The autonomous council proposed for Leh will resolve only some of the problems engendered by the modern day Ladakhi politics. While the ties to Srinagar will be severed, the formula will not rid the region of homegrown communalism.
In the near future, Leh District in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir will be governed by an Autonomous Hill District Council. The relevant legislative bill, lying with Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao could, at any time of his choosing, be signed into law by the President of India.
The granting of the Hill Council will fulfil a long-standing demand of Ladakh’s population for “independence” from the state of Jammu and Kashmir. It will devolve far-reaching powers of administration—except law and order and the judiciary —to local politicians. But will the Council be a panacea for all the ills of Ladakh? In some respects,it is more like a placebo.
The framework for the Leh Council was drafted after the model of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. Subhas Ghising’s Hill Council was the first of a kind of institution that is becoming popular in the reorganisation of centre-state-community relations in India. Similar semi-autonomous councils have been created, or are under discussion, for Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and parts of India’s Northeast. Some have even suggested that the hill council formula could be used to find a satisfactory solution to the problem in Kashmir proper.
Although demands for greater local autonomy have become a prominent and recurring feature of Indian (and indeed global) politics in recent years; it must be remembered that most of the struggles which they represent have older antecedents predating the nation states inside which they are being carried out. Given its present popularity as a formula for the resolution of regional and ethnic imbalances arid conflicts, we must ask whether the hill council concept, based as it is on an imagining of regions and communities as homogeneous, unambiguously bounded and stable, delivers what it promises: a fuller, more just participation of ‘the people’ in local decision-making.
In the case of Ladakh, the struggle for ‘freedom’ from Kashmir has a history that cannot be ignored amidst of the present campaign for autonomous status. At the same time, one must examine the recent cornmunalisation of politics in Ladakh, and the potential as well as the dangers for regional ‘communal’ peace that come with the institution of the Hill Council as proposed. In brief, the Ladakh Hill Council formula replicates a logic of fragmentation along regional and/or communal lines that has fostered the communalisation of politics in India.
(Elsewhere, the term ‘communal’ carries the connotation of cooperative feeling. In South Asia, however, the word refers to the evils of group partisanship.)
Ladakhi Equals Buddhist
Ladakh has suffered from the Lost Horizons syndrome which afflicts journalists, academics and politicians whenever they turn their eyes up to the Himalayan region. In particular, Ladakh’s modern-day politics has been completely ignored by scholars and journalists, whose tendency is to focus exclusively on the historical, the .cultural and the ‘touristic’.
Indeed, the region has been caught between the Scilla and Charybdis of ‘Shangri-la’ and `backward tribals’ labeling. On the one hand, we hear of the oft-repeated descriptions of Ladakh’s peaceful, cheerful, and ecologically-sound society and economy. On the other hand, there are those—administrators in particular—who emphasize its economic backwardness. While it would be going too far to designate these imaginings as the primary cause for the contemporary political conflict in Leh,-they have profoundly affected not only the administrative policies towards the area, but also the perceptions Ladakhis have of themselves.
The central complaint voiced by Ladakhis political leadership since the 1930s is that the region has not received its fair share of resources, particularly at the hands of the State Government in Srinagar. While it is important to note that this sense of discrimination is shared throughout Ladakh, the grievances and demands have mainly been voiced by the Buddhist leadership. It is significant that all-Ladakh issues have increasingly been represented along ‘communal’ lines, that is, by the vocal Buddhist groups. The less well-organized Muslim groups are not heard.
The communalisation of Ladakhi politics cannot be understood without going back to the historical roots which were sprung in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century political setup of British India. The British imagined India to be comprised of a series of distinct communities made up of castes, tribes, and religions. The fundamental division, in their eyes, was between Muslim and Hindu. This vision was formalised and quantified in the Census, and became the basis for the reorganisation of Indian politics under colonial rule. When the British initiated assemblies to represent the population, they were defined on religious basis as Muslim and Hindu constituencies. The Praja Sabha, or the Kashmiri Assembly, was also organised along this religious divide.
Although the State of Jammu and Kashmir was never an integral part of British India, democratisation of the political organisation of the State in the 1930s replicated this communal frame, which emphasised the difference between two religions. Ladakh, which became part of Jammu and Kashmir after its conquest by the Dogras, even though it had a Muslim-Buddhist rather than Hindu-Muslim mix of population, became incorporated into this political frame defined by the British. In the process, Ladakh was communalised.
