thousands were murdered and raped -- to live in Kashmir in peace and dignity and protect and preserve our culture and traditions."

He said the administration officials and lawmakers had been "interested to hear" of the concept. He said they promised "they would continue to help to focus on the plight and human rights issue of the Pandits" as part of the United States-India agenda.

The delegation that met with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Michael Owen -- a former consul general in Mumbai -- also handed over a memorandum to be given to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Owen's boss, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake. The memorandum stated: 'In direct violations of the constitution of India and the United Nations charter, Kashmiri politicians have denied the basic human rights to Hindus. They have also purposely created an atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity so that like Hindus, Sikhs and secular Muslims of Kashmir region, the Hindus of Jammu and adjoining cities feel extremely unsafe and helpless and are forced to leave their homes.'

It complained that 'the government of India has not made an effort to rehabilitate the Pandit refugees in their own country. It has only been talking about their return without any consideration for their safety.'

Zutshi said the delegation had also forcefully impressed upon Owen and lawmakers that "20 years have passed and our people are still disenfranchised politically, socially and economically. We informed them that more than 45,000 people are still in camps and the state government of Jammu and Kashmir has been busy making false promises while government of India has been consistent with a policy of appeasement."

The delegation included Maharaj Kaul from New York, Deepak Ganju from Florida, a past president of the Kashmiri Overseas Association, and Ishani Chaudhary of the Hindu American Foundation.

The lawmakers the delegation met with included US Congressmen Mike Honda, California Democrat; Ed Royce, California Republican; Frank Pallone, New Jersey Democrat and founder and former co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans; and Jerry McNerney, California Democrat.

The delegation also met with Senator Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat and a longtime advocate on behalf of the Pandits from his days as a member of the US House of Representatives.

Aziz Haniffa