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Untouchability - an unethical practice by Ladakhi Buddhists

by Stanzin Dawa, The Times of Tibet, March 23, 2006

Leh, Ladakh (India) -- The sugar coated perspective of Ladakh need to be broken if we really want to know the different aspects of peaceful, pristine land. Unless we know the whole truth, we will continue to hold many prejudices, and to know the whole truth we need to unlearn many things which have conditioned our mind to be stereotyped and judgmental.

<< Behind the serenity of this pristine land, beneath the Buddhist banner, lurks the ugly demeanor of a segretative caste system

The truth is that there are certain practices in Ladakhi culture which are neither culturally appropriate and religiously relevant nor legally legitimate. Despite the Constitutional guarantee of "Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth" under Article-15 of the Indian constitution and "Abolition of untouchability" under article-17.

Garba (the smiths), Mon (musician) and Beda are victims of many violations in Ladakh. They have separate cups and glasses for drinking local beer (Chang) or tea at the village gatherings or ceremonies. They are not allowed to eat or drink from the utensils of others as they fear that they would pollute them. Normally they are deprived of becoming the head of the village (Goba) and head of the monastery (Lobon) irrespective of their proficiency due to their caste identity. Atrocities against them basically arise in the context of 'keeping them' in their place within the social hierarchy, mediated by caste and untouchability.

The land is known for Buddhism & it is truly known that Buddhism is a casteless religion. Ladakh is known as land of lamas, each village has got a monastery treasured with statues and Thankas, but we have miles to go to lead a true Buddhist life.

Shia Muslim in Ladakh do not eat and drink from Buddhist family with a fear of polluting their religious sanctity. The discrimination and untouchability is not only practice d by the Shia Muslim but also by the people who professed to be Buddhist but practice against the fundamental principles of the Buddhism. The Shia's practice untouchability against Buddhist but the Buddhist's practice untouchability with their own people particularly with the Garba, Mon and Beda who are also belonging to their own faith.

The ideals at the heart of Buddhism are collectively known as the Three Jewels, or the Three Treasures. These are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. It is by making these the central principles of one's life that one becomes a Buddhist. Buddhist normally take refuge to these three jewels " I go for refuge to the Buddha, I go for refuge to the Dhamma, I go for refuge to the Sangha"

Are we practicing what we are preaching and praying? If we are practicing then why are we not accepting the Inter caste marriages with Garba, Mon and Beda? Time and again people have shown their concern for the decline and degeneration of Ladakhi culture.

We have blamed for media, tourism, modern technology, hostile modern forces but we hardly have taken the responsibility on our own shoulders. With the advancement of modernity the people belonging to Garba, Mon and Beda also change their profession.
Many of them are no more practicing their traditional occupation due to lack of dignity for their occupation and harsh discrimination by the people. By changing the occupation people's attitude does not change, social taboo and stigma is still attached with them.

We blame for rock, rap and Hindi music for polluting the sanctity of Ladakhi music and art. Are we not responsible for the degeneration and declination of Ladakhi culture, music and art? As we don't have respect for our own smith, musician and artists who are practicing conventional arts and crafts, but we do admire the music and musician which are foreign.

In some villages the houses of the low caste are segregated from the rest of the village. I don't understand the rationality behind; Why discrimination? Was it their choice to be born in such a family? Is it their fault to practice a profession which; Ladakhi do not regard? Do you think the civilization in Ladakh could have been possible without their contributions? Are they not aspiring for the right to live a dignified life?

The peace loving and hospitable Ladakhi people need to look within their own culture in order to make the culture and system more equitable and humane. Without their contributions the harvest, the music, the dance, the economic progress and the livelihood in Ladakh would not have been feasible.

The caste system of Ladakh is probably one of the most ill-understood and neglected entities. It is also the source for differing emotions, actions, reactions and behaviour among different people for a plethora of reasons and even unknown reasons.

Education liberates the mind from the fitters of ignorance, narrow thinking, superstiti ons and prejudices. Hence the modern education system was expected to produce men and women with no castes and creed. But we have seen that the ugly caste feelings are much more among educated class and more so when it comes to social affairs like marriages and rituals. Few years back a girl eloped with a low caste boy and got married. The situation in her family was worst than the death of any member of the family. Friends and relatives used to visit their house to console them, her mother stopped eating and drinking. Relatives and friends pressurized to boycott their daughter, virtually the family boycotted her. The news spread like wild fire; the life of the boy was in threat. There are many cases of conflict due to inter caste marriages in Ladakh. It needs a proper indepth study.

