Buddhist-Muslim Relations in Ladakh – Part 2

By Yoginder Sikand, TwoCircles.net,

Full Series: Buddhist-Muslim Relations in Ladakh

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Recent Developments

Traditionally, relations between the principal communities in Ladakh, the Buddhists, Shi‘as and Sunnis, have been fairly cordial. However, recent years have witnessed a marked deterioration in relations, owing primarily to various political developments. This finally culminated in a social boycott by the Buddhists of the Muslims of Leh district, declared and enforced by the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) in 1989. The boycott remained in force till 1992, and witnessed several clashes between Buddhist and Muslim youth, incidents of police firing in which three people lost their lives, the burning down of several Muslim homes and even cases of forced conversion of Muslims to Buddhism. During the boycott, Buddhists who visited their Muslim relatives or patronised Muslim shops were penalised by LBA activists, and social relations between the communities were almost completely severed. Relations between the Buddhists and Muslims in Leh have improved after the lifting of the boycott, although suspicions still remain. The deterioration in relations between the Buddhists and Muslims of Leh are entirely a product of modern developments, particularly economic and political. They cannot, therefore, be seen as atavistic or a regress to a supposed obscurantist past, especially as, we have noted above, in the past relations between the communities were relatively cordial.

Old mosque and Leh Castle in the background [Photo: http://sherabphoto.blogspot.com]

The boycott of Leh’s Muslims came as a culmination of a series of agitations spearheaded by local Buddhist groups against what they saw as Kashmiri Muslim ‘colonialism’. No sooner had Jammu and Kashmir acceded to the Indian Union than the Buddhists of Ladakh began protesting against Shaikh ‘Abdullah and the Kashmir-dominated state. The first budget of Jammu and Kashmir after 1947 allocated no funds for Ladakh, and, in fact, the region had no separate plan till 1961. In May 1949, Chewang Rigzin, President of the Ladakh Buddhist Association, sent a memorandum to the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru; pleading that Ladakh should not be bound by the outcome of a plebiscite in the state if the majority of its inhabitants chose to join Pakistan. He suggested that Ladakh be governed directly by the Government of India or be amalgamated with the Hindu-majority parts of Jammu to form a separate province or else be incorporated into East Punjab. Failing this, he said, Ladakh would be forced to consider joining Tibet. Nehru shared the LBA’s concerns, but urged it not to insist on its demands on the grounds that any constitutional or administrative action could weaken India’s stand on Kashmir in the United Nations.

The LBA then began to press for greater internal autonomy for Ladakh. It demanded the formation of a Ministry of Ladakh Affairs headed by a popularly elected Ladakhi member of the Legislative Assembly; adequate representation in the legislature and civil service; more development funds for constructing roads and canals and promoting agriculture and horticulture; and replacement of the Kashmiri police by local personnel. It wanted Ladakhi in the Tibetan or Bodhi script to be made the medium of instruction in schools in place of Urdu, and special provisions to be made for facilitating higher education and training in medicine, law, engineering, agriculture and forestry. It argued that Ladakh should bear essentially the same relationship with the state of Jammu and Kashmir as that between Kashmir and India, with the local legislature being the only competent authority to make laws for Ladakh.

In the years that followed, state allocations for Ladakh increased and the state government set up a ten-member Ladakh Development Commission, but these were seen as inadequate steps by the Buddhists of Leh, who kept up their demand for autonomy. Thus, in turn, led to growing political differences between the Ladakhi Muslims and Buddhists. In 1969, the alleged desecration of a Buddhist flag by a Muslim, the stoning of the Jami‘a Masjid and Imambara in Leh by a Buddhist procession, and subsequent reactions in Kargil, led to a heightening of the communal divide. The Buddhist Action Committee raised a number of demands, including Scheduled Tribe status for the Ladakhis, settlement of Tibetan refugees in Ladakh, construction of a rest house in Kargil, recognition and introduction of the Bodhi language as a compulsory subject till the high school level, and provision of a full-fledged cabinet minister to represent Ladakh. Some of these demands were met by the state government but the others were not accepted, perhaps because they were strongly opposed by the Muslim Action Committee in Kargil, who feared that this would result in further Buddhist domination. The Shi‘a Muslims of Kargil now began to see their interests as being inextricably linked to Kashmir, despite a complete absence of cultural and ethnic ties with the Kashmiri Muslims, the vast majority of whom, in contrast to the Kargilis, are Sunnis.

In 1980, police firing on Buddhist agitators demanding regional autonomy resulted in the setting up of the All-Party Ladakh Action Committee to spearhead the autonomy movement. Shortly after, a parallel Kargil Action Committee was set up, constituted by the National Conference and the Congress, which demanded provincial status for the two districts of Leh and Kargil on the pattern of the Jammu and Kashmir divisions. The Kargilis were, obviously, apprehensive of being included along with the Buddhists of Leh in an autonomous Ladakh. Taking advantage of these divisions, the state government used the Kargil Action Committee’s stand to reject the demand for Ladakhi regional autonomy on the plea that all Ladakhis did not want it.

