They are critical players in any potential solution to the Kashmir problem. But the Pandits, Kashmir's castout Hindu minority, rarely figure in discussions about the disputed territory. Their small numbers--there are barely 300,000 of them--and tradition of peaceful protest make them easy to overlook. It doesn't help that the Pandits are poorly organized and splintered into numerous factions.
For centuries, Muslims and Pandits lived together in storybook harmony. The seeds of discord were sown during the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, when the Hindu ruler Hari Singh signed his kingdom over to India; most of his subjects were Muslim and would surely have preferred to join Pakistan or become independent. The Pandits, however, found it easy to identify with the Indian state: after all, its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a Pandit. So, when the first rumblings of rebellion were heard in the valley in 1989, the Pandits made it clear they would have no part of it. Many Muslims saw this as a betrayal of Kashmir.
As the rebellion gathered strength, the Pandits were frequently singled out for harsh treatment. "We were treated as spies for India," says Ajay Chungroo, who now lives in Jammu town, 300 km from the valley. Small in number and thinly spread across the valley, they were easy targets. By 1990, recalls Pyarelal Sapru, another Pandit, "we were surrounded by ill-feeling and suspicion." Many saw what was coming and left; others were hounded out by militant Muslims. Pandit homes and lands were seized, sometimes by Muslims, sometimes by the Indian military. Some Pandits wandered across India and settled among the Hindu majority. Some 25,000 continue to live in squalid refugee camps outside Jammu.
With each passing year, the Pandits' hopes of returning to their old homes and old ways are fading. Some groups, like Panun (My) Kashmir, are now demanding a separate homeland, carved out from the valley. "We can no longer live with the Muslims," says Pran Nath, a Panun Kashmir activist in Jammu. "Not after what they did to us."
The Pandits have a justifiable claim to a seat at the table in any negotiations for peace in Kashmir. Muslim leaders acknowledge that any settlement of Kashmir's problems must accommodate the displaced Hindus. Omar Farooq, leader of the All Party Hurriyat Conference, the pro-independence umbrella organization, says the Pandits "are our people--with as much claim on Kashmiri soil as any Muslim." But he will hear no talk of a separate Hindu homeland. "There will be no more partitions," he says. That might be the best deal the Pandits will ever get.