The first formal representation of demands and grievances from Ladakh was made in November 1931 to the Glancy Commission of Enquiry, which was instituted after repeated communal clashes in the Kashmir Valley and extended protests against the rule of the (Hindu) Maharaja. The Glancy Commission, which was organised and solicited representations on the basis of religious community, became the proximate cause of the organisation of the Buddhist elite in Ladakh.
Contacts between the religious elite of Ladakh and Buddhist revivalists among converted Kashmiri Pandits (organised in the Kashmir Raj Bodhi Maha Sabha) went back as far as 1917. The Pandits who had embraced Buddhism viewed Ladakh as the last haven of the religion in India. Familiar with the scramble for numbers in the politics of modern India and J&K, the Pandits successfully presented Ladakh as a predominantly Buddhist area to the Glancy Commission. Throughout the final report of the Commission, therefore, `Ladakhi’ came to be used as synonymous with ‘Buddhist’. As the Muslims of Ladakh did not enjoy the same kind of patronage from the outside, their case remained unrepresented.
In 1934, the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, later renamed the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LEA) was founded. Its primary aim was the protection and promotion of the interests of the Buddhists of Ladakh. No formal organisation of such a kind has existed among the Muslims of Ladakh. There is now a Ladakh Muslim Association (LMA), but it has never been much more than an ad hoc body activated in times of communal trouble. One important reason for this dormancy in Muslim activism is the deep divisions between Shia and Sunni Muslims of Ladakh.
Thus in the 1930s, Ladakhi participation in formal politics was along religious lines. Based on the recommendations of the Glancy Commission, Ladakh obtained two seats for its Buddhist community in the Praja Sabha, while Ladakhi Muslims—who at the time formed somewhat less than 50 percent of the population—received no representation. It is quite irrelevant to discuss whether at that time Ladakhis saw religion as the fundamental division amongst themselves; the institutional setup and the way that Ladakh was understood by outsiders were such that there was no escaping a practice of such a differentiation.
While the underlying organisation of formal politics was along communal lines, however, there was no overt use of the communal card over the decades, until it was briefly played in 1969, when there was a short-lived agitation. Subsequently, religion was used consciously in the agitation for autonomy that ran from 1989 through 1993 and whose reverberations are still being felt to this day.
It is significant that the Hill Council covers only Leh District (including Leh town). It does not include Kargil, the other district of Ladakh, which has preferred to wait and watch. Leh District is more than 90 percent Buddhist, while Kargil is about 80 percent Shia Muslim. (The Muslim minority of Leh, known as the Arghon, is Sunni. Kargil’s small Buddhist population is found in Zanskar.)
The Hill Council, then, will be the successful result of a sustained campaign in which Buddhist Ladakhis highlighted Buddhist demands to get New Delhi to listen to Ladakh’s grievances againstJ&K. The leaders in Leh began to use religion when they realised that the national-level politicians would listen to Ladakh only when voices were raised along communal lines, vis-a-vis “Muslim Kashmir”. Inevitably, this strategy antagonised local Muslims. With the conscious use of the Buddhist card the communalisation of Ladakhi politics took a momentum all its own. The Hill Council does not have a mechanism to put this genie back into the bottle.
In spite of the early communalisation of Ladakh’s political structure, local politics, including the various agitations that took place, was not usually communal in form or content. For at least the last four decades, the main dividing line in Ladakhi politics has been one between supporters and opponents of Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, ‘head lama’ of Ladakh and currently Indian ambassador to Mongolia.
Bakula rose to power in June 1949 when he replaced Kalon Tsewang Rigzin, a Ladakhi aristocrat, as District President of the Kashmir National Conference, Sheikh Abdullah’s party. Bakula was elevated to this position by Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah after what is known as the ‘Coup at Choglamsar Bridge’. The two leaders were visiting Ladakh when a group of young, educated Ladakhis—including Buddhists, Muslims, and a Christian—approached them and demanded an end to domination by the Kalon family. Tsewang Rigzin, they maintained, was too dictatorial for the new democratic era and should be replaced by a figure with a more popular base of support—Bakula.
Today, many Ladakhis tend to interpret the overthrow of Tsewang Rigzin, like practically everything else, along communal lines, reducing it to a Muslim conspiracy. However, historical evidence indicates that the move to replace the Kalon was not a communal event.
