- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2006

Hindus who were driven out of Indian-controlled Kashmir following the onset of Islamist militancy in the late 1980s are seeking U.S. help to a return to their homeland.

S.K. Tikoo, a leading Kashmiri Hindu politician who met with State Department officials during a recent Washington visit, said the United States needs to pressure Pakistan to stop aiding the militants before the Hindus — commonly referred to as Pandits — can return to their homes in the Kashmir Valley.

“The gun culture will not end unless Pakistan is pressured, unless [the United States] stops supporting Pakistan with deadly and sophisticated weapons to protect its status as a front-line state,” Mr. Tikoo told the Center for Strategic and International Studies last month.

Mr. Tikoo, a retired Indian army captain and a former Cabinet minister in the Jammu and Kashmir state government, heads the Awami League, a party made up of former Islamist militants.

India controls two-thirds of Kashmir, and Pakistan one-third, with a sliver held by China. Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir in full. Kashmir is the only Muslim-majority region of India. The Jammu region of the state is predominantly Hindu.

Philip Oldenburg, a South Asia analyst who teaches at Columbia and Johns Hopkins universities, said the Kashmir situation has the potential to be very dangerous since both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons.

“The U.S. has a clear interest in preventing the outbreak … of a war which might lead to nuclear exchange,” Mr. Oldenburg said in a recent interview to the South Asian Journalists Association. He said if the United States was “around to twist arms” the two countries could come to an agreement.

Mr. Tikoo said Muslims of Kashmir Valley, with their unique mix of shrines, hymns, saints and mysticism, have lived in harmony with Hindus since India’s independence from Britain in 1947. But the Islamist militancy that began in 1989 brought in Wahhabism and other extreme forms Islam, causing tensions with the Hindus.

The beginning of the militants’ campaign coincided with the end of the decadelong Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The United States supplied weapons to the Afghan mujahedeen through Pakistan, and some of the weapons and the foreign fighters found their way into Kashmir.

Since then, Mr. Tikoo said, the Pandits of the Kashmir Valley suffered crimes amounting to ethnic cleansing. According to one estimate more than 4,000 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the initial violence.

Today, an estimated 350,000 Pandits from Kashmir live as refugees elsewhere in India or abroad. According to the Kashmiri Overseas Association-USA, 95 percent of the Pandits in Kashmir in the 1980s are now living in Jammu and other parts of India.

“The Kashmiri Pandits are refugees in their own country because the Indian government failed to provide security and safety to them when they were threatened, tortured and murdered by the Islamic terrorists,” said Mr. Tikoo, whose visit was organized by the Indo-American Kashmir Forum, a Washington-based advocacy group.

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