Riots in Ladakh and the Genesis of a Tragedy

Recent ethnic unrest in this "remote" region have to do with the Ladahkis' own victimisation to the phenomenon of "intellectual colonialism" that began with the Western missionary.

It has been a commonplace habit to refer to Ladakh as a "remote and inaccessible" region of India. In the past few weeks and months, the news from Ladakh has been such that it now appears to have been properly assimilated into the modern world, or at least the world of modern politics. The reports have a familiar ring to them, one that seems endemic to politics today: there has been unprecedented rioting between Buddhists and Muslims in Ladakh.

When reading the newspapers, one would think that this was an age-old rivalry. There are reports of explosions being set off in monasteries, shops being looted or burned, and stones being hurled at mosques. And through word-of-mouth less sensational but, perhaps, more tragic news: gangs of vigilante youth walk about beating up members of rival communities. For the first time in living memory, Ladakhi Muslims and Ladakhi Buddhists failed to exchange greetings at the festival of Id ul-adha.

One cannot be completely surprised by this turn of events. The incidents being reported are no more (and one might add no less) than a "sign of the times," and the times are those of the Kali Yuga. However, those involved, particularly the Ladakhis themselves, are not absolved of the need to know the genesis of the problems that have shattered their peaceful existence. Indeed, if there is any hope of arresting this downward spiral in the life of Ladakh, it Lies in an understanding of its beginnings.

There is no dearth of theories as to the causes of the riots. It has been suggested that the problems have arisen due to resentment amongst the Ladakhis at the Kashmiri merchants' monopoly of the tourists trinket trade. Other reasons suggested are election-year politics, economic competition within Ladakhi society, dissatisfaction with the state government, and even forcible conversions of members of one community by those of another. If the causes were so easily identifiable, their effects would only be temporary. But the real reasons behind today's riots in Ladakh are a bit more complex and have to do with the victimisation of Ladakhis, both Buddhist and Muslim, by the phenomenon that might be termed intellectual colonialism.

One of the first scholars who investigated the anthropology and history of Ladakh was HA.Francke. He was a Moravian missionary who lived in Ladakh for many years and, apart from his missionary activity, broke ground in the study of Ladakhi culture. Writing at the end of his career in Ladakh, Francke makes some far-reaching observations about the Ladakh of the early 20th century:

Now, with regard to the question of progress, we must say that Islam is certainly making progress in Ladakh, Buddhism, although considered as one of the strongest enemies of Christian missions, does not seem to have strength enough to resist Islam. In Ladakh, Islam is gaining ground continually from West towards East. Its apostles are the great merchants who believe that money is well spent, if it serves to convert an unbeliever to Islam. (In 'Islam Among the Tibetans,' The Moslem World. 1929, p.139)

It is important to remember that Francke was a missionary and a scholar. The nexus between religion and booklore has been a potent one in the advance of intellectual colonialism. Francke's missionary role, and the infancy of the subject of his scholarly attention, Ladakhi studies, soften one's judgement about his biases. What is surprising is that this line of thought, of prejudiced political thought, has not been abandoned by the Western scholar of Ladakhi culture 50 years later in the mid-1970s. In an otherwise apolitical study of Ladakhi history and culture, David Snellgrove, one of the doyens of Himalayan studies, and Taduesz Skorupski, make the following "observation":

It may be observed that Islam is by far in the stronger position (in Ladakh) not only in numbers which are relatively continually on the increase, but also on account of a greater single-mindedness concerning the nature of their faith and the sheer fact of the enormous potential backing which they possess. Ladakhi Muslims can draw upon the strength of Islam in Kashmir and ultimately upon a vast Muslim world. Ladakhi Buddhists are now literally driven into a small corner between Islam on the one side and Chinese communism on the other. (The Cultural Ileritage of Ladakh. 1976, p.142)

 Snellgrove's conclusions have no basis in fact. Certainly he does not supply any demographic evidence to support his claim. With good reason, for there is no census which suggests that the number of Ladakhi Muslims in proportion to Ladakhi Buddhists has changed over the years. What has happened, of course, is that this eminent scholar has confused ethnicity with religion. Apart from his failure to support his conclusions with demographic evidence, he also fails to present any evidence which demonstrates that a people will commit ethnic suicide in the name of religion. Indeed, there are many studies which show, on the contrary, how religions are moulded to suit a given ethnic psyche and ambience. What Snellgrove and others who have written similarly would have us believe is that to be Ladakhi is to be Buddhist! It is this subjective conception of what it means to be "Ladakhi" that leads Snellgrove to blatantly suggest that, in Ladakh, Buddhism is threatened by communism whereas Islam is not. Never mind that there exists no evidence to suggest that communism in any other part of the world has played favourites to Islam! It is time to recognize that a culture and a civilisation is what it is as a living organism, and not what its students conceive it to be.