In any case, the politics of Ladakh since the 1949 coup has been characterised by jockeying between the ruling Bakula faction and its challengers. Bakula and his followers have been the subject of two main criticisms. First, they have dragged prominent religious leaders into what should have been a secular political arena. Second, many of the political actors lack modern education and an under-standing of changes that are over-taking Ladakh and South Asia.
Given the role of religion in Ladakhi society, among both Buddhists and Muslims, it is very difficult to raise objections to the decisions taken by religious leaders in the realm of politics, the critics argue. The price to pay for those who dared to go against the politico-religious leadership has often been social alienation for long and short periods, and physical violence. The people who put up a counter-candidate to Bakula in Ladakh’s first real elections in 1960—all of whom came from families that are patrons (chindak) of Drukpa Kargyud monasteries, whereas Bakula heads the Gelugpa school—were faced with a “social boycott” which lasted for several months.
As for the lack of education, the critics claim that Ladakh’s decision-makers have been unable to understand the complex aspects of economic and social life. For example, Bakula is said to have declined Scheduled Tribe status for Ladakh in the 1950s when it was offered by Nehru because he felt it meant lowering the status of Ladakhis. While there is no evidence to prove this tale, it is often brought up to illustrate Bakula’s limited understanding of worldly affairs.
Because of the tight links between religious leaders and the dominant political grouping in Leh, Bakula has been able to ride over criticism with relative ease. Even with Bakula based for the last few years in distant Ulanbaatar, his faction continues to dominate the political agenda of Ladakh.
Opium for the Masses
Even though the internal power struggle within the political establishment of Leh District has had very little to do with communalism, the communal card can be and is being played. This was most evident during the agitation for local autonomy, 1989-1993, which eventually led to the agreement on the formation of the Leh Autonomous Hill District Council.
Ever since the 1947 Partition of British India, the relationship between the State Government in Srinagar and the Ladakh region has been marked by deep mistrust. The assumption inherent in much political thinking, especially among the Buddhists, is that since J&K is dominated by Muslims, the state administration’s policies and programmes in Ladakh are bound to be biased in favour of Muslims. This is a claim that has been made since the first representation by the Buddhists in 1931. Over the years, the sense of acute discrimination has been fueled by outside intervention—not only by Kashmiri Pandits, but Sri Lankan Buddhists, Western travelers, and Indian and Western academics.
The economic development of Ladakh has been so tardy that many young Ladakhis receive education without being able to find a job upon graduation. Government statistics show that the number of unemployed in Ladakh has not increased dramatically, but the number of educated unemployed has risen sharply. Faced with social tensions which result from such a situation, Ladakhi leaders tend to put the blame for underdevelopment and unemployment squarely on the shoulders of the State Government, which is seen as the main provider of jobs and resources.
Both Muslims and Buddhists of Ladakh recognise that the agitation which began in 1989 was aimed primarily at the Government in Srinagar. The problem was how to mobilise a large enough section of the population in spite of the deep internal divisions. A conscious decision was taken by the Buddhist leadership to use religion, as one of the key Ladakhi leaders behind the agitation, a Buddhist admitted. It was decided that the Muslim-Buddhist divide would be highlighted, to prove that a Muslim-dominated state government was discriminating against a Buddhist Ladakh. This would be a much better attention-grabber externally, while at the same time it would make it possible to mobilise the Buddhists in the name of religion.
As was to be expected, this communalisation was resented by the local Muslims, both in Leh and Kargil districts, even though they recognised the strategy behind it. Essentially, the Ladakhi Muslim felt as if he was caught in a cross-fire between Srinagar and Leh. In an interview in 1989, the late Agha Hyder, one of the most powerful Shia leaders in the Sum Valley (south of Kargil town), expressed his distress over the issue. He said, “We are all Ladakhis. We all suffer under the Kashmiris. We should fight them together, instead of each other.”
Kacho Mohammed Ali Khan, a former politician of Kargil, says: “It was communalised, but really it was aimed at the j&K Government. Here in Kargil there were repercussions, but we kept it under control. The people here are angry about the communalisation and the forced conversions that took place, for example at Sakti (in Leh District). On the whole, in India, all the media took a high pitch and blew it out of proportion. Communal parties from Jammu and India made it a bigger thing. It was communalised here in Ladakh because without opium the masses can’t stir.”
Using religion to plead Ladakh’s case conformed not only to a century-long tradition of administrative classification and practice, but also glossed over the internal differences between and among the Buddhists and Muslims. Applying a method of carrot and stick—and big sticks were used to great effect—Buddhist leaders managed to mobilise a large section of the Buddhist community around the demand for greater autonomy.
