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Ladakh loses its innocence

by Utpal Kumar, The Daily Pioneer, 24 NOVEMBER 2012

Last month Zanskar Valley witnessed communal violence on the issue of the conversion of 26 Buddhists. But the problem isn’t confined to one place. Entire Ladakh is divided on religious lines. Utpal Kumar has more to say on the issue

Leh, Ladakh (India) -- At first glance, Ladakh would appear to be nothing less than the last Shangri-la. Inhabited by people who often greet you with a genuine smile, and whose warmth more than compensates for the sub-zero temperature of the region, it’s the ideal retreat for those willing to escape the rough and tumble of a city life.

But probe a little and Ladakh comes out as a divided territory - completely at odds on the lines of religion. The calm is superficial, as was seen last month in Zanskar Valley where 26 members of six Buddhist families got converted to Islam, leading to communal clashes in the region. Six years ago, Ladakh was on fire as well - that time on the alleged desecration of the Quran at a village mosque by a group of Buddhists.

Why has Ladakh lost its sublime innocence? As I walk on the streets of the Leh market with this question in mind, what catches my attention is the presence of no less than five mosques within walking distance. The area has very little Muslim population, but these religious structures are big and ostentatious! And their Islamic architecture stands out distinctly amid a host of other Ladakhi-style buildings, as if to deliberately convey the message of being the other.

“Earlier mosques in Ladakh bore a typical Tibetan or Ladakhi look. They would be similar in design and style to a Buddhist monastery. In the past two decades, however, we have seen minarets and domes being built as per Islamic architectural norms,” says Tsering Namgyal, a 65-year-old schoolteacher. He also points to the fact that, post-renovation, the famous Jamia mosque in Leh has turned unambiguously Islamic, quite unlike the older structure which was almost identical to a typical Ladakhi religious building in its design and floral motifs. “There is a conscious effort to copy the Iranian style in Ladakh. In fact, if you want to see the cultural uprooting of Muslims in the region, then you should go to the main Kargil market where it is not uncommon to see shops being named after Najaf, one of the holiest cities of Shias in Iraq,” he says.

Namgyal is old enough to see a growing cultural insularity in the region, with some young Muslims consciously seeking to distance themselves from what they regard as the ‘regressive’ Buddhist influence. Buddhists, too, no longer trust Muslims.


The change, however, isn’t just structural. It’s behavioural as well. Not very long ago, the people of Ladakh - both Buddhists as well as Muslims - were quite passionate about music. But now one finds a general distaste among Muslims for music. “Traditional Muslim wedding ceremonies, accompanied by music and dance, are being replaced by simple functions as they are increasingly being viewed as un-Islamic,” says Rinchen, a local shopkeeper. Likewise, polo is no longer the popular sport it once used to be in the region.

But the revulsion isn’t confined to music alone. There is a growing discomfort among the younger generation of Muslims for the very culture of Ladakh. Worse, a large section of the community has cultivated a sense of untouchability for Buddhists. “We can’t eat food cooked by them. In fact, for some of us even the mere touch of a Buddhist is considered to be polluting, though here in Leh it’s difficult to pursue it religiously,” says Najeeb as he sits in front of his carpet shop. And, if he is to be believed, this practice is even more rigidly observed in Kargil, where Muslims are in a majority.

But why do they practice untouchability?

“Look, in Islam it is haram (illegitimate) to have anything to do with liquor. But these Buddhists thrive on alcohol consumption. None of their festivities gets over without the presence of alcohol. So, how can we eat with them at their homes?” asks Najeeb.

Prof BB Kumar, who has closely studied the region along with Central Asia and Tibet, isn’t too surprised. “It’s not shocking to see this trend of alienation in Ladakh, known for communal harmony. In fact, as a child, I remember witnessing in the Purnia division of north Bihar several Muslim women of Kulaiya and Sheikh sects wearing sindur (vermilion) and actively taking part in Hindu festivals. Also, there were several Muslims with Hindus names. They were culturally the same despite being religiously different,” says he. Prof Kumar, however, insists that it was not due to the Hindu influence, but because these Muslims were “simply retaining the old practices and traditions of their forefathers”. It was the arrival of Wahhabism that brought the uneasy exclusivism and the awareness of being different.


