Jammu and Kashmir: Ladakh violence and the Buddhist-Muslim counter-perspective

Islam Interfaith
Recent reports of clashes between Muslims and Buddhists in Ladakh triggered off by the alleged desecration of the Qur'an in a village in Kargil are an ominous reminder.
A reminder that the absence, for several years now, of overt communal violence in this sensitive border district in Jammu and Kashmir does not necessarily indicate the absence of communal mistrust and suspicions that can easily be taken advantage of by unscrupulous politicians.
Traditionally, relations between the roughly equally numerous Muslims and Buddhists in Ladakh have been harmonious, but political developments in recent decades that have been sought to be provided a religious or communal colour have conspired to widen the gulf between the communities.

Religion in Ladakh, as elsewhere, has been increasingly used as a mobilisational device by politicians, both Muslims as well as Buddhists. This has been further facilitated by the fact that due to the lack of any organised inter-religious dialogue initiatives several local religious leaders appear to have a very negative image of other communities and their religions. Yet, these exclusivist understandings of religion are contested by others, offering possibilities of developing alternate forms of understanding Islam and Buddhism that can be used to promote better relations between the two communities, a pressing need in today’s communally charged context.

In his early 30s, Namgyal is a lama at the Thiksey gonpa, a sprawling Buddhist monastery near Leh. Namgyal’s family lives in a village which has a sizeable Shia Muslim minority. He tells me that relations between the different communities were fairly cordial till the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), backed by numerous local Buddhist priests, instituted a complete social boycott of Muslims that lasted from 1989 to 1992.

Namgyal confesses to know little about Islam, but simply says, ‘All religions are good. They all teach love and compassion. Who knows, Ram, Krishna, Christ and Muhammad may all have been forms of the Buddha’. ‘Let everyone serve his own religion and in that way we can all live together in peace’, he stresses. ‘One can learn and adopt the good things in other religions without abandoning one’s own religion. The main aim of the Buddha’s mission was to end suffering, and this means that one should be concerned about the sufferings of all creatures, not simply of one’s co-religionists’, he says, adding that this realisation is crucial for promoting better relations between different communities.

Dr. Tashi Paljor is the Principal of the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies (CIBS) at Choglamsar, near Leh, one of the leading Buddhist research and teaching institutions in India. Paljor tells me about the Buddhist solution to the problem of inter-religious conflict. ‘The Buddha taught’, he says, ‘that we should treat all creatures as our own mother, for in one of our past lives they could have been our mother’. ‘Following the path of compassion of the Buddha one should love all creatures, including people of different communities, equally, and work for the end of all forms of suffering’. ‘In this way’, he says, ‘all human beings, indeed all created beings, can be happy’. The key lies in overcoming the ‘illusion’ of the self, the ego, the atma, which is the cause for desire and which inevitably leads to conflicts of all forms.

Overcoming the ‘illusion’ of the ego, one is led to realise the ‘principle of interconnection and interdependence’ between different creatures, which, in turn, leads to a healthy respect for religious pluralism. The Buddhist way of dealing with religious pluralism, Paljor tells me, is through tolerance and dialogue. He recites an excerpt from the daily morning Buddhist prayer to illustrate this approach: ‘May all sentient beings be happy and free from misery. May this state be for all’.

Paljor’s colleague Geishe Konchok Namgyal teaches Buddhist philosophy at the CIBS. Namgyal describes Buddhist-Muslim relations in Ladakh as ‘a unique model’, and says that, barring the period of the boycott, there have been no incidents of conflict between the two communities in the past. It is true, he says, that Ladakhi Buddhist kings sometimes fought with Muslim kings, such as the Shi‘a rulers of Skardu and Baltistan, but these were not communal riots or religious wars. They did not involved entire communities, but only professional armies. Many of the Buddhist kings had Muslim soldiers and even Muslim wives. Likewise, numerous Shi‘a kings married Buddhist women.