The outbreak of militancy in Kashmir in 1989 convinced many Buddhists in Leh that their future was insecure in Jammu and Kashmir. Many of them feared what they saw as a possible Muslim takeover of their land. This fear was strengthened both by the Kashmiri demand for total independence or merger with Pakistan of the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir, including Ladakh, as well as the fact that the population growth rate in Kargil was considerably higher than in Leh, which meant that in a few decades the Buddhists would be in a clear minority in Ladakh as a whole. To add to this were continued charges of neglect by the Kashmir government and discrimination against Buddhists in fund and project allocations and government jobs. The question of regional autonomy for Leh was now increasingly being framed in communal terms, as a Muslim-Buddhist conflict.

A scuffle between a Buddhist youth and four Muslims in Leh on July 1989 set off a major agitation in Leh. This led to clashes in Leh town, which then spread to other parts of the Leh district. The Jammu and Kashmir Armed Police are said to have fired at Buddhist demonstrators, killing some of them. They are also alleged to have forcibly entered Buddhist homes, desecrated objects of worship, resorted to indiscriminate beating of locals and looting of property. These actions led the LBA to embark upon a violent struggle, once again demanding the separate constitutional status of a Union Territory for Ladakh. Shortly after, the LBA declared a complete economic and social boycott of the Muslims.

The boycott was initially directed at the Kashmiri Muslims, who controlled the local administration, as well as the Argon Sunni Muslims, who dominated the economy of Leh town, and who were seen as ‘Kashmiri agents’ and as opposed to the Buddhists’ demand for autonomy. The Baltis were later also included after they made common cause with the Sunnis, who presented the conflict as a communal one. The boycott was finally lifted in 1992, after the Government of India convinced the LBA that it would not consider its demands if it carried on with the boycott. An agreement was then entered into by the LBA and the Ladakh Muslim Association (LMA), which represented both the Shi‘as and the Sunnis of Leh. The Government of India, after much procrastination, then set up the Leh Autonomous Hill Council, providing the Leh district with considerable internal autonomy. With this, many of the demands of the LBA were met.

Two Ladakhi Muslim girls [Photo: http://sherabphoto.blogspot.com]

In 1995, when the Leh Autonomous Hill Council was set up, the Kargilis were offered a similar deal. They, however, declined, believing that it would undermine the authority of the Kashmir government, whom they tended to look upon as their ally. However, probably witnessing the considerable development that Leh has seen in recent years, partly because it now enjoys a degree of autonomy, the Kargilis agreed to the setting up of the Kargil Autonomous Hill Council, which came into being in 2003. This, however, has been met with stiff resistance from the Buddhist minority in the Zanskar region in Kargil, who see the move as against their interests, and who have now started demanding a separate autonomous territory for themselves.

The setting up of the Leh Autonomous Hill Council appeared to have settled matters somewhat, to begin with. However, in 2000, when the then Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister, Farooq ‘Abdullah, tabled a resolution in the state assembly calling for the restitution of the pre-1953 status of Jammu and Kashmir as an autonomous entity within the Indian Union, the LBA once again protested and demanded that Ladakh be declared a Union Territory. The LBA feared that if the pre-1953 status were restored, Ladakh would be turned into a ‘colony’ of Kashmir. In the wake of a week-long stir in Leh in June 2000, the LBA President Tsering Samphel insisted, ‘The only way out is to let Ladakh assume a Union Territory status’. He declared that if the LBA’s demands were not met, it would ‘approach the United Nations, pleading to somehow protect our cultural identity’. Lobzang Nyantak, the leader of the LBA’s youth wing went to the extent of cautioning the state and Union governments that, ‘The God-fearing folk of this region would be forced to take up arms if their long-pending demand remained ignored…[and] it will only be for the administration to blame if we happened to resort to the warpath. It [violence] may appear anti-religious, but the motive, nonetheless, is to protect our identity’. Not surprisingly, the LBA’s demand for the trifurcation of the state on essentially communal lines was warmly welcomed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party, who are said to have established close links with the LBA, seeing it as an ally against the Muslims.

The vast majority of the Buddhists of Leh are said to solidly back the Union Territory demand, and some Muslims of Leh have also supported it. However, it is likely that some local Muslims oppose the demand, for fear of being dominated by the more advanced Buddhists, although they are careful not to be vocal in their opposition. Likewise, the majority of the Muslims of Kargil are vehemently opposed to Union Territory status for Ladakh. They refuse to consider joining Leh because they feel that Kargil, considerably poor and under-developed compared to Leh, would suffer neglect at the hands of a Buddhist-dominated administration. Further, they also do not wish to separate from Muslim-majority Kashmir, although, at the same time, most Kargilis do not support the secessionist struggle in the Valley. The ongoing political tussle which underlies the communal schism is further exacerbated by the fact that the Ladakh region, including Kargil and Leh, has just one parliamentary seat. During elections, Buddhist and Shi‘a leaders are said to consistently pander to communal prejudices to mobilise votes for this one single seat. A possible solution to this problem is, as some people have suggested, to increase the number of parliamentary seats to two, one each for Shi‘a-majority Kargil and Buddhist-majority Leh. Alternately, the single seat could be allocated on a rotational basis, for one term to Leh and for the next to Kargil.

Although the roots of the communal divide in Leh are, thus, largely political, they also have an underlying religious dimension. Religion in Ladakh is, as elsewhere, often used as a mobilisational device by politicians, both Muslims as well as Buddhists, which leads to further mistrust between the communities. Besides, several religious leaders appear to have a very negative image of other communities and their religions. These understandings, in turn, are contested by some of their co-religionists, who seek, in their own ways, to promote better relations between the communities.