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Plight of the Pandits;Silence of the Pundits
The World Refugees Day is coming up again on June 20 and Lalit Koul is making the rounds of Washington DC wonks and writers, lawmakers and legislative aides, just as he did before World Human Rights Day on December 10 and the Kashmiri Pandits' Exodus Day on January 19. In a city where every cause has a proponent, every êmigrê and exile has an advocate, "we are nobody's children, " he complains. He can't even rustle up a decent demonstration on the Hill or in front of the White House. The best he can do is drum up an occasional letter of support from a Congressman or schedule the screening of a documentary to highlight his community's plight. It has an eloquent title: ". . . And the world remained silent. "
Some two decades after nearly half a million Kashmiri Pandits were expelled from what were their homes for millennia, Koul and a small band of his activist colleagues are fighting to keep world attention alive to their cause. It's hard;seemingly hopeless. In a city where Palestinians, Kurds, Tibetans, Armenians, Burmese and dozens of other ethnic nationalities and sub-nationalities are fighting for attention, the Pandit cause is just another blip on the human rights radar. "We don't have the backing of Pakistan nor the funding of petrodollars, " says Koul, an info-tech professional who heads the Indian-American Kashmir Forum, referring obliquely to the support Kashmiri Muslims get from Islamabad and elsewhere, "We are just falling through the cracks."
Indeed, for the 1, 500-strong Pandit community scattered across the United States, it's not so galling that they have no traction in America as much as the neglect they say they suffer in India. When India itself is not moved by half a million Pandits expelled from their homes and turns its back on 50, 000 lodged in refugee camps in the capital, why blame America - or expats here, they say. It's like Bhopal: when the people of India, and their political and judicial representatives, sold them cheap, why blame others? They rage against Indian civil society, which they say is all a-bleeding about Kashmiri Muslims, but is unmoved by the plight of the Pandits. And they note with more than a hint of bitterness that the government of the day is pressing for rehabilitation of Tamil refugees in Sri Lanka while concern for Pandits fades.
Their one hope is that like Palestine and Bhopal, the issue will re-ignite somehow, catch world attention, and activists will pick up their cause with renewed energy. The genocide of Kashmiri Pandits happened before the internet age or instant 24/7 television. There were no TV cameras when the judges and academics were murdered by Islamic militants with the stark message - get out of Kashmir. There was no Facebook and Twitter and no viral messaging.
Now technologies and techniques are available, but they lack benefactors and big name support. The 1, 500 Pandits in the US came mostly as students and professionals, not as political refugees, and so lacked the voice and the drama that asylum seekers bring. Most of them are too busy making a career and home to spare time and bandwidth for their homeland.
In fact, some years back there was a poignant situation when a certain Vikram Pandit became the top honcho of Citibank. Initial joy that finally one of their own had risen to top of the corporate ladder and might be the benefactor (in terms of face and voice if not with finance) they were looking for was followed by dismay when they discovered that he was not from Kashmir, but from Nagpur;"a Pandit by name, not by blood. "
Indeed, there is a sense of irony that even as the Pandit issue is fading from the world's conscience, the term Pandit is more in use than ever before in the US - where it is spelt "Pundit". If Koul and his fellow activists could collect a dollar for every time the term was bandied about, they would be lolling in lolly. TV talking heads and op-ed columnists are now routinely referred to as Pundits, and there is a whole new media subculture of Punditocracy, a term used to describe a group of powerful and influential political commentators. From a book titled Sound and Fury: The Making of Punditocracy to the website punditicracywatch. com, it is a much overused term. Not a day passes without the tribe pontificating on issues ranging from Obama and the BP oil spill to the Gores' divorce to World Cup soccer. Everything, except the plight of the people who gave them the word.
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