For centuries, Muslims and Buddhists in Leh have shared ties of kinship and culture. That is history. Larger political goals are now splitting communities apart. ZUBAIR A DAR reports.

Buddhists in Ladakh seem to have declared independence. With New Delhi’s invisible backing Leh is emerging as an autonomous Buddhist territory.

Two organisations, Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) and Ladakh Union Territory Front (LUTF), are at the centre of the Buddhist discourse in Leh. Over the years, these organisations have blackmailed successive state governments by enforcing a socio-economic boycott of Muslim minorities in Leh. The efforts now are to use authority to marginalise them in political as well as administrative realms. With New Delhi’s patronage, Ladakh gained absolute powers under the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed led Congress-PDP coalition in 2002, thus carving out a state within a state.

Whilst the discrimination against Muslims, in particular against those of Kashmiri origin, at a political level is widespread, it is the cultural onslaught, spearheaded by the rightwing group, LBA, that is primarily responsible for pitching Muslims and Buddhists at opposite ends of an ever-widening divide.

Historically, Buddhists and Muslims in Ladakh have lived together peacefully for centuries, bound together by a common culture, language and kinship. Intermarriage between Buddhists and Muslims was quite common until recent years. Differences between the two communities first surfaced in 1989 with the outbreak of communal violence, this led to a social boycott of Muslims by the Buddhist community for over six months. The boycott of all Muslim owned businesses continued up until 1992. This upheaval culminated into the formation of the political party – Ladakh Union Territory Front – whose main demand was that Union Territory Status be granted to Ladakh. The government responded with the formation of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Leh in 1995 that gave Ladakh considerable autonomy.

But Muslims of Kashmiri origin were left out of the new administrative arrangement. “The Government of India clearly prevents a Sunni Muslim from becoming an Executive Counsellor in LAHDC Leh. It says that minority Executive counsellor should be from the principal minority community,” says Nazir Ahmad Khan, President of the Anjuman Moin-ul-Islam, an organisation of Muslims in Leh. “The principal minority community in Leh is the Shia sect of Muslims.”

LAHDC Leh gained more momentum and strength when in 2002, the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed led PDP government, gave revenued powers to the Council. The LAHDC act passed by the Farooq Abdullah led government in 1997 had such provisions but Abdullah had been delaying the devolution. Mufti government’s move came after two legislators, Nawang Rigzin Jora from Leh and Sonam Wangchuk Narboo from Nubra, were elected unopposed in 2002 elections on the solitary plank of making Ladakh the eighth union territory in India. Yet, the allocation of more power to LAHDC did not silence the LUTF, though the legislators later joined Congress, the party that never openly opposed the LUTF demand.

With more powers, however, the LAHDC had the sole authority of controlling thousands of hectares of Khalsa (state) land in Leh district and it soon began distributing this land among different organisations and individuals. Muslims allege they were left out.

Anjuman Moin-ul-Islam, had been requesting the state government to allot it a piece of land near Jamia Masjid in Leh for building a commercial complex to generate revenue for the organisation’s activities. LBA too had been demanding the same land. After the delegation of revenue powers, the Council in its Jan 10, 2004 (order number 135/Rev of 2004), allotted the land to LBA for extension of Chowkhang Vihara “in the interest of maintaining peace and tranquillity, maintenance of communal harmony and brotherhood.”