A social boycott of the local Muslims was ordained by the Buddhist leadership. Beginning in 1989, it lasted for three full years. It was the first time that this traditional Ladakhi ‘tool’ for dispute settlement was applied to an entire community. The boycott was lifted in November 1992 after pressure was applied by the Congress government in New Delhi, and after the Muslims agreed to work for a Hill Council.
In October 1993, the Central Government, the State Government and the leaders of the Buddhists and Muslims of Leh District worked out a framework for the future council. A Solomonic deal was struck in which Srinagar agreed to have word ‘autonomous’ attached to the Council, in return for the Buddhist leaders acquiescing to the Council being placed within the framework of the J&K Constitution. All matters, except the police and the judiciary, were to be relegated to the Council’s portfolio.
Since the paperwork for the Hill Council is ready and all that is required is a signature in New Delhi, the only remaining question is whether the formula is conducive to the solution of the communal and developmental problems of Ladakh.
Hill Council Communalism
The Hill Council does nothing to address the problems of power sharing within Ladakh. The long-standing tension between religious and political leaders, between the educated and less-educated classes, and between partakers of the ‘modern’ Leh lifestyle and village-based living, cannot be resolved by merely introducing yet another administrative layer.
What the imminent advent of the Hill Council does make clear is that henceforth all important administrative responsibilities will lie firmly with the people of Leh District.
The movement of 1988-1993 created a deep rift between the two communities, and it is not clear that the Hill Council, dominated, as it will be, by the Buddhist political leadership that led the agitation, will be willing or able to bring about a reconciliation. Many Muslim families who had to flee their villages in 1989 and 1990 have yet to return.
When asked whether the Hill Council has a responsibility for the rebuilding of communal harmony, Tsering Samphel, ex-MLA and presently District President of the Congress Party, says, “Our ethnic identity is Buddhist, but also Ladakhi. The problem is the emergence of Muslim fundamentalism. Baltis [a term often used to refer to the Shia of Kargil] and Ladakhis have much in common, but when religion comes in, they forget this link. If we in Leh and Kargil were together, we’d have a much greater impact.”
From the other side of the communal divide, this sense of a greater Ladakhi shared identity is also emphasized by Kacho Mohammed Ali Khan: “We have the same culture, same tongue, same stock. Divisions are due to religious fanaticism. I think religious fanaticism is not a good thing, in whichever religion or community it occurs.”
However, among the youth of both communities, there is little evidence of an awareness of this much-vaunted ‘Ladakhiness’ which unites Buddhists and Muslims. The Ladakh Buddhist Association has had problems controlling its Youth Wing. The gangs of radical youths that were used to enforce the social boycott and carry out various activities of the agitation today may pose a serious hindrance to the process of healing in Ladakh. For example, young Buddhist Ladakhis who came of age during the agitation tend to blame Muslims for every ill that befalls their community.
Even today, it is not clear that the radicalised Buddhist youths can be controlled. The continuing series of blasts in Leh, which the LBA denies it has anything to do with, has not caused material or personal damage. However, it does nothing to help restore a climate of confidence among the communities.
Mistrust of the J&K government is deep-seated in Leh, and both Muslim and Buddhist leaders doubt that Srinagar’s misrule will end with the Hill Council. “The Hill Council is required desperately. But J&K government can play even more games than before. They will have 36 people to pull strings with…” says Pinto Norbu, an ex-MLC and minister.
There is also concern that granting of the Hill Council by the Centre does not secure the future entirely. Under the law, Ladakh will continue to be regarded as part of the State of J&K, which has a constitution of its own unlike the other states of the Indian Union. Ladakh’s fate is therefore tied to J&K and the adjustments that are to be made between Srinagar and New Delhi. Even if the Hill Council is granted today by the Centre, it would still have to be ratified if and when an elected government takes power in J&K. There is little that could stop that future government from reversing the Hill Council decision, which seen in this light begins to look more like an interim measure rather than a final solution. Some Buddhist leaders see the Hill Council as merely a step towards ultimate Union Territory status, which was the original demand of the 1989 agitation.
As for the structure of Hill Council, it contains measures for the protection and representation of minorities, i.e., the Muslims. It also envisages the break-up of Leh District into more than 20 constituencies. This ‘constituentification’ of the district does allow for a new (or perhaps older) kind of communalism—along regional lines—as the differences within the district are greater than the recent agitation might suggest. The nomadic herdsman in Changthang does not have much in common with the hotel owner in Leh, or the peasant of Sham, and the rifts are bound to float to the surface as soon as the Hill Council is activated.