Namgyal admits that the boycott had a major impact on Buddhist-Muslim relations. It was, he says, wrong to boycott an entire community, but he argues that the Buddhists did have genuine grievances, which then led to ‘a mob mentality’ which then ‘ unfortunately went out of control’. With Leh having now been granted its Autonomous Hill Council, he thinks that a repeat of the boycott will not happen. But, he says, religious leaders must play a pro-active role in promoting better relations between Muslims and Buddhists, because that is not a task that can be left to the politicians alone. He tells me that the CIBS has invited Muslim leaders to attend functions, such as receptions for the Dalai Lama. In turn, sometimes Muslim leaders invite Buddhist lamas to Muslim gatherings. But, he admits, this is not done in any organised way as such.

At Leh’s principal Shia mosque I meet Hussain, who introduces himself as a ‘Shia Balti, but with a difference’. I think he is bragging, but as we talk I realise that he is right. He is certainly the dissenter that he claims to be. He tells me that he is a committed Shi‘a but that he has ‘no faith’ in most of the local Shi‘a ulama, whom he accuses of having a vested interest in preserving the backwardness of the Baltis. ‘They talk only about heaven and hell and nothing about the problems of the real world’, he complains. ‘Till recently they even used to insist that studying English and Hindi or taking to government jobs would lead us to abandon our religion’, he says, adding that now this opposition is not so vocal ‘because they know that no one will listen to them if they say this’.

We talk about mutual perceptions of each other of Muslims and Buddhists. Hussain thinks that Buddhists are, on the whole, ‘gentle, helpful and peace-loving people’, and that is why, he thinks, they are economically considerably better off than the Muslims in Leh. Most of his friends are Buddhists. In contrast, he says, ‘Muslims keep fighting, with others or among themselves’, because of which the remain ‘backward and ignorant’.

I ask Hussain about the Balti refusal to eat food cooked by non-Muslims. Unlike the Sunnis, the local Shias strictly abstain from cooked by the Buddhists, a fact that many Buddhists deeply resent. He sniggers and tells me that he regularly eats at his Buddhist relatives’ homes, but has to keep this a secret. He tells me that this Balti practice of ‘untouchability’ is probably nowhere else observed in the Shi‘a world. ‘I’ve been to Lucknow and Hyderadad, where there are many Shi‘as, but they willingly eat Hindu food’, he says. He knows, he claims, of some Shi‘a ‘ulama outside Ladakh who have declared it permissible to eat food cooked by non-Muslims, but says that their views are almost unheard of in Ladakh.

Hussain thinks that the interpretation that the local Shia mullahs give of a Qur’anic verse to justify their stance is ‘ridiculous’ and simply a means to promote ‘barriers’ between Shias and Buddhists and thereby strengthen the ulama’s hegemony. ‘If their interpretation were right’, he argues, ‘why would the Qur’an allow for Muslims to eat food cooked by Jews and Christians? ’. ‘How’, he adds, ‘would the Prophet have allowed a group of Christians to pray in the mosque in Medina if he thought them to be physically polluting? How would he have consented to an invitation by a Jew to join him for a meal, alhtough the food was poisoned? How would Islam have spread throughout if Muslims considered others as polluted and stayed away from them? ’.

Hussain carries on with his harangue against many ‘ulama, whom, he says, ‘say bad things’ about other religions. Hussain says he believes in Islam, but adds that ‘there are good things in every religion’. He has a number of Buddhist lama friends, from whom he has learnt a considerable deal about Buddhism. He has read several Buddhist texts, and tells me that there are several things in common between Buddhism and Islam, which, however, many Muslims are either unaware of or do not appreciate. As a rule, Muslims, he says, think that Buddhists are ‘idolators’, but, in actual fact, the Buddha condemned the worship of idols. Hussain thinks that the widespread custom of constructing and worshipping idols in the monasteries is a later development. Likewise, he says, many Muslims believe that Buddhists do not believe in God. This, he claims, is not, in fact, true. Admittedly, he says, the Buddha did not talk about God, but he did not deny His existence either. He approvingly cites the story of the Buddha’s disciple who asked him why he did not talk of God. The Buddha replied to him with a parable. If a deer is shot by an arrow, one’s first task is to remove the arrow rather than searching for the person who shot it. Likewise, our principal task in this world is to remove suffering, not to squabble about theological niceties.