Ladakh a Muslim Dominated area

Buddhist population is Ladakh is dwindling. In fact the ‘little Tibet’ is no more a Buddhist dominated region but a Muslim majority desert. In last forty years ending 2001, census analysis suggests the Buddhists percentage to the total population in Ladakh has nose-dived from 53.83 to 45.87 percent – a net decline of 7.96 percent. The population of their Muslim cousins has increased by 1.97 percent and swelled from 45.43 to 47.40. In the total population of 236539 souls, Muslims constitute 47.40 percent, Buddhists 45.87 percent as Hindus, Sikhs and Christians make desert’s 6.22, 0.31 and 0.17 percent respectively. The region comprises the districts of predominantly Muslim Kargil and Buddhist majority Leh. Though Leh is fairly large area, it hosts only 49.56 percent of region’s population as compared to Kargil where 50.44 percent Ladakhis live. Ladakh’s twin districts have chunks of minority population which are increasing at a much faster rate than the district itself. In Kargil, for instance, the sizable chunk of Buddhists living in Zanskar exhibited a growth rate of 28.50 percent in a decade ending 1981 which is higher than the Muslim growth rate of 20.12 and even that of their community in Leh (24.59 percent). Similarly the Muslim minority in Leh district exhibited a phenomenal growth rate of 65.40 percent which even surpassed the overall growth rate of Muslims across the state. Muslim growth has traditionally remained high than those of Buddhists. In last twenty years (there was no census in J&K in 1991) Muslims in Kargil increased by 86.67 percent as compared to 63.23 that Buddhists in Leh recorded. In fact the Muslim minorities in Leh recorded faster growth (54.23) than the Buddhist minorities in Kargil (38.97).

Following this set back, Anjuman was promised another piece of land in Leh, which at the time, was being used by the Power Development Department (PDD) for its diesel generators. In its order, the Council also noted that “the request of the Anjuman Moin-ul-Islam seems most genuine.” It further reads, “We have allotted land of commercial value in Leh town to all communities. However, for some reason, the demand of Anjuman has not been fulfilled. We may allot the piece of land to be vacated by PDD as a consequence of shifting of power house of Leh to Anjuman Moin-ul-Islam as proposed.”

While the transfer of land to Anjuman was ordered on the same day (order number 136-LRA of 2004), the Spituk Monastery and the Monks of Spituk Monastery started a campaign laying claim on the same piece of land. Their argument was that the land was donated by one of Leh’s Buddhist leaders for use by PDD and so should be handed back to the Monastery in case PDD vacates the land. Though the deputy commissioner of Leh found the claims unfounded and in a letter to the manager of Spituk Monastery wrote that “the land in question is owned by the state government” and “the claim put forth by you on the land, therefore, has no locus standi”. Revenue records also show that the Buddhist leader had been paid compensation by JK Minerals who set up a Diesel Generator set on the land before PDD took over. But the Monastery is reluctant to give up its claim.

LBA’s Vice President, Phuntsog Stobdan, supports the Monastery’s demand. “Muslims have no right over the land as Gompa wants the land back and is willing to pay back the compensation money,” says Stobdan.

Though an order by Tehsildar Leh was finally issued to handover the land to Anjuman on 08/09/2007, the actual possession is elusive. Khan alleges that the delay is deliberate. “The transfer of land to Buddhist associations is swift. Despite intervention by many political leaders, the Council is reluctant to handover the possession to us,” he says.

On July 25, 2009 LBA wrote a letter to Chief Minister Omar Abdullah insisting its right over this land “ … in view the above facts, I would request your good self to resolve the issue in a peaceful manner at the earliest by handing over the land to Spituk Monastery to avoid any difference between the two communities,” the letter reads.

Khan is not the only Muslim disgruntled by the ‘lopsided’ land distribution. The Council also allotted land to Malpak, a neighbourhood in Leh, for construction of a community hall at Ambedkar Park in Leh. “The residents constructed a shopping complex there but the few Muslim families living there were left out,” says Abdul Gani Sheikh, a historian from Leh.

Khan says that the LBA also took its share from the land allotted to Malpak. “After the Malpak residents constructed a shopping complex, LBA youth grabbed the rest of the land and even dismantled the Officer’s club to extend the area under their possession,” says Khan. “Where ever LBA’s youth wing posts its flag, the Council grants that land to the association.”

Near the new bus stand in Leh, the Council has granted land to an NGO called 16 Friends. Surprisingly, all the members are government employees. The NGO is now constructing a commercial complex over the land.

February 2006 saw a second wave of communal violence spreading across Ladakh in two decades. This time the dispute began with the desecration of the Holy Quran at Bodh Kharbu village on February 5. Following this, a popular SMS message began circulating among Buddhists in Leh, it read, “I vow not to do any business or to have any social relation with any non-Buddhist.”