What do the academic opinions of Francke and Snellgrove have to do with the present-day rioting in Leh and the nearby Indus valley hamlets? The answer has to do with the percep-tion of such individuals as objective specialists in their fields. As "specialists" their works are read by other specialists whose field of interest may be Ladakh in only a peripheral way; so they rely on the specialists on Ladakh to make the first-hand investigation and pass on the results of these to their audience in a less critical fashion. It is this process at work when we read in a book on Buddhism, meant for lay audiences, that: "There is also a large and increasingly influential Muslim population in Ladakh, so that in a long-term perspective the future of Buddhism in Ladakh seems to be problematic."

The remainder of the process of intellectual colonialism has to do with the notion of "development". Indeed, this latter concept has become a faith of the new "religion" that might be termed modernity. One of the ingredients of this modern faith is "compulsory education," which more often than not means merely (and I use the word advisedly) the ability to read and write, preferably in English. The march of history has been no different in Ladakh. A quarter of a century ago, the so-called development of the land began in earnest. This meant, to begin with, a good road and a window out to the glitter of modernity. In the context of schooling, the most sought after goal was English education. Concurrent to this venture outward, there began to develop a curiosity about Ladakh on the part of non-Ladakhis, specifically Western scholars.

Picking up from the research of those such as Francke, these scholars began to interpret Ladakhi history, religion and culture. Much of this research broke new ground, but some of it reinforced old prejudices as has been shown above, and that is what concerns us here. Broadly put, some of these scholars began to legitimise Western conceptions of what this outpost of greater Tibetan civilisation "is". In effect, this conception was such that the idea of a Ladakhi Muslim was inadmissable in the Western conception of Tibetan civilisation. This took hold first in the mind of the Western missionary, then in that of colonial agents who came as traders. The latter were followed by the scholar, until eventually this misconception began to crystallise in the mind of the Western enthusiast of the culture as well. Never mind that ethnicity has been con-fused thoroughly with religious belief; never mind that there can quite evidently be Arab Christians and European Jews.

Parallel to the above development, the book-feeding of Ladakh's new generation has kept apace over the last quarter century. And so the Ladakhis learn about themselves from the English-literate specialist. Thus, the Ladakhis learn to perceive themselves as "unique", in gratification of the specialist's ultimate goal; for unless this uniqueness is glorified, the specialist becomes defunct. In point of fact, of course, Ladakh's culture is no more unique than any other: but rapidly, this sense of uniqueness translates into the Ladakhi's fascination with his own quaintness. There are many aspects to this "quaintness", but what concerns us is the one which permits the society to be perceived as exclusively Buddhist, no matter what the empirical evidence. What we are witnessing in the riots in Ladakh today is the assimilation of this aberrant perspective by its very victim to the extent that the latter (both Buddhist and Muslims) are beginning to act in accordance with this corruption. It is this that has ruptured the fabric of Ladakhi society's health.

It is precisely the above process that occupies a central role in the phenomenon that I have termed intellectual colonialism. The tatter is no less than the insidious usurpation of the ideological and linguistic (in the broad sense of the word) foundations of society and a redefinition of those foundations in the vocabulary of the new colonists. This new colonist is not of the modern West in a racial or geographical sense; he is so in a psychic and an ideational sense.

What, then, is the tragedy we are witnessing in Ladakh? In a real sense the tragedy is not that there is strife in Ladakh or that Ladakh is changing: both are an integral part of life and, significantly, no two religions expound more eloquently on these two aspects of living than Islam and Buddhism. The tragedy is that the force of aberrant ideas have converged with their catalyst-symptoms for economic greed, political avidity and religious fundamentalism. This convergence of idea and history has victimised all the participants in today's tragedy in Ladakh, be he Buddhist or Muslim, state or central government politician, rich or poor.

The physician tells us that the cure for any illness, and Ladakh is suffering from an illness, begins with the victim recognising that a sickness has taken hold of him. Thus, the first step in the cure lies in the answer to the questions: Will the Ladakhis recognise that they have been victimised? And will they accept that the offender is not so much the Buddhist or the Muslim, the state government or the central government, but rather the seemingly innocuous advances of the missionary reinforced by the agents of British India and, now, by the scholar?

Siddiq Wahid is a Ladakhi who lives and works in New Delhi.

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