Although he reserves most of his ire for the ‘ulama, Hussain is also critical of many lamas. Some of them, he says, live off the faith of the credulous. Like many Shi‘a ‘ulama, most of them are not interested in learning about other faiths, believing firmly that theirs’ alone is the way to salvation. In recent years, Hussain tells me, the lamas have become ‘more politicised’. Many lamas are associated with the Ladakh Buddhist Association, which is said to have ‘Hindutva leanings’. Hussain expresses the fear of the possibility of the Hindu rightwing in making inroads into Ladakh by trying to woo the Buddhists and set them against the Muslims.

Like most other Shias in Ladakh, Hussain insists that the future of his fellow Shi‘as lies with India. That, he says, is a point that even the Shi‘a ‘ulama stress. The ‘ulama say, he tells me, that they will never declare a fatwa of jihad against India unless the mujtahids, leading Islamic scholars, in Iran tell them to do so, but the mujtahids have apparently told them, so he says, that the Shi‘as should be loyal to India. Hussain argues that Pakistan-controlled Baltistan remains poor and undeveloped, and that ‘no Indian Balti in his right mind would like to migrate there’. Baltistan, he alleges, and is ‘now being flooded by Taliban-type radical Sunnis’ as part of what he calls a ‘plot to reduce the Shi‘as there into a minority’. He expresses his concern with certain Sunni groups in Kashmir, who might not preach anti-Shi‘a hatred openly but are convinced that the Shi‘as are heretics. ‘If they had their way they would declare Shi‘as as non-Muslims, just as they have done to the Qadianis in Pakistan’, he warns. He talks of the oppression of the Shi‘as in Pakistan, referring to the gunning down of Shi‘a worshippers in mosques and imambaras there. ‘Thank heavens’, he exclaims, ‘such things don’t happen in Ladakh, where the Buddhists are generally very peace-loving’.

Shaikh Mirza comes from a family that has produced numerous scholars—his own father was the imam of the main Shi‘a mosque in Leh. After spending more than a decade studying with various Shi‘a scholars in Iraq, he returned to Leh, taking up employment as an Arabic teacher in a government school. He is retired now, but keeps himself busy with various projects, not least as the imam of the principal Shi‘a mosque.

Our conversation veers to the topic of Buddhist-Muslim relations in Leh, and we talk about the LBA’s boycott of the Muslims and its aftermath. Mirza insists on the need for improving relations with the Buddhists, and says that Islam positively encourages its followers to live in peace with others. Jihad, in the sense of physical warfare, is allowed only when one’s religion or life is under threat, he points out. In Ladakh, he says, the Muslims enjoy freedom of religion, and so talk of jihad against India is absurd. He dismisses that the notion that Muslims must perpetually be at war with others to expand the boundaries of the ‘abode of Islam’ as ‘un-Islamic’, a later accretion after the time after the Prophet when the Ummayad and Abbasid Caliphs sought to justify their expansionist designs. If some Muslims still cling to that belief, he says, it is because ‘today everyone claims the right to issue fatwas’. He insists that this right is meant only for the qualified ‘ulama alone, or else, as the happenings in large parts of the world today prove, it can be ‘misused by people to promote their own narrow interests and promote conflict’.

‘Since we live in a multi-religious society, we all must learn to compromise otherwise we simply cannot co-exist’, Mirza urges. He goes on to tell me about his own involvement in local efforts to promote Buddhist-Muslim dialogue. He is often invited by Buddhist groups to speak on the occasion of the Buddha’s birthday, where, he says, he sometimes speaks on Buddhism and Islam, pointing out some of their similarities. He also participates, as a member of the local chapter of the International Association for Religious Freedom, in meetings with Buddhist lamas and scholars that generally have to do with communal harmony. But more than this, he says, is what he calls the unique Ladakhi form of inter-community dialogue: through intermarriage. He offers his own example to stress the point. His wife’s mother is a Buddhist, and his wife and her Buddhist half-sister are inseparable friends, visiting each other almost every second day.