While the economic disassociation – in many ways forced – continues till date, a cultural onslaught by LBA is snapping all ties, including kinship, between Buddhists and Muslims of Leh.

Examples of this are not difficult to find.

Atta, 28, remembers the day when he was chained “like a criminal” and taken from place to place in Leh by police. The treatment came over an allegation levelled by the members of LBA’s youth brigade. Atta says that he had to fight in court for one and a half years to prove his innocence.

“I was driving towards Thiksey on April 11, 2008 with a Buddhist friend of mine, a car overtook us and stopped in front blocking our way. As we stopped, an LBA guy came out of the car and started accusing me of spoiling the girl and inciting communal tension,” he says. “Soon the Sub-inspector and the DSP came to the spot and took us to the police station while abusing me and threatening to book me under section 294.”

Atta, a computer engineer by profession, says that the girl accompanying him was forced to state that he had tried to “misbehave” with her. “As soon as we arrived at the police station, members of LBA started assembling outside the police station. Fearing retribution, the girl stated as they wished.”

Main market Leh – Photo by: Bilal Bahadur

Atta says that the most difficult moment came after the FIR was filed under section 294. “I was locked up for one night. Then I was taken to the hospital in chains through the market. Then they took me to Tehsil office. The magistrate was not there, so they took me to Leh district court,” says Atta. Though his lawyer got him out on bail on that day, the case ran in court for almost one and a half years. “Finally, the girl appeared before the court to state that we were friends and were going together for a drive. That is how I got out.”

Though Atta never met his friend again, he says the incident haunted him for a long time. “My mother did not speak with me for months. She thought that the allegations against me were right. But then incidents like this started becoming routine. Even elderly Muslim men were accused of eve teasing Buddhist girls by the LBA youth. That is how my mother realised that it had a pattern.”

Atta says that he has since desisted from having any association with Buddhists in Leh, especially the girls, though his mother was from a Buddhist family and his maternal uncles and cousins are all Buddhists. “I now limit myself to work and home. At one point of time, I thought of leaving Leh for ever but the thought of my widowed mother stopped me.”

Such divisions are hurting almost every Muslim household in Leh. A researcher told the International Association of Ladakh Studies at its 14th Colloquium that 80 percent of youth who responded to her questionnaire about changing trends in relationships said that relationships with other communities were generally discouraged though their mothers or someone in their families was from the other community.

LBA, which stresses on preserving Buddhist culture, says that such marriages were dangerous for the majority community and so needed to be discouraged. “Not many marriages take place between Buddhist men and Muslim women. But Buddhist girls have been converted and married to many Muslim men,” says LBA President Lobzang Rinchen. “This conversion is one sided.”

Rinchen says that despite there being a very big association of the majority community, LBA has never harassed the minority community (Muslims) for marrying among majority (Buddhist) community. “We have not openly protested against such marriages. But we oppose them whether it is with consent or otherwise. We try to persuade the girls to come back home. In case they don’t, we approach the religious heads to persuade them,” says LBA’s vice-president, Phuntsog Stobdan.

In fact, LBA asked the Muslim religious leaders in Leh to enter into an agreement with them that Buddhist girls who choose to marry Muslims shall be returned.

However, LBA’s endeavour to preserve Buddhist culture goes far beyond preventing inter-community marriages. Through its three sub-groups – Parents Wing, Youth Wing and Women’s Wing – the association is imposing a number of decrees to run the society in tune with Buddhist beliefs. “We have prepared a list of days on which meat will not be sold in the market or served in restaurants. Our youth wing stops such sales at block level,” says Rinchen. “If we can not control something, we then take the case to police,” adds Stobdan.

With regards to controlling social evils, which is an important aspect of LBA’s agenda, Rinchen says that extravagance in marriages is discouraged and sale of liquor without licence is stopped. “We also encourage youth to dress modestly and celebrate festivals in the most traditional way and not the modern way. We do not want them to play music which is not in our culture and dance to its tunes.”