"The caste system of Ladakh is probably one of the most ill-understood and neglected entities. It is also the source for differing emotions, actions, reactions and behaviour among different people for a plethora of reasons and even unknown reasons."

Ladakhis are more conscious about caste when it comes for marriages, social and religious rituals even to some extent it influences the political decision of the people. There are rumors that caste played a significant role in the last council election. Can anyone tell me; how many councillors belonging to schedule caste are there in the existing Leh's and Kargil's respective Autonomous Hill Development Council bodies?
Unless the low caste people are involve d in the decision making process we cannot think of a truly democratic Ladakh. The 73 rd and 74th amendment of the Indian constitution have provided some constitutional reservation of seats for schedule caste in the local self government both at the Panchayati and municipality level.

Buddhism being a "casteless" religion; attracts Dalits and schedule castes for the conversion of their religion. Every year people are converting into Buddhism intentionally or unintentionally. For some it's more suitable for their spiritual growth but for some it's an opportunity to change their caste's status quo.

If some low caste Dalits from Punjab which has got the highest percentage of schedule caste population 28.85 percent or Uttar Pradesh which has the highest number of schedule caste population of 3.5 crore (India Year Book (NBT) 2006 page # 15) wish to convert their religion into Buddhism - with a motive to change their caste status in Ladakh - then it would be of no use; because in Ladakh caste system as practiced by the Buddhist community is contradictory to the Buddha's philosophy and teaching.

For some time now, inter religious marriage have become the cause of conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in Ladakh. If a low caste Buddhist converts into Muslim or Christian, what's the morality of LBA (Ladakh Buddhist Association) for checking such conversion? Both Buddhist and Muslims have violently opposed the inter religion marriages in Ladakh.

As a front to assume justice, democratic rights and the preservation of Ladakhi Buddhist way of life, the LBA started an agitation (with the Muslims) in 1989. Some political thinkers have sensed that Buddhists are going to be in minority due to higher population growth rate of the Muslim community. They believe this in the long run could be a constraint for securing the interest and identity of the Buddhist community in the long run.

But what identity are we talking about? What about the Buddhist minority section belonging to low caste, which is yet to be treated as equal human beings? The LBA needs to look within and bring some reform so that Ladakh can be a casteless region.

The existence of caste system among the Buddhist community in Ladakh is a big shame for all the Ladakhis. As Buddhism does not believe in caste system; why are we practicing it? Who benefits from it? Why we are weakening the moral structure of our own people? When are we going to socially abolish such system? When can these people can lead a dignified life? Why is the LBA is not taking some strong action to reform this system? As the LBA consider themselves to be the guardian of all Ladakhi Buddhist - to protect their interest - why have they left out this group? Are these people not Buddhist?

The LBA should put a whole hearted effort to cast out the caste system in Ladakh. Buddhism believes and practices for the welfare of all the sentient beings in the whole cosmic without any selfish motive. Are we really practicing the fundamental teachings of the Buddha, when we are alienating, ignoring and discriminating the people who are practicing even the same religion?

A few years back, HH Dalai Lama shook the consciousness of prejudiced Ladakhi by blessing, hugging and playing the musical instruments (Dhaman). His holiness, by playing the traditional drum (Dhaman), openly demonstrated that he, as well as Buddhism, condemns the caste system practiced by segments of Ladakhi Buddhists.

On one hand we organize different grand prayer ceremonies at Gompa Soma and monasteries by different organizations, we construct new Gompas, new Manay Tungchur, unfurl the religious flags (Tarchoks) on the hills and roof of the houses, give charity and burn thousands of butter lamps.

And yet, we are hesitant and have reservations for treating Garba, Mon and Bada as equal humans. Buddha says "Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared."

Let's join hands to 'cast out caste' from the face of Ladakh, so that coming generations can lead a dignified life in a caste free culture.

For a new Ladakh!

The author was the former Director Rural Development & You (RDY), former Member Jammu and Kashmir State AIDS Control Society, member of Indian Societies of Gandhian Studies, research fellow in Commonwealth Youth Programme, nominated for the Man of the Year 2004 oon the basis of his contrubutions and accomplishments for social development. He has got a Master in Sociology, PG Diploma in Sustainable Development, PG Diploma in Health and Family Planning, Master in Gandhian and Peace Studies. His area of interest are Peace, Sustainable development, Ladakh-Tibet friendship, policy advocacy, HIV/AIDS and sexual health. You can find the detail about me on www.stanzindawa.org.

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