Jammu and Kashmir: Muslim-Buddhist Clashes in Ladakh

Islam Interfaith
The politics behind the 'religious' conflict by Yoginder Sikand.
The alleged desecration of the Quran in a village in Kargil recently and subsequent clashes between groups of Muslims and Buddhists in Leh and Kargil town are an alarming indicator of simmering tensions between the two major communities in Ladakh.
Ladakh forms almost two-thirds of the territory of Jammu and Kashmir, although it accounts for a little less than 3% of its population. Inter-communal relations in this strategic region, bordering Baltistan in Pakistani-adminsitered Kashmir and Tibet, have traditionally been harmonious, and Islamist militant groups, active in the Kashmir Valley and backed by Pakistan, have not been able to make any headway in Ladakh. Given this, the recent events in the region bode ill for regional stability and inter-communal harmony, and might, if not responded to sensitively and with alacrity, threaten to take Ladakh the Kashmir way.

Ladakh consists of two districts—Kargil and Leh. Both the districts have a roughly equal population of a little more than a hundred thousand people. The majority of the population of Kargil are Shi‘a Muslims. The remainder are mainly Buddhists, in the Zanskar valley, with a small minority of Sunni Muslims in Padum and Dras. In Leh, the overwhelming majority of the population is Buddhist, with a minority of Sunni, Shi‘a and Nurbakshi Muslims.

The Sunnis, the largest religious minority in Leh district, are almost entirely of mixed Kashmiri-Ladakhi background, mostly descendants of Kashmiri Muslim traders. They were welcomed by the Ladakhi Buddhist Rajas, who saw them as playing a valuable role in the local economy. They were allotted their own special quarters in the capital city and lands to construct mosques and were encouraged to settle down by marrying local Buddhist women. The Sunni community in Ladakh was further augmented after Ladakh became a vassal of the Mughals in the reign of Shah Jahan in the seventeenth century. Ladakhi rulers invited a number of Kashmiri Muslims to join their court as scribes to conduct official correspondence in Persian with the Mughal governors of Kashmir and also to help run the royal mint.

The Shi‘as of Ladakh are almost all of Balti stock, ethnically similar to the Buddhist Ladakhis. They trace their conversion to the sixteenth century Mir Shamsuddin Iraqi, who is credited with introducing Shi‘a Islam in Baltistan. Many of them are descendants of migrants from Baltistan, having settled in Ladakh when the Ladakhi Buddhist ruler Jamyang Namgyal (1555-1610) married Gyal Khatun, daughter of Yebgo Sher Ghazi, the Shi‘a prince of Khaplu. Gyal Khatun is said to have brought along with her a number of Baltis in her retinue.

Although the consciousness of adhering different religious systems remained strong, Buddhists and Muslims in Ladakh historically shared a broadly similar culture. The local Muslims spoke Ladakhi and wore the same dress, often with minor differences. Food habits were, to an extent, similar, except for the consumption of alcohol and carrion, which are forbidden in Islamic law. Given the Buddhist prohibition of killing animals, all the butchers in Ladakh were Muslims, and many Buddhist communities specially imported Muslim butchers from Kashmir and Baltistan to settle in their villages. At the popular level there was, in some cases, a blurring of religious boundaries. For instance, in several outlying areas Muslims would visit Buddhist oracles and healers for cures, and some Buddhists would attend the Balti mourning rituals for Imam Husain. Another revealing example in this regard is that of the royal ceremonies on the occasion of Losar, the Tibetan New Year. The Raja would pass through Leh at the head of a large procession, followed by his cavalry. The Buddhist head of the cavalry would visit the Sunni mosque in the town, offer oil for the lamps in the mosque, and ask for the blessings of the local imam.

Intermarriage between Sunnis, Baltis and Buddhists in Ladakh was fairly common until recently. Even today it is common to find numerous families in the Leh district that consist of Buddhists as well as Muslims. Such marriages occurred among both ‘ordinary’ people as well as among the royalty. Thus, for instance, as mentioned above, the seventeenth century ruler of Ladakh, Jamyang Namgyal, married Gyal Khatun, daughter of the Shi‘a ruler of Khaplu. Gyal Khatun remained a Muslim till her death, but she was regarded by many Buddhists as an incarnation of the White Tara, probably because her son, Singe Namgyal, rose to become the most famous ruler of Ladakh, playing a crucial role in the expansion of both Buddhism and the geographical boundaries of the Ladakhi kingdom. Another Ladakhi Raja, Nima Namgyal, was married to a Muslim princess, Zizi Khatun, who is said to have exercised a major role in running the affairs of the kingdom. The son of the last independent ruler of Ladakh, Thundup Namgyal, also had a Muslim queen. Likewise, Hurchu Khan, the Shi‘a ruler of a principality in Kargil, married a Ladakhi Buddhist princess.

The historical records speak of numerous wars were between the Ladakhi Buddhist kings and the Shi‘a Muslim rulers of various small principalities in Baltistan. At the same time, they also mention a large number of marriages between the Shi‘a and Ladakhi ruling houses. Political alliances often cut across religious boundaries. Thus, for instance, when Ladakh was invaded by a joint Tibetan-Mongolian army in 1681, the Ladakhi ruler appealed to the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb for help. In response to this request, the Mughal army, under Nawab Fidai Khan, entered Ladakh and, along with the Ladakhis, inflicted a heavy defeat on the invaders. In gratitude for this assistance, the Ladakhi ruler allotted a plot of land just below his palace in Leh to the Sunni Muslims of the town for a mosque. The mosque, which still stands, is now the central mosque of the Sunnis of Ladakh. In other words, one cannot speak in terms of a history of any inherent antagonism between Muslims and Buddhists, as entire communities, in the region. Ladakh has never known the sort of communal violence that many other parts of India have witnessed.

While relations between the principal communities in Ladakh have been traditionally close and conflict-free district, recent years have witnessed a marked deterioration, 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 two communities were almost completely severed. Relations between the Buddhists and Muslims in Leh improved after the lifting of the boycott, although suspicions remained.

The boycott came as a culmination of a series of agitations spearheaded by 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 the Kashmir-dominated state. The Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) demanded that Ladakh should bear the same relationship with the state of Jammu and Kashmir as that between Kashmir and India. The outbreak of militancy in Kashmir in 1989 convinced many Buddhists that their future was insecure in Jammu and Kashmir. 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. 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.

In July 1989 a scuffle between some Buddhist and Muslim youth led to clashes in Leh town, which then spread to other parts of Ladakh. This 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 Ladakhi 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 Balti Shias 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, 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. 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, much to the chagrin of Ladakh’s Muslims. 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 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.

The vast majority of the Buddhists of Leh back the Union Territory demand. However, many Muslims oppose the demand, for fear of being dominated by the more advanced Buddhists. Further, they also do not wish to separate from Muslim-majority Kashmir. At the same time, most Kargilis do not support the secessionist struggle in the Valley. Being Shias, they are decidedly pro-India and anti-Pakistan, given the fierce attacks on Shias in Pakistan in recent years. They also realise that their position would be precarious in an independent Sunni-dominated Kashmir.

The underlying causes of the simmering conflict in Ladakh are thus largely political and economic, and not religious as such, although this is how it has been sought to be presented. The Muslim minority in Leh district and the Buddhist minority in Kargil have their share of legitimate grievances and so does the relatively marginalised Kargil district vis-à-vis Leh. These need to be urgently addressed in order to preserve inter-communal peace and to spare the region the sort of seemingly endless devastation that has engulfed Kashmir for the past two decades and more.