But Muslims in Leh allege that the stress on traditional way of celebrations is reserved for Buddhist religious places only. “Some years back LBA’s youth wing members lit a fire and played loud music to dance in the Jamia Masjid courtyard during festival celebrations. They had been denied permission by the Gompa leaders to celebrate the festival this way in Gompas,” says Mohammad Sabir, a Leh resident. “The practice has been going on since then. We feel our sentiments are being deliberately hurt.”

However, it is not just the Muslim community who is feeling the heat of LBA’s cultural despotism. Buddhists too are finding their right to express choked due to the activism of LBA’s youth wing. In 2005, the youth wing stopped the screening of a Ladakhi feature film – Eemitsey (life) – in Leh after the first show on the grounds that some scenes in the film were objectionable. Its director Rigzin Kalon says that the screening was stopped by people with “filthy minds”. “People who put my film into controversy were themselves bad because they did not look at the thought provoking part of it,” he says. “I had tried to portray emotions like love, fear and dilemma. But they stopped my film without seeing it.”

For its activities, LBA generates money from its large resource base that includes shops and commercial establishments across Leh town. “Earlier we were not very active as earnings were less,” says Rinchen. “Then some land was taken where commercial complexes were set up that generate income. At present, LBA has 221 shops in Moti market besides other shops in main markets of Leh.”

Main market Kargil – Photo by: Bilal Bahadur

With greater income, LBA expanded its base and set up units across Ladakh – one at each block. While meat and bootlegging are discouraged, LBA’s youth also keep a close check on fishing across the Himalayan district. Muslims say that the diktat – issued in contradiction with the government rules – makes their survival in winters very difficult.

“We obtain permits for fishing from the government. But LBA’s youth wing prevents us from fishing in rivers and sometimes they demand fines,” says Mohammad Hussain, a Muslim youth from Leh.

“Sometimes they also beat us up. We now go fishing in larger groups to save ourselves.”

While Muslims complain of being pushed to a wall by the cultural exclusion, the government’s attitude too has disappointed them. Muslims say that Government of India left out the interests of Muslims when it designated Ladakh a tribal area.
“The excuse was that we have Kashmiri origin though we live the same life and face the same hardships as Buddhists face,” says Khan.

Even the traders that have been migrating from Kashmir for business in Leh during summers for centuries have started to feel the heat. At Leh’s vegetable market, traders allege harassment at the hands of authorities over different alibi. “Officers from weights and measures department, the Chief Medical Office and other government offices come to our shops for checking rates. It is not their jurisdiction,” says Mushtaq Ahmad Dar, a vegetable seller.

While surprise raids are no surprise in the vegetable market – traders here have to pay for licence and other trade provisions – vendors in Leh’s market sell vegetables at double the price than these traders. The rate list issued by the Deputy Director (Ladakh Supplies) of Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution Leh cites the rate of green peas at Rs 26 per kg. While the Kashmiri traders abide by the rate list, Buddhist vendors at Leh’s main market sell peas at Rs 40 per kg.
“We get peas at Rs 35 a kg in whole sale. Selling at a lesser rate means losses,” says a woman vendor, Tsering Dolma.

The state government, with little powers to intervene, seems helpless.

Historian Abdul Gani Sheikh puts the onus of the prevailing situation on Kashmiri leaders and their appeasement policy towards Buddhists in Leh. “Farooq Abdullah frequented this place whenever a Buddhist leader died hoping to gain more Buddhist votes. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed gave revenue powers to the Council to strengthen his party’s vote bank in Leh. But none of them have ever cared about the state of Muslims in Leh,” says Sheikh. “During communal riots, Muslim houses were burnt down and forcible conversions took place. But the J&K government overlooked it.”

Sheikh sees his community’s agreement with Buddhists over banning the sale of meat and inter-community marriages as a compromise ‘essential for survival’. “But we are suffering. We have always lived under the fear of an attack,” he says. “You can understand the extent of discrimination by the fact that Buddhists were given military training after 1961 war while the Muslims were left out.”


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