An eerie calm is slowly settling down in Zanskar where communal riots had broken out over the conversion of six Buddhist families to Islam. Although conversion is not a new phenomenon in the Buddhist desert of J&K, the incident is indicative of the downside of caste system, Saima Bhat reports.

Ladakhi students protesting for Zanskar
Ladakhi students protesting for Zanskar

ith a deceptive normalcy steadily returning to Zanskar’s Padum area where communal riots broke out last month, the minority Muslims are demanding security in the winters when the area remains cut off from the rest of the world. The area was attacked by a mob of majority Buddhists who sought custody of 26 members of the families of six low caste Buddhists (Garbas) who had converted to Islam in a local Masjid on September 24. While one family living in Zangla area returned to Buddhist fold, the five families of Padum refused which resulted in communal clashes between the two groups.

The local Muslim minority led a procession of jubilation in the market which triggered communal tension. Initially, Buddhists enforced a strike and started social boycott of the minority Muslims and the converts. Zanskar Buddhist Association, the main party of the majority community, led a campaign against the conversions. Apart from writing letters, they threatened to carry a larger agitation in case the conversions didn’t stop and accused Muslims of luring the families to Islam, an allegation that the local clergy rejects.

“There are weaker sections in every community. There are lacunas and they are in Ladakh as well. We accept them but that doesn’t mean Sunni Muslims of Zanskar will lure our people in the name of land, money and education,” Dr Tondup Tsewang, president Leh Buddhist Association (LBA) said.

But it is not only Buddhists who have converted to Islam. There have been cases when Muslims from Kargil also changed their religion to Buddhism. “It is not for the first time that low caste Buddhists embraced Islam. It has been happening from a long time. But this time, it has become an issue because 26 people converted at one time and most importantly, council and MP elections are near. But we never made that an issue. LBA is making it a national and political issue to gain votebank,” Sheikh Mohammad Hussain Lotfi, Chairman Imam Khomini Memorial Trust, Kargil, said.

To maintain law and order, curfew was imposed and all lines of communication were stopped. The situation became violent when both groups manhandled each other in which a Buddhist mob attacked a number of civilian buildings and beat various officials including a local Tehsildar.

Some of the injured, including an elderly woman were later shifted to Srinagar for treatment. After five days, curfew was lifted on Eid and authorities had to change the Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM) Urgain Loondup in the view of allegations that he was supporting communal clashes. “When conversions took place, I was not in Zanskar. I was out of state. So I am not aware what exactly happened at ground that time,” Loondup told Kashmir Life.

Meanwhile, the communal clashes led the Leh based Ladakh Buddhist Association to call for a shutdown in Leh. The strike call, interestingly, was supported by VHP leaders in Jammu and the Buddhist students in Jammu started a protest against the conversions. Back in Kashmir, the Muslim students from Zanskar protested in Srinagar. In the meantime, the Muslim population of Zanskar wrote letters to CM, MoS, Nasir Aslam Wani, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Saif ud din Soz to look into their demands and asked for the security.

MoS Nasir Aslam Wani, Tourism minister Rigzin Jora, DGP Ashok Prasad and various other high ranking officials visited the area and assured full support and aid of Rs 3 lakh to the injured people. But when the president of main opposition party, PDP, Mehbooba Mufti, visited the place along with her team, she blamed the ruling government for their negligence in tackling the issue.

Zanskar is a Buddhist majority belt of Muslim majority Kargil district. Most villages are located in the valleys of Zanskar river and its two main tributaries. And almost every village has a local monastery. It is located 332 kms from Kargil and for around seven months, it remains disconnected from Kargil because of massive snowfall. The Sunni Muslims living in Padum are believed to have settled there in 19th century.

In the last 40 years till 2001, census analysis suggests the Buddhists have lost 7.96 percent of their percentage share in the combined population of Leh and Kargil districts. Though Muslims —


  1. All of us know that monks live auterely but during my recent visit to Ladakh, I did not see any monk living like that. They used to live in monastaries and caves in high mountains with just bare essentials and without any luxuries but not anymore.

    They have got everything now. Most monastaries particularly well known ones have huge dining halls, kitchens, chefs, generators, scooters, cars, etc.

    Thanks for the article and the information it contained. I had been meaning to read about Zanskar riots until I read your article.


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