In the words of Mohammed Akbar Ladakhi, the former president of the LMA: “Unless responsibility is given to honest people, the Hill Council will be a big failure and can create more divisions than we have today, for example between Changpa, Shamma, Nubrapa, and so on. The Hill Council is more of a test than an achievement. Even today the contestation of elections is not settled, because one cannot use religion [as a basis for formal political organisation]. We must use regional or existing parties. Regionalisation is strong, but many are aware that this can’t solve our problems.”
The challenge to the political elite in Leh is obviously to create a political platform which can gain support at the district level. So far, only the local Congress (I) branch seems to have taken up this challenge. The absence of open, public political debate in Leh District is another factor which may make it difficult for local politicians to part from the old ways of pursuing politics. Currently, there is a wait-and-see attitude among the agitation leaders. So far, none of the LBA and LMA leaders have openly joined any political party, but there is a lot of jockeying for position going on behind the scenes. There is much speculation about who will join which party. The Congress party leaders have announced that they will make the Hill Council their own. During the agitation, there were frequent contacts between LBA leaders and the BJP. However, the party cannot gain much of a foothold in Ladakh, given its conspicuous communal Hindu stance.
It appears that Ladakhis from all communities, including the Christians who were the target of an agitation in 1988, want to rid the region of communal politics. Whether they will succeed simply though the Hill Council formula is questionable. Asked whether the Hill Council can play a role in de-communalising Ladakhi politics, Tsering Samphel says: “Yes, that is our duty. But we are part of a system, an undeclared law, that everything is decided along communal lines.”
The problem is, indeed, that the Indian polity has been based on communalisation right from the pre-Independence period. This communal frame, which permeates everything from the Mandal Commission to the Census, remains firmly in place. And as part of the system, Ladakhis, whether they like it or not, may have to play the political game along communal lines, both within Ladakh and in their representations to the outside. They had to do it to get attention in the past, and they might have to continue to do it in the future.
The logic of communalism is not resolved by the Hill Council formula, not in Ladakh, nor anywhere else. In fact, this formula is a ‘natural’ development of the communal frame, based as it is on the institutionalisation of difference of community, culture, and religion, and obscuring and ignoring divisions within and across these communities, cultures, religions. Devolution and decentralisation of decision-making power is desperately needed in many parts of the subcontinent.
The Hill Council formula offers one approach to a redistribution of economic and political power in Ladakh and the larger Indian Union and the State of J&K. But it is not a panacea for the problem of communalism. The Hill Council does take the struggle over allocation of resources one step closer to the ground, but it does not end the struggle, and it will not take away the incentives for communalism and regionalism within Ladakh. At best, as one Ladakhi stated, “if we make mistakes, from now on at least it will be our own mistakes so that we do not have to go looking for villains outside Ladakh.”
The Hill Council formula is an improvement over the centralised rule from the state and national capitals, where there is little sympathy and less understanding for marginal areas and populations. But to think that here lies the key to resolving the problem of communalism would be a mistake. It will be up to those in charge of the councils to create such solutions, which are not included in the deal.
“Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh”
After being released from prison, where he had spent most of his adult life, Shabir Shah, leader of the People’s League, began an extended tour of Jammu and Kashmir to ‘consult with the people.’ The former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience was greeted upon arrival in Leh by a few dozen Kashmiri merchants. In the days that followed, Shabir Shah apologised profusely and repeatedly for the ill-treatment Ladakh had received over the years from the Kashmir Government. Emphasizing the need for unity among the different communities of what he consistently referred to as “Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh”, he invited Ladakhis to join him in his (non-violent) struggle for ‘Azadi’.
Leh’s locals were duly impressed by Shah’s sincerity, but they would not play ball. During a meeting with the Coordination Committee for the Hill Council which includes representatives from all three communities of Leh—Shabir Shah was politely informed that as far as Ladakhis were concerned they had made their decision back in 1947, so the issue of ‘Azadi’, whatever it might mean, did not figure on the political agenda of Ladakh. In recognition of his sincerity and courage, however, the Committee offered Shabir Shah a khatag and he left a happy man, as he had expected that Ladakhis would refuse even to meet him.
By Martijn Van Beek, Kristoffer Brix Bertelsen