Ladakhi scholar Abdul Ghani Sheikh, in one of his recent articles, recalls his first visit to Kuksho, a village 143 km east of Leh, in the late 1960s, and how things have changed since then. In 1967, he says, there were 45 households in the village. Of these, seven families were Buddhist, one was Muslim, and the remaining 37 households practised a mixed religion. “Most of the men of the 37 families had combined Buddhist and Muslim names, such as Rahim Tsering, Ali Tashi and Namgyal Musa. The eldest brother of the family received a Muslim name, but almost all the women had Buddhist names. In the wake of a serious illness of a child, on the advice of a priest, the parents would change the name of the child from a Buddhist to a Muslim one and vice versa,” he says. Today, there is no mixed family in the village. In all, there exist 24 Buddhist families and 20 Muslim families and they no longer take part in each other’s festivals.

This camaraderie wasn’t just confined to Kuksho. There are many incidents across Ladakh where Muslim families would come to a Buddhist oracle to seek his blessings. The most pertinent example of this Buddhist-Muslim solidarity was seen on the occasion of Losar, the Tibetan New Year, when the Ladakhi king would pass through Leh at the head of a large procession, followed by his cavalry. The Buddhist head of the cavalry would then visit the Sunni mosque in the town, offer oil for the lamps in the mosque, and ask for the blessings of the local imam.

One would often hear intermarriages between Muslims and Buddhists in Ladakh - both at the popular as well as the royalty level. “Intermarriages were never an issue here. In fact, when Jamyang Namgyal, the 17th century ruler of Ladakh, married Gyal Khatun, daughter of the Shia ruler of Khaplu, she was regarded by Buddhists as an incarnation of the White Tara. This despite the fact that Khatun remained a Muslim till her death,” says Dorjey, a lama at the Hemis monastery. “Post-1989, such intermarriages have become uncommon,” he adds.


Local Muslims blame the Buddhist agitation in the late 1980s for the break up of the harmonious relationship between the two communities in Ladakh. The July 1989 agitation began when a scuffle between a Buddhist youth and four Muslims in Leh turned into a major confrontation. Soon, the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) declared a complete socio-economic boycott of Muslims. It went on for three years before being lifted in 1992.

“During the boycott, Muslim houses were targeted. Buddhists who visited their Muslim relatives and friends or bought goods from their shops were punished by LBA activists, and social relations between the communities were almost completely severed,” says Rafiq, whose mother was a Buddhist.

He, however, believes that relations between Buddhists and Muslims in Leh have improved after the lifting of the boycott, although suspicion still remains. Rafiq further adds that the reason for the 1989 violence was inter-community marriage.

Dorjey has another story to tell. “We were always fine with the idea of intermarriage. But we witnessed a disturbing trend: That more Buddhist women were marrying outside their community than Muslim women did. This was the root cause of the 1989 agitation.” He, however, concedes that the situation went a bit out of control and both sides exceeded their briefs. “Younger lamas do not have the proper understanding of Buddhism and its tenets. They get agitated when they see something going wrong. They need to be more mature in expressing their dissent,” Dorjey explains.

He, however, contests the idea that all was well before 1989. “The boycott, in reality, was the culmination of a series of agitations spearheaded by local Buddhist groups against the ‘colonial’ policies of the Srinagar-based Government,” he says, reminding us of a memorandum sent by then LBA president Chewang Rigzin to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as early as in May 1949, pleading that Ladakh should not be bound by the outcome of a plebiscite in the State if the majority of its inhabitants chose to merge with Pakistan. Rigzin 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. Nehru shared his concerns, but did precious little as it was antithesis of his ‘secular’ beliefs. What further enflamed the fire was the total neglect of Ladakh by the Jammu & Kashmir Government, a case in the point was the fact that the State had no separate plan for the region till 1961.

For Namgyal, a lot of water has flown down the Indus and now only a miracle can reverse the trend in the region. “Wahhabism is on. And in reaction, even Buddhists are taking up rigid positions. The situation will only worsen in future,” he says, quoting a 2001 Census that in the past 40 years the Buddhists have lost 7.96 per cent of their percentage share in the combined population of Ladakh. “The only way to salvage the situation is to separate Ladakh from Jammu & Kashmir. But then this won’t happen, as it goes against the ‘secular’ ethos of the powers-that-be,” says the schoolteacher.

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