Every religion, Mirza says, ‘has some good points’. There is nothing in Islam to prevent a Muslim from appreciating the good things in other religions. Since Muslims are supposed to believe that all the various prophets of God taught the same primal religion (din), they must willingly accept the good points in other faiths as well. Mirza cites a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad: A word of wisdom is the lost property of the believer, and wherever he finds it he can pick it up. That being the case, he says, one can genuinely appreciate the truths contained in other religions, while still being a proper Muslim. He tells me that he, for one, considers the Dalai Lama to be a remarkable man and that he deeply respects him. The Dalai Lama, he says, appealed to the LBA to lift the boycott of the Muslims, and when it refused, he responded by refusing to visit Ladakh as long as the boycott remained in place. Under the Dalai Lama’s instructions, the small Tibetan Buddhist community in Ladakh refused to join the Ladakhi Buddhists in the boycott, Mirza says, for which they had to face considerable local opposition.

Mirza recounts the reception that he, along with other local Muslim leaders, once gave to the Dalai Lama on his visit to Leh. The Dalai Lama apparently told the Buddhists present at the meeting that they must consider the Muslim minority to be in their care and protection and must ensure that no harm befalls them. ‘Only a sincerely spiritual person could have spoken like this’, Mirza says, adding ‘If only there were more people like him in the world it would be a much happier place’.

Maulvi Muhammad ‘Umar Nadvi is the Imam of the Sunni Jami‘a Masjid in Leh. ‘I don’t want to talk about the past’, Nadvi tells me when I ask him about the boycott and its impact on Buddhist-Muslim relations. ‘I am concerned about the future, about peace and how to rebuild our relations’. Despite his various commitments he does take this task with particular seriousness. He tells me that he sometimes speaks on the local radio station on peace and development issues, in which he quotes from both Islamic as well as Buddhist scriptures to make his point. He recently organised a function to celebrate Eid, to which he invited several Buddhist lamas, political leaders and government officials were. Some years ago he organised a seminar devoted to discussion of the role of religion in peace-building. Recently, he, along with some important Buddhist leaders at the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, arranged a large interfaith dialogue meeting, which culminated in a public march by local Muslim, Christian and Buddhist leaders through the streets of Leh, stopping at mosques, churches and monasteries on the way.

Nadvi admits that despite these and other such efforts to promote better relations between Buddhists and Muslims, mistrust remains, particularly among the youth. ‘Many young Muslims and Buddhists have wrong views about each other, but such extremism cannot last long’, he tells me. He is bitterly critical of radical Islamists who denounce other communities as ‘enemies of God’. ‘The Qur’an’, he argues, ‘tells us not to harm anyone, not to abuse others’ religions or hurt their sentiments. It tells us that everyone is free to believe what he or she wants to’. ‘My solution to the communal problem’, he tells me half-jokingly, ‘is that the extremists from all communities should be locked up together in jail. There they will be forced to communicate together, break down their barriers and come to the realisation that all of us are basically the same’.

‘Buddhists and Muslims need to learn about each other’s religions’, Nadvi stresses, adding that this is essential in order to remove misunderstandings and to promote mutual respect. However, he admits, ignorance about other faiths abounds among both communities. Hardly any Islamic literature is available in the Ladakhi language, and writings on Buddhism in Urdu are rare to come by in Ladakh. The problem, Nadvi says, is further compounded by the fact that many Muslims believe that to learn the Tibetan script, in which Ladakhi is written, is almost tantamount to becoming Buddhist. Likewise, many Buddhists are reluctant to learn Urdu, which they see as somehow a ‘Muslim’ language. Nadvi insists that such arguments are, as he puts it, ‘silly’. The different languages, he tells me, are all ‘signs of God’. He himself has learnt the Tibetan script, being probably one of the few ‘ulama in Ladakh to have done so, and is now working with a lama, Geylong Phande of the Phyang monastery, to translate the Qur’an into Ladakhi.

Voices such as these challenge the logic of the radical separation and mutual opposition of different religions and their adherents. They offer rich theological resources that urgently need to be recovered and articulated today at a time when strenuous efforts are being made to pit Buddhists and Muslims in Ladakh against each other. This is a task that needs to be taken up urgently if Ladakh is to be spared going the Kashmir way, descending into endless civil war and destruction.