The world differentiates between the two populations of the Ladakh region of India´s extreme north – one Muslim, the other Buddhist — in interesting ways. Outsiders, be they from New Delhi or New York, tend to regard Leh as a place populated by pleasant people with a Buddhistic culture worth preserving; the Shias of Kargil, on the other hand, are regarded and treated as backward, conservative, ignorant, and even evil.
Indeed, Ladakh´s Buddhists have been quite successful in drawing attention to themselves as a small minority precariously positioned on the borders of India. Meanwhile, the Muslim population of Kargil has long escaped attention even though their living conditions are worse.
Before 1989, tourists travelling to Ladakh overland from Kashmir had to spend at least one night in Kargil. Travel guidebooks describe the place as bedbug-infested, full of grim-looking men, a place to pass through as quickly as possible. With the escalation of violence in Kashmir Valley, and a route from Manali to Leh having opened up from the south, few tourists today pass through Kargil, except those en route to Buddhist Zangskar. Turbaned and bearded mullahs and portraits of Iranian ayatollahs do not have the same appeal to tourists as red-robed lamas and monasteries perched on hill tops.
Traditionally, a careful distinction has been made between the Shias, who were deemed to be ´indigenous´, and the ´alien´ Sunnis. The Shias, regardless of place of residence or origin, are commonly called ´Baltis´, while the Sunnis are referred to as ´Khache´, emphasising their links to Kashmir.
When Kargil district was carved out of Ladakh in 1979, the initiative, while sensible from an administrative standpoint, merely fostered the communalisation of politics, as happens when areas are marked off on the basis of religion. However, the distinction made by the Buddhist population of Leh between the Shia Baltis and the Sunni Khaches appeared to still hold when the Ladakh Buddhist Association was spearheading an agitation to get Union Territory status from the central government some years back.
Under the 1989 Scheduled Tribe notification by the Centre, the vast majority of Baltis of Kargil are today officially classified as “Purigpa”, after Purig, as the Suru River Valley in Kargil was traditionally known. Another tribe under the notification is called “Balti”, which primarily denotes the Shias of Leh district, descendants of migrants who settled there perhaps as early as the 17th century. (The term ´Balti´ itself, according to Ladakhi historian Sonam Phuntshog, derives from the ancient language of Zhangzhung and means “a gorge or valley (bad) with water (ti)”.)
The Baltis/Purigpa of Kargil, perhaps in ways different from their clanspeople on the other side of the Line of Actual Control, are also caught in the middle. Political leaders from both Leh and Kargil have felt the neglect of the Valley-dominated Jammu and Kashmir state government. However, the ´Buddhist´ agitation for regional autonomy for Ladakh on the one hand, and the ´Islamic´ insurrection in the Valley on the other, meant that whichever side they chose, the Balti/ Purigpa could only be losers.
Understandably, they opted to keep their heads down, neither overtly supporting the Kashmiri insurgents, nor accepting the offer of an Autonomous Hill District Development Council as was granted to Leh in 1995. Kargil´s ´neutrality´, however, was not appreciated either by Leh´s Buddhists or by the Kashmiri insurgents. When Kargil town came under attack from Pakistani artillery on 30 September, 1997, killing 18 people and causing widespread damage, some even regarded this as punishment by Pakistan for the Balti/Purigpa´s lack of support for militants.
Compared to Leh district, Kargil is worse off in most respects. While Leh has seen the rapid development of a modern money economy, due to lavish investments by the Centre and the army as well as the influx of up to 20,000 tourists a year, Kargil district (as well as Zangskar and the Suru Valley) continues to be mired in poverty. Whereas Leh has direct air links with Delhi, Jammu and Srinagar, Kargil is still awaiting the construction of an airstrip.
Also, while Leh has long attracted attention from foreign NGOs, it is only in recent years that some organisations have begun to work in Kargil. Local organisations in Kargil are dependent on local and national funding. Some flow of support is coming in from elsewhere, such as from Saudi Arabia, but this is mostly tied to religious activities. However, a part of the Kargil economy is now supported by remittances from labourers in the Gulf.
Local leaders and activists in Kargil do not simply blame the outside world, or Srinagar, for the lack of concern for their district. Asked about the role of the local leadership, one NGO worker grimaced and said that “the local leaders have not done much leading”. While few will openly criticise the religious leaders in Kargil and Suru, it is their lack of education and experience in the ways of the world that are seen as the main reasons why the area receives so little consideration from the state or central government.
(Interestingly, Leh´s population, too, charges its religious representatives with similar inadequacies.)
Poor education among the general population, however, is a larger problem in Kargil, where there has traditionally been considerable resistance to secular education. This is changing slowly, and today there are several local organisations that are seeking to promote education. As Nicola Grist, a British anthropologist who has worked extensively in Suru, points out, contrary to the popular notion that Kargil is in the grips of a conservative Islamic movement, people are in fact linking up with a progressive movement within Islam.
Kaneez Fatima, Kargil´s first female college graduate and leader of the local Women and Children´s Welfare Organisation, agrees that attitudes are changing. She says parents now generally expect their daughters to go to school and qualify for some form of employment. Shia imams themselves run a school in the upper Suru Valley that offers free places for girls. In 1997, there were 13,191 male students and 6,406 female ones in Kargil, which is an encouraging ratio. Such developments, although much doubtless remains to be done, belie the prejudiced notion that Baltis are by definition backward, ignorant and conservative.
Skardu to Changthang
Although in popular and official imagination Ladakh is generally regarded as a Buddhist region, local intellectuals, including Buddhists, acknowledge the strong historical, cultural, economic, and political links with Baltistan. Not only in Kargil, but also in Leh, there is considerable interest in what goes on over on the other side. The people here are well aware of the cultural continuities between Ladakh and Baltistan. Linguistically, while acknowledging differences in dialect and the importance of classical Tibetan, the Ladakhis often emphasise the unity of the spoken language that exists from “Skardu to Changthang”, distinguishing it from Tibetan dialects. Local scholars, such as Abdul Ghani Sheikh, have sought to re-establish contact with colleagues in Baltistan.
One of the main obstacles to the restoration of exchange and interaction across the Line of Actual Control remains the suspicions of the respective national governments. Abdul Ghani Sheikh and Nawang Tsering Shakspo of the J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages were invited to attend a conference in Islamabad in 1993, but were barred from visiting the Northern Areas by the Pakistani Government. Still, they were able to meet colleagues from Baltistan, including Syed Abbas Kazmi and Yousuf Hussain Abadi, and discuss issues of common interest such as language.
The current interest in Baltistan in rein troducing the Tibetan script has helped rekindle interest in the cut-off region among Ladakhi Buddhist scholars as well. Among other Indian and international researchers, too, there is growing focus on the Muslims in Ladakh and their own links with Baltistan. Rather than juxtaposing Buddhists and Muslims, this recent research trend tends to emphasise the unique hybridity of the Ladakhi culture, and offers a corrective to the Tibeto-centricity of the past.
Many of Leh´s intellectuals refer to Purig as the region where traditions of local folk songs and epics such as the Gesar are historically better preserved. However, local cultural traditions in Kargil are under pressure from conservative clerics as well as from mainstream Indian and Western influences.
Recently, a younger generation of educated Kargilis have taken up the task of protecting these traditions as well as of promoting development in the region. The Youth Voluntary Forum, founded in 1990, is one such organisation. Wazir Mohammed Ali, director of the well-known Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG), Kargil Branch, expresses an interest in recording the reminis cences of the elderly who still remember the songs and stories of old. Recently, a book with local history and a collection of folk songs was published in Kargil.
While some outsiders might prefer to see the Baltis just “roll over and die”, as one observer put it, these recent initiatives as well as the active interest in re-forging links be tween Leh and Kargil illustrate that the Baltis/ Purigpa are not quite ready just yet to let their culture disappear.
M. van Beek teaches Ethnography and Social Anthropology at Aarhus University, Denmark, and is member of the permanent committee of the International Association for Ladakh Studies.
Undoubtedly, those in Baltistan who long the most for a re-connection across the ceasefire line are the migrants from Kargil and the Chorbat Valley. The three wars have driven many of them to Skardu and many others have migrated south to Pakistan´s cities in search of off-farm employment.
Letters and audio cassettes from relatives in Kargil remind them of life across the border. Vilayat Ali recalls his father´s first trip back to Kargil after 1948. “The visa took time, but once he made it home, the Indian security forces didn´t bother him much. He was struck by how much poorer our relatives were on the Indian side. Owning even a beat-up old car was a big accomplishment.”
The refugees of Chorbat Valley fled when Indian forces seized their three villages in the 1971 war. The land was never returned. A still more recent exodus occurred last summer when the 12 villages collectively known as Olding came under artillery fire from Indian forces near Kargil. The firing claimed four lives, and the majority of the villagers sought refuge in Skardu.
With India occupying the heights, the short farming season becomes easily disrupted by the skirmishes. Farmers from the border villages of Brolmo and Gangani, which are regularly in the line of fire, have fled permanently. Even if the hostilities end, their lives will remain difficult, they say, because India has blocked the irrigation channels that feed their fields. Last summer, the villagers faxed a letter to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif requesting material aid or relocation, but there was no response.
All of the refugees lament the intransigence of those in power. Some have given up hope. Recently, the Kargilpa refugees decided to build their first imambargah in Skardu. When asked why it had taken them so long, one replied: “We´ve been waiting to go back to the one we left in Kargil. We finally decided we´ve waited too long.” – T.A. Khan