For the majority of the Buddhist population of Ladakh, the coming year will be a crucial one. Talks are entering a critical phase on the granting of Hill Council Status to Ladakh, along the lines of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council and Ladakh would remain a part of Jammu & Kashmir State, but have its own General and Executive Council. These would Control district planning and development budgets, with state government approval, but would have no say over law and order or the judiciary. The Ladakhi side perceives the Council as a ‘state within a state,’ whereas the state continues to regard it as a ‘planning and development board.’
Ladakh’s bargaining position at these talks has been considerably strengthened by the settling of differences between the Ladakhi Muslim and Buddhist populations. Relations between the Buddhists and the indigenous Ladakhi Muslims, who used to run much of the trade between Leh, Kashmir and Central Asia, had historically been a model of inter-communal tolerance. But when serious street disturbances erupted in Leh in the late 1980s, Buddhist resentment against the Muslim-controlled government in Srinagar spilled over into anger at their fellow Ladakhi Muslims. The Buddhists also feared that their political majority within the district would be eroded because of a higher population growth rate among Muslims. The Ladakh Buddhist Association instituted a ban on all inter-communal associations, a decision which was much resented by both moderates on both sides. The ban was only lifted when the talks concerning Hill Council status began to bear fruit.
Although the recent political developments were not on its agenda, they provided a positive backdrop to the recently concluded Sixth Colloquium of the International Association for Ladakh Studies (IALS), held in Leh in late August. The possibility of Ladakhis gaining more say on their own affairs lent an immediacy which might not otherwise have been present in the discussion of a diverse range of social, cultural and development-related subjects.
Arun Kumar, the Srinagar-based Secretary to the Ladakh Affairs Department, set the tone to the Colloquium when he announced at the outset that major new areas were to be opened up for tourism, specifically the Nubra Valley, Pangong Lake and Dahanu. He further predicted that following the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to China in early September, the border crossing to Tibet at Demchok would be opened for trade, and to Indian nationals on pilgrimage to Mt Kailash, Kumar faced a barrage of criticism concerning the J&K fiscal policy towards Ladakh from P. Namgyal, former Minister of Transport at the Centre and Tsering Samphel, former Ladakh member in the J&K Legislative Assembly. Both were waved off by Kumar as “out of work politicians.”
This was the first time, the IALS had held a conference in Ladakh, and was a remarkable meeting-ground for those with an interest in Ladakhi affairs, including many local Ladakhis, other speakers from India, as well as participants from Europe and North America. Indicating the newly-established concord between Ladakhi Buddhists and Muslims, there were speakers from both communities, as well as from the small Moravian Christian community in Leh.
In all, 43 papers were presented, covering history, culture, religion, philosophy, health, education, anthropology, environment and development. The only omission seemed to be a paper on the traditional Amchi medical system of Ladakh (see Briefs)
There was passionate debate on the question of education and the status of the Ladakhi, which is a dialect of Tibetan written in the Bodi script. As Sonam Wangchuk, Secretary of SECMOL, a cultural and educational organisation, said, “We hardly find the name of Ladakh mentioned in any of our textbooks.” Both he and Rev. E.S. Gergan, principal of the Moravian Mission School in Leh, agreed that the local language should be used as the initial medium of instruction in primary schools with a gradual change-over to English medium in the senior classes.
Arun Kumar’s response to these concerns was, “if tomorrow you want to start a school with Ladakhi as the medium of instruction, nobody’s going to stop you. You just need the textbooks and the teachers.” This led straight into discussion of yet another Ladakhi complaint, that the entire district does not host even one college-level institution. All Ladakhis have to go out for further education, including for teacher-training.
Other topics included the need to preserve traditional arts, crafts and architecture, particularly Ladakh’s temples, many of which date from the 11th century. The participants stressed the need for conservators to consult local people and work through local organisations such as the Ladakh Gumba Association.
Environmental degradation was a concern that was repeatedly raised. Leh town, bounded on three sides by high mountains, is suffering from a build-up of petrol and diesel emissions. There is also a serious water shortage and the level of pollution is escalating day by day.
Anthropologist and poet James Crowden, the first Westerner in recent times to spend a whole winter in Zanskar, gave a paper on the effects of the new road to the village of Padam. Before the road, an equilibrium had existed between lowland and highland villages. Now, the road had bought a disproportionate concentration of wealth to Padam and the lowlands, especially through tourism. This had resulted in depopulation of the higher villages.
Aba Rigzin Jora and Henry Osmaston, spoke on the marginalisation of traditional Ladakhi agriculture, and of changing diets. Because of misplaced subsidies, there has been a shift in eating habits, especially in Leh town, away from traditional barley and wheat to rice and dal. Ladakh used to supply foodgrains to parts of western Tibet and the Indus valley, but today is an importer of food.
The scholar Harjit Singh opened his paper by quoting the Dalai Lama: “No matter how attractive a traditional society may seem, its people cannot be denied the advantages of development.” He added.
“Culture is always dynamic, never static. Our main job is to minimise the negative aspects of development and maximise its positive aspects.” Helena Norberg-Hodge agreed, answering one criticism of her recent book on Ladakh, Ancient Futures, with the comment, “I don’t believe Ladakh was a perfect, ideal utopia, nor do I believe it should stay unchanged.” However, she stressed the importance of a critical analysis of western-style development.
A report of the colloquium was presented to the Development Commissioner, the most powerful man in Leh. Another colloquium is planned, possibly in Hungary, in two years.
Malyon is a freelance writer and photographer who has been visiting Ladakh